I was watching a film about the photographer Robert Capa last night. One of (the least of) his achievements was to be the first American journalist to be killed in Vietnam.
Before that he had covered just about every conflict from the Spanish Civil War onwards. He was present when Hitler's Condor Legion bombed Madrid, he documented the London blitz, he landed with the first wave on Omaha Beach, he was with American troops when they entered Berlin.
He produced a good handful of the indelible images of the 20th century. They weren't all images of war. You know that picture of Picasso holding a beach umbrella over Francoise Gilot? Well, that was one of his.
He was well-beloved. Women adored him (he had a brief affair with Ingrid Bergman) but so did the soldiers he marched alongside. He took the same risks they did. And that's how he died. He left the comparative safety of an armoured vehicle to walk with the soldiers through the roadside fields, snapping all the time. And then he trod on a land-mine.
Somewhere in the process of taking all this in, I had a fleeting vision of the human condition. It was all suddenly clear, as if a hitherto invisible spider's web had been caught by the breeze and angled into a position where the sun could strike it. I saw the carrying-on of the politicians for the silly, unimportant game that it is and realized how certain values- not necessarily the obvious ones- are solid and enduring. The vision was too flimsy to last, but it has left me with a sense of Capa as a touchstone. If I want to retrieve something of what I briefly felt I need only think of him.
He was Hungarian, Jewish, Parisian, American. He liked to gamble (well there's a surprise!) He had big doggy eyes and heavy eyebrows. He was soulful and melancholic and the ultimate party animal. When he died the US government offered him burial in Arlington National Cemetery, but his mother turned them down. "No," she said, "my son was a man of peace."
Kerry, Bush, swift boats, purple hearts, the Alabama National Guard: I can just picture Bob Capa's eyebrows going up and down.