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Thirty years of war

  • 09 July 2006

Few of us can say we’ve liberated a city. John Simpson did. Speaking as he entered Afghanistan’s capital in November 2001, the BBC World Affairs Editor said that it was ‘extraordinarily exhilarating to be liberating a city’. Interviewed next, the British Home Secretary David Blunkett said, ‘I’m still reeling here from the news that the BBC and John Simpson have taken Kabul.’ Fair call.

It was a remark about which Simpson later said he was ‘very, very, very embarrassed’, but he also took the opportunity to accuse those media outlets (not to mention military forces) who were ‘hours and hours and hours behind us’ of ‘sour grapes’.

The episode gives a good measure of the man, a man with a Shakespearean sense of theatre and not a lot of tact.

A veteran of over 30 years and 30 wars, John Simpson was once threatened with liquidation—not corporate mind you, but corporal. By someone with both the malice and the means: Chaldean Christian and former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz.

‘I was probably a bit tactless in asking him questions. It was during the 1991 bombing … We hadn’t seen him for some days. I was determined to get some word out of him. So I just followed him down the corridor, asking him the same questions. He said at the end if I asked another question he’d have me liquidated. I just thought, well, he might do what he says. I went away.’

One rather gets the feeling that after a Palestinian gun to the head, being gassed in the Iran-Iraq war, shot at in Tiananmen Square, and taking 14 pieces of American shrapnel in a missile attack this year that killed his translator, it takes a fair bit to make John Simpson go away.

Aziz could have taken a tip from former British prime minister Harold Wilson who opted not to liquidate Simpson but rather just to punch him. The young Simpson had asked if Wilson were about to call an election.

Simpson’s latest book The Wars Against Saddam: The Hard Road to Baghdad has just landed on the shelves of Australian bookstores. Those wanting to immerse themselves in the good cheer of platitudinous certainty this Christmastide should avoid it; those wanting to put both bleeding hearts and rednecks off their left-over plum pudding should stock up. Simpson will not permit a banal analysis along the lines of: