FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. By H.D.S. Greenway. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $26.
H.D.S (David) Greenway’s collection of small notebooks are those of a correspondent who reported from more than 96 countries during his career, mostly from the world’s hot spots. Growing up among Boston’s elite families, and attending top schools, including Yale, Greenway served two years in the Navy and found his calling when assigned to the ship’s newspaper aboard the Valley Forge.
In this intelligent and insightful book by an elegant writer, Greenway brings to life various locales and a large cast of characters. After working for Time in London and Washington, he was assigned to Vietnam in early 1967.
“Saigon was a damp wartime capital, beggar ridden, flooded with refugees from the countryside, hot, noisy, obviously corrupt, and completely enchanting.”
His base was the old Continental Palace Hotel, which housed most of the press corps, but his assignments soon took him into the provinces where he witnessed combat “and people dying all around you.” He was soon disabused of his lofty notions about the Vietnam War being “just and necessary.”
During his many years there, he was wounded, and received a Bronze Star for rescuing a Marine. He was also on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon as the American Embassy fell. He was in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge’s genocide was taking place.
In 1976, then a Washington Post reporter, he was chosen to open the paper’s first bureau in Israel, a challenging assignment where the “Palestinians chafed under occupation.” Greenway loved Jerusalem. Greenway spoke to an Israeli foreign officer about the “new thinking in Cairo,” and the official responded, “You Americans are so naive. ... No Arab country will ever make peace with Israel.” Hope for a negotiated settlement came and went.
Yet another Middle East conflict awaited him: a dangerous assignment to Lebanon in 1978, after the Israeli invasion. Lebanon’s population “was not homogeneous when it came to religious beliefs.” The invasion led to unintended consequences, including the formation of Hezbollah.
Greenway writes, “Israel’s mistake, which America would later repeat, was to stay in occupation of an Arab country too long.”
By 1978, he was at the Boston Globe, “a writing foreign editor.” He filed reports on the Iran-Iraq war in 1986, the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1989, the ethnic-religious conflict in Serbia in 1992 and many other conflicts, including Pakistan, and has often revisited those regions, trying to get a sense of the meaning of it all. His opinion of the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq is that —(although in the beginning he was not as “resolutely against invading Iraq” as he later became) — “In the end, our conquest and occupation of Iraq did not transform the Middle East. All we achieved was to empower Iran and the downtrodden Shia at the expense of the Sunnis, who had always held power in Iraq.” He also writes of Afghanistan with the same feeling, that those who thought an “Americanized Iraq could somehow transform the region was an unrealistic fantasy on the part of those who misunderstood the nature of both American power and the Middle East.”
In his Afterword, which might have been subtitled “the conspiracy of wishful thinking,” after a return visit to Afghanistan in 2010, he left thinking wearily, “How could my country have once again gotten itself into a quicksand situation of long, protracted warfare in a foreign country in a culture about which we know very little? ... This was a country that had defied foreigners trying to tell them how to run their lives for centuries.”
Greenway’s life, though, was not just about covering conflict around the world, his long marriage to his wife JB, whom he had met in his days at Yale, and his two daughter were also an important part. Whenever is was feasible while he was in Vietnam, they were nearby in Hong Kong, where it was safe and close enough for him to visit often. They also lived in the historic old section of Jerusalem, and his daughters attended an international school.
“Foreign Correspondent” is a book, written with much food for thought, mainly because Greenway went into many war zones, not only risking his life, but talking to ordinary citizens and the powers-that-be in an effort to seek answers. It is a valuable account with a well-measured, fair thinking of someone who was there and cared deeply for his own country as well as the troubled regions he observed around the world.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer living in Charleston.