Vietnam Lore


If there is one trait that characterizes the Vietnam-era reporting of American journalists–or the 80-odd mainstream journalists assembled here–it is the romance with ambiguity that runs like a purple thread among the lurid images of war. The soldier-poet fantasies that inspired an earlier generation of correspondents in Shanghai and Spain in the 1930s, or Paris and London in the 1940s, pale in comparison to the conflicted imaginings of Saigon journalists in the mid ’60s. From their vantage point the war was, in the words of Washington Post reporter Ward Just, “an East Asian theater of the absurd,” which “seemed to rock along without plot, rhyme or reason.” The “tension and vitality” of Vietnam “was not from Hemingway or Orwell,” Just notes, but straight out of Pinter and Beckett.

What Pinter said of his plays–that “there are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what false”–offered literary-minded journalists a refuge from the clash between what they saw in the field and what they heard at the five o’clock follies in downtown Saigon, where American colonels reviewed the previous 24 hours of “Free World Military Activity.” They reported it all and tried to keep their opinions to themselves.

It was the rare voice who confessed, as Mary McCarthy did in a dispatch to the New York Review of Books in 1967, “that when I went to Vietnam…….I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official.” More typical of the pieces collected by the Library of America in Reporting Vietnam is this observation by Associated Press reporter Malcolm Browne, after a massacre of South Vietnamese government troops by the Vietcong in the Ca Mau Peninsula in 1962. The bodies were laid out on the ground:

The sun was setting again and Pat Boone was singing from the tower loudspeaker. I asked an officer if he couldn’t turn the damned thing off.

“Sure, but it’s better not to. Our people here don’t care. And for the Viet Cong out there, it’s a sign we’re still alive and still able to resist.”

American journalists learned to savor the absurdities of the war, which somehow absolved them of judgment and saved them the risk of breaking ranks, of crying out and spoiling the Emperor’s parade. If you were a reporter in Vietnam, collecting your credentials at the U.S. Military Command, hitching a ride on military aircraft (“Come on, we’ll take you up and get you shot at”), you were part of the team. Like TheNew York Times‘s Neil Sheehan, you were proud of the young American pilots sitting at the controls, and “grateful for the opportunity to witness this adventure and to report it”–even after you learned that the “military structures” reportedly destroyed by American fighter bombers were peasant huts.

In “Not a Dove, but No Longer a Hawk,” which we antiwarriors read with horror when it appeared in TheNew York Times Magazine in October 1966, Sheehan went on to acknowledge that “American strategy in Vietnam consists of creating a killing machine…….in the hope that over the years enough killing will be done to force the enemy’s collapse through exhaustion and despair.” He wrung his hands over “what we are doing to ourselves,” and hoped that “we will not, in the name of some anti-Communist crusade, do this again.” Yet he didn’t “see how we [could] do anything but continue to prosecute the war,” for fear that a “precipitate retreat” would “degenerate into a rout.”

It was that papal “we” and the old Communist-bloodbath argument that mired Sheehan, along with a good many other reporters represented here, in the Cold War pieties of three consecutive war administrations. (Or so we saw it at Viet-Report, a magazine I edited in New York in the mid ’60s.) Given their employers–the Washington Post, AP, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Chicago Tribune chief among them–perhaps this allegiance is not surprising. There are exceptions, such as Jonathan Schell’s painstaking account of the destruction of Quang Ngai province, written for TheNew Yorker (and published as the book The Military Half), which dives into the heart of the “fantastic fact that we are destroying, seemingly by inadvertence, the very country we are supposedly protecting”–without once wagging a finger at that “we.”

There are a few hawks, too (besides the New York Herald Tribune‘s Joe Alsop). The French correspondent Bernard Fall, a veteran reporter of the first Indochina war who had distanced himself from official policy by the time he was killed by a land mine in Hue in 1967, planted the seed for “direct retaliation against North Vietnam” in 1962 in the SaturdayEvening Post when he wrote that “while Ho’s guerrillas in South Vietnam can elude American air power, his factories in North Vietnam are extremely vulnerable to it.”

As for the romance with ambiguity, to one degree or another it engages the writing of David Halberstam, Jonathan Randal, and James P. Sterba (all New York Times), along with Malcolm Browne and Ward Just. On the other hand, both Stanley Karnow, Just’s compatriot at The Washington Post, and freelance writer Frances Fitzgerald stand apart for their early efforts to understand the Asian context in which Vietnam’s “civil war,” as they saw it, unfolded.

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.