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Martha Gellhorn: War Correspondent : THE FACE OF WAR by Martha Gellhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press: $9.95, paper; 321 pp.) : THE VIEW FROM THE GROUND by Martha Gellhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press: $8.95, paper; 448 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Grace Halsell | Halsell, Washington-based author of 12 books, was a journalist covering the Korean and Vietnam wars. and

Martha Gellhorn says her life began in 1930. Then 21, she set off with a suitcase and $75 for Paris to become a foreign correspondent. She's been traveling, and writing, ever since.

"The Face of War," originally published in 1959, contains a selection of her stories that were printed at the time she wrote them for American and English journals. The updated book includes her reports on Vietnam and the civil war in El Salvador.

Gellhorn begins her career in Spain, during the Civil War. In that open, intimate conflict, she writes, it was always surprising "just to walk to war."

She was in China, reporting on major Japanese offensives. To get to the Canton Front, she joined Chinese on horseback, and after nine hours in the saddle with no food or water she was "fairly tired," but not her companions. Chinese, she notes, "accept calmly anything that happens: hunger, fatigue, cold, thirst, pain or danger."

At an RAF station in England, she watches English, Canadian and American pilots take off on a raid, to be gone most of the night. She awaits their return, joins them in their breakfast and identifies with these young men, who previously may have led "flat lives" but who now want a future that is "as good as they now imagine the past to have been."

After World War II she goes to Java, and describes the Netherlands East Indies war as an armed revolt against colonialism. Not one to curry favor with politicians, she calls Sukarno "just another little dictator"--the type U.S. officialdom "never tires of backing."

Her most compelling reports are from Vietnam. She visits hospitals filled with our allies, innocent men, women and children mutilated by bombs dropped from U.S. planes. In 1966, she makes plain that Americans are killing and wounding three or four times more people than are the Viet Cong.

Unlike previous wars in which the primary object was to win territory, the U.S. mission in Vietnam was to destroy enemy bodies. And it was the first war on record where one side--the United States--used "body count" and "kill ratio" to define a victory. While tens of thousands of small farmers and their families had survived the Viet Cong, they would be killed by our bombs. "We are uprooting the people from the lovely land where they have lived for generations . . . . Is this an honorable way for a great nation to fight a war 10,000 miles from its safe homeland?" As for the suffering of the mutilated people, she wrote, "We big overfed white people will never know what they feel."

Gellhorn terms articles in "The View From the Ground" peacetime reporting, but here also one finds a persistent theme: We all are diminished by war. In one article, written from Rome in 1944, she begins by saying that the countryside is beautiful and that one would hardly know that Italy had been at war. But then she takes her readers to an orphanage crowded with children whose parents were killed in war, and she takes us to hospitals, with beds filled by children hit by bombs or bullets. War, she writes, is "an idiocy, a prison, and the pain it causes is beyond telling or imagining."

She warns especially against our arsenals of nuclear weapons. Even if we do not make war, by our "playing" with these weapons, "we poison the air, the water, the soil of our planet, damage the health of the living and weaken the chances of the unborn."

In her travels, she comes to know H. G. Wells and gets invited by F.D.R. and Eleanor Roosevelt to live a while at the White House, and along the way she also finds the time to become the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.

In a chapter entitled "Castro's Cuba," Gellhorn writes of returning to the house, Finca Vigia, 15 miles outside Havana, where she lived with Hemingway. Forty-six years ago, she recollects, "I found this house through an advertisement and rented it, for one hundred dollars a month." Inside, after her long absence, she recognizes all the furniture "I had ordered from the local carpenter." She notes the later addition: stuffed animal heads and horns on every wall. The home is now a museum, if not a shrine, and, depressed by the visit, she quickly leaves.

She says no more in these books about Hemingway. Rather, she stays very much on course as to what is meaningful to her: her research, her articles and her books. All of her essays are well written and timeless and I find her evaluation of war--as our primary evil--most significant.

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