Vietnam Lore

Hawk-eye: Neil Sheehan, Saigon, 1963
Francois Sully
Hawk-eye: Neil Sheehan, Saigon, 1963

Details

Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969 (Part One)
By The Library of America
858 pp., $35
Buy this book

Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Part Two)
By The Library of America
857 pp., $35
Buy this book

It's in the work of Michael Herr that the war as a theater of the absurd finds its ultimate expression--and where the Pinter-esque formula is fulfilled. Herr gets the last word in volume two of Reporting Vietnam with the 210-page Dispatches, a book that reads like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test gone to war. In it, hawks and doves dissolve in a dance with death, in which the reporter, merging with his subjects, re-creates a war in the image of one that bears scant resemblance to the experiences of most American Veterans. And yet in 1977, when Dispatches appeared, Herr tapped into a sensation gaining on the Vietnam generation, which was "that you didn't always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes." Dispatches, which grew out of stories he filed for Esquire in 1967–69, led straight to Hollywood, where Herr cowrote Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

Reporting Vietnam, with its overlapping network of stories, its detailed chronology, maps, and military glossary, succeeds admirably in plunging the reader into the frontline action of the "American War," as the Vietnamese call it. It is also, in effect, a study of the unpreparedness that afflicted not only the American expeditionary corps in Southeast Asia but the press corps as well. If the Vietnam War was, as Ward Just writes, "a drama whose characters and plot were only dimly perceived," it was, we know now, because so little was known about the character of the adversary, but equally because American journalists seemed to prefer the drama to the effort of penetrating the fog.

Had the editors reached out to include writers who struggled to understand the background as well as the foreground of the war--activists for whom Vietnam was not an adventure but one of history's great events, whose lessons bear pondering again and again--this collection might reflect the rich diversity of American war reporting. But there is nary a byline from Ramparts or Viet-Report, both of whom had reporters in North and South Vietnam, or from Hard Times and Sundance, to name only a few counterculture rags that published pathbreaking articles about the war and the antiwar movement at home. The absence of these voices from outside the mainstream lends Reporting Vietnam a warmed-over air, as of an anthology whose contributors have been contributing far too long to the formation of a national ideology.

It's not enough to trot out Norman Mailer from The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, along with Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, '72, to cover your hip flank. It's unconscionable to use Tom Wolfe's "Ken Kesey Addresses an Anti-War Rally: October 1965," from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, with its sneering references to Berkeley's "marvelous political whoopee," to cover a pioneering teach-in. If the Library of America is a bellwether, and it probably is, 30 years after Lyndon Johnson was driven from office--in part by a domestic revolt he neither could understand nor control--the antiwar movement has once again been marginalized by the keepers of the gate.

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