In early August, when John sat down for a Q and A with us, he mentioned that he had been in the middle of a “dicey” situation while covering a battle in Khafji, Saudia Arabia, during the 1991 Gulf War.
Here is what John had to say:
Question: What is your proudest moment as a journalist?
John: “It’s hard Millie to pick one moment because I have been so lucky to have a very varied career in terms of the stories I have covered and places visited, and so so so so so lucky to have had the friendship, mentoring and support of wonderful colleagues. If I had to pick one, I guess it would be my assignment to cover the first Gulf War. I was the first AP reporter sent to Saudi Arabia and ended up building a large operation there at a relatively young age. And we tested the tight military coverage rules as much as we could. I snuck into a town called Khafji one night during a battle and was able to provide some exclusive coverage that made the US military angry because they were not telling the truth about US involvement. It was dicey. A pampers moment. NBC interviewed me a day after I got out of there and my mother saw it (and me talking about the gunfire and grenades) and sent me a short note that still makes me cry, telling me my father would be proud of me, now please come home. ”
I decided to do a little internet research about the battle of Khafji. Here is the region on a map. Khafji is right on the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq:
Wikipedia has an entry about this battle. Here are some tank and battle pictures:
Read some of John’s own words about being in the thick of battle, as told to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post on Friday April 3, 1998:
“John King, a CNN White House correspondent who got two hours’ sleep Wednesday night, says that ‘there’s certainly adrenaline involved in what we do. Some letdown is human’. But, he said, ‘I would hope we aren’t driven that way. We’re supposed to detach our opinions from what we do. We should also detach our emotions.’
Still, King has found himself feeling deflated before. ‘After the gulf war ended, I felt sort of let down, which is a sick thing,’ he said. ‘I found myself wishing I was back in Khafji [near the Saudi Arabian border] getting shot at.’”
Whaaa? John wanted to get shot at? Actually, though I think I know what he means. It’s all about the adrenaline – not the actual prospect of getting hurt. As an adrenaline junkie myself, I can relate. Although I don’t know if I would want to get my kicks that way.
I also came across a thesis written by a guy named Aaron Naparstek of Washington University, who cites John’s role in the Khafji media meltdown. The title of his thesis was “Partners in Conflict: The Media and the Military in Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf Wars”. Here is the excerpt that mentions John:
“The battle of Khafji also illustrated the extent to which the Pentagon tried to maintain control over imagery and events, and was a turning point in media-military relations of the Gulf War. On January 31, coalition forces retook Khafji from Iraqi forces. During the eighteen hours which pool reporters were not allowed into the town, the world was just going to have to rely on U.S. briefers to find out what was happening in Khafji.
The Associated Press’s John King, however, slipped into a U.S. armored personnel carrier and drove into the city with a group of Marines. For political reasons, the Pentagon wanted to give the impression that the battle for Khafji was fought and easily won by their Arab coalition partners with little help from the U.S.. King and other reporters who eventually made it into Khafji were stunned to hear General Shwarzkopf and other military briefers in Riyadh telling the world that Saudi and Qatari forces had successfully retaken the town even as the battle raged around them. Listening to the radio as Shwarzkopf described how U.S. forces did not take part in the liberation, King saw one U.S. officer point to an exhausted Marine who had just escaped from the town minutes earlier carrying with him a charred Iraqi AK-47 machine gun and say, ‘Tell him that.’
The Khafji incident laid bare the disturbing willingness of the U.S. to alter the facts to make sure that military goals coincided with political ones. The discrepancies between the official story and journalists’ versions that came out of Khafji severely hurt the credibility of the coalition. Reporters’ fears that military briefings were telling them partial or manipulated truths were confirmed in Khafji”
Time Magazine published an article dated Monday, Feb. 18, 1991 which also mentioned John:
“Though pool reporters were stationed with the 1st U.S. Marine Division outside the Saudi city, they were not allowed into the town until 18 hours after fighting started between Iraqi armor and coalition forces. Early accounts of the battle came mostly from reporters operating on their own.
One of them, John King of the Associated Press, sneaked into the city on the first night of fighting and watched as Arab troops tried to retake the town. ‘The pools did not get an accurate view (of the battle) because they didn’t see it,’ says King. ‘They wrote that the Saudi and Qatari liberated the city, but they had no realistic view of how long it took, what happened or how many Iraqis were in there.’
The best footage of the battle came from two French TV crews and a team from Britain’s Visnews, which were in Khafji well before U.S. pool cameramen. (Little of this was seen on American TV.)”
What I couldn’t find in my research were any pictures or videos of John at the time. That surely would have been interesting to see. I wonder if his old NBC interview is still around aomwhere?
It was a pampers moment indeed.