The initial inspiration for me to become a war correspondent was to be like Hemingway. I wanted to drink, smoke, and write novels.
I tried doing some of this while in Chicago (I was covering the northern suburbs for the Chicago Tribune). But I discovered that I didn’t like the taste of alcohol, couldn’t get the hang of inhaling smoke, and when I reread my literary masterpiece, I fell asleep a quarter of the way through it. Literally. It was astoundingly boring. It was called “Barton Obler” and it was somewhere between “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Gogol’s “Dead Souls” — or so I had hoped.
So I went to Russia, and Chechnya and Afghanistan… I learned to drink large amounts of vodka and still file intelligible copy. And got hooked on sidestream smoke (but never did get the hang of inhaling).
I never did finish any of the novels I started, though.
I could say that I discovered that the actual reality of covering tank battles, refugees, economic reversals and the occasional spot of ethnic cleansing turned out to be more important and significant than putting my name on a novel. Or that I became determined to understand the root economic causes of conflict and dedicate my career to figuring out why some countries are able to grow their economies and achieve peace and stability and others are not.
But I have a suspicion that the actual turning point was in Abkhazia. I was on the front lines, and met a young, attractive nurse near the trenches on the banks of the Gumista River. (On the front lines, all nurses are beautiful and young, but this one, as I recall, was particularly so.)
She told me that I was very brave to be out there, covering the war. Why, yes, I was.
And she said she admired me very much. Well, yes, I was admirable.
And she may have further elaborated on my looks, and skills as a journalist. And, in the end, she invited me to stay with her for the night.
I blithely declined, explaining that I already had a cot to sleep on in the medical quarters at the Upper Eshera command base.
A month later, when I was back in Moscow: it hit me. She was trying to seduce me, right there on the front line at the Gumista, and I had completely ignored her. I could have had my Hemingway moment — a love affair with a beautiful nurse, in the trenches, with bullets flying above us and bombs exploding in the air.
Instead, I went back to Upper Eshera, where, with bullets flying and bombs exploding in the air, doctors explained to me how they dyed medical alcohol green to keep soldiers from drinking it. It was educational, but not quite life-transforming…
Soon afterwards, a medical supply helicopter with several nurses on board was shot down by the Georgians, and everyone on board burned to death. I didn’t remember her name, so didn’t know whether she was on board, but a few other friends were.
The Georgians weren’t completely at fault — the Abkhazians had previously used Red Cross-painted helicopters to ferry soldiers and munitions, and bragged about how they got away with it.
The incident was one of those that later inspired me to take a look at the Geneva Conventions. (Thanks go to then-IJC committee chair John Hopkins, for inspiring me to write the guide.)
But I still have this feeling… what would have happened if I had stayed with the nurse at the front? Would the experience have touched me and inspired me to write great works of literature?
I’ll try a hand at that literature thing again when I retire. And if you happen to be that nurse, reading this — look me up. I’m in Shanghai now, but could probably swing by sometime.