News

THE FACE OF WAR

The haunted face of Bob Simon, once a self-assured and cocky CBS correspondent, tells us all we need to know about the senseless cruelty of war.

Simon and the members of his television crew appeared on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. They had just been released by the Iraqi army, which had held them as prisoners for more than a month.

If you were to put together a highlight film of the most emotional and revealing interviews ever run on television, this footage of Simon, so shattered and bone-weary, would have to be included.

Simon and his crew had driven toward the front line during the early days of the bombing campaign to survey the battlefield. They were captured by an Iraqi scouting party.

Most of us have watched Simon for years, maybe without knowing it. He was the one who was always badgering Israeli officials during times of crisis. He was always so cool and neatly dressed. His manner was always slightly contemptuous.

In the reports Simon had made from Saudi Arabia before his disappearance, the correspondent had jet black hair and always wore well-pressed khaki jackets and slacks. He was clean-shaven.

The Simon who came back from detention had gaunt, hollow cheeks and a thick white beard. His hair was streaked with gray.

Almost a year before the war, Iraq had hanged a British journalist it had declared was a spy. This event, performed despite pleas from the British government, was always on the minds of Simon and his crew.

"We consider you a spy," the Iraqis told Simon.
"That was the day I almost lost it," Simon said. "I told them, `But I am not a spy. I have been a journalist for CBS News for 25 years.'" "It could be a cover," they said.

"It's not a cover," Simon said. "It's been my life." Simon told how the Iraqis blindfolded him and beat him about the head, neck and legs with sticks. There were times when they would beat all four members of the crew at the same time so Simon could hear his buddies screaming.

Listening to Simon's story, you could not take your eyes away from the various expressions as he talked. His eyes kept changing, reflecting anger or remembered fear. Several times he came close to tears and his voice choked.

"One day," Simon said, "an Iraqi captain grabbed my cheeks so hard that he forced my mouth to open. Then he spat at me and slapped me.

"`Yehudi, Yehudi,' he shouted, which means Jew, dirty Jew. It was the sixth instinct every anti-Semite ever had. I didn't think he would kill me.

"I could have killed him," Simon said, his anger clearly rising. "And I would have killed him if I could. And I would have had no more remorse than when I got up every morning and killed cockroaches in my room." Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes was doing the interview. He realized the power of Simon's descriptions. Wisely, Bradley opted to listen much more than he talked.

"How did you pass the time?" Bradley asked.
Simon said, "If you asked me what I wanted during those days . . . my wife . . . my daughter. I would have said I want food. One day outside my room, I could hear a man being kicked. He was kicked four times. But I was unable to be concerned because at that time, in my mind, I was walking down Broadway with an ice cream cone in one hand and a bag of popcorn in the other.

"You develop defense mechanisms you didn't think you were capable of." "Has this changed you?" Bradley asked. "Since Vietnam, you have covered every war, every skirmish. Is this it?" "I don't know," Simon said, pensively.

He thought for an instant.
"I think I'll cover more wars. But it will never be the same. Because what permitted me to cover wars was a certain childlike sense of invulnerability.

"That's gone and I'll never get it back." Simon's eyes suddenly misted. You could see them turning red. He was talking now of the things his ordeal had taught him were really most important to him.

"Of all the big events I've covered as a journalist . . . the fall of Saigon . . . the visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel . . . it was those rare, personal moments that came back to me.

"I remembered the first time I carried my three-year-old daughter into the Mediterranean. I remembered a bicycle trip into the French countryside and flirting with a French girl who would become my wife.

"There was the essential realization that life had been good to me and that if it had to end there, well . . . "

Suddenly, Simon became terribly emotional.
"But I crave more. I want more. I want to go on living . . . " The screen switched to a commercial. There was nothing more to ask. Simon had told it all in just a few words.

The Simon who came back from detention had gaunt, hollow cheeks and a thick white beard. His hair was streaked with gray.

"What permitted me to cover wars was a certain childlike sense of invulnerability. That's gone and I'll never get it back.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick