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Words of War 

Journalists on Vietnam

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
Courtesy of Ward JustTHE FURTHER WE GET FROM THE VIETNAM WAR, THE LESS real it becomes. This is not to say that the war has ceased to be a potent reference point, just that, nearly a quarter-century after its conclusion, it has devolved into a metaphor for the moment when our long-held ethos of Manifest Destiny was revealed to be, in the words of journalist Neil Sheehan, "a bright and shining lie." The term "Vietnam syndrome" has been used to oppose U.S. military actions from Haiti to the Gulf to the Balkans, while writers continue to churn out books seeking a context for unresolved emotions about the war that haunt us even now. Yet despite its place in public discourse, Vietnam exists primarily as an abstraction, a phantom ache that symbolizes the collapse of our illusions, which we left, along with 58,000 dead, in the jungles of a country 10,000 miles away.

For this reason, the Library of America's two-volume, 1,700-plus-page journalistic record of the war, considering it not as metaphor but as news, comes as a revelation. Featuring more than 100 pieces extending from the earliest U.S. involvement to the fall of Saigon, Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959­1969 and Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism 1969­1975 encompass a virtual who's who of the period's cutting-edge journalists, among them Frances FitzGerald, Michael Arlen, Tom Wolfe, Sydney Schanberg, Wallace Terry and Martha Gellhorn. As reporters from all sides of the political spectrum seek to make sense of the escalating war, we cannot help but confront it as a historical event. To enhance that immediacy, Reporting Vietnam makes no effort to develop an interpretive framework. Instead, we get the raw, messy texts of the moment, which reveal both the power of journalism to influence opinion, and a kaleidoscopic sense of history as a vibrant, living force.

Among the things that make Reporting Vietnam compelling are the doubts of its correspondents, going back to the onset of the war. Long before Vietnam entered our public vocabulary, journalists like Stanley Karnow and New York Times reporter Homer Bigart were questioning the efficacy of our policy there. Bigart's 1962 piece "A 'Very Real War' in Vietnam -- and the Deep U.S. Commitment" suggests that, while "Washington says we will stay until the finish . . . [t]he United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war." The same year, in a Saturday Evening Post interview with Ho Chi Minh, Bernard Fall writes, "[A]lthough American officials speak of fighting for years against Ho's guerrillas, I doubt that most Americans realize what such a protracted war really means." Reports like these are prescient; by late 1966, with 385,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam and the antiwar movement gaining momentum, even Neil Sheehan, a supporter of the war, is forced to wonder, "when I look at the bombed-out peasant hamlets, the orphans begging on the streets of Saigon and the women and children with napalm burns lying on the hospital cots, whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends." Not that everyone was paying attention. As late as the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, writes Bob Tamarkin of the Chicago Daily News, veteran U.S. officers were surprised to discover that their superiors "lied to us at the very end. One thing you don't do is lie to your own people."

 

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THAT SENSE OF TRUTH COMPROMISED RECURS CONTINually in Reporting Vietnam, implicating military and antiwar culture alike. The collection reveals some of the left to be as petty, cynical or just plain misguided as the right. Reporting on the 1969 Vietnam moratorium, for instance, Francine du Plessix Gray deftly explores how image, more than ideology, often determined the course of protest politics; "'I'd feel bad if Walter Reuther spoke at our November rally even if he asked for immediate withdrawal,'" she quotes activist David Dellinger as saying. "'Some people come in so soiled and opportunistic they have no right to be with us.'" Mary McCarthy's account of a 1968 visit to Hanoi refers to the North Vietnamese capital as a worker's paradise, where "everything is now a symbol, an ideogram, expressing the national resolve to overcome." To her credit, McCarthy ends the piece by taking on the inconsistencies of her position, which come to a head when she is given a ring made of metal salvaged from a downed U.S. aircraft -- and finds she cannot put it on. "Quite a few of the questions one does not, as an American liberal, want to put in Hanoi," she writes, "are addressed to oneself."

McCarthy's comment addresses the complexities of ideology at a time when ideology was seen almost exclusively in terms of black and white. Still, Reporting Vietnam renders the ideological battles of the era largely moot, though not through oversight. In both volumes, diligent attention is paid to the divisive nature of the conflict -- yet the rifts fade to insignificance when compared with the moment-to-moment horrors of the war. As early as 1961, the empathic reporter Malcolm W. Browne describes a woman whose husband has just died in a raid on their hamlet: "Her eyes fixed on me in an expression that still haunts me sometimes. She was not weeping, and her face showed neither grief nor fury; it was unfathomably blank." Much of the writing gets at the visceral experience of battle, which transcends ideology in the senseless, stupid brutality of both sides. Ward Just's account of a Viet Cong firefight and Seymour Hersh's coverage of the My Lai massacre are oddly similar: In each case, the details of daily living slowly slip away beneath a palpable sense of unreality as the chaos and blood and killing begin. "You switch off," Just explains, "and pull all the plugs, severing connections. Your movements become slow and deliberate, and your consciousness seems to move back in time. The point is to maintain control."

Nowhere is such dislocation more vividly expressed than in Michael Herr's Dispatches, featured in its entirety as a coda to the collection. If the rest of Reporting Vietnam represents a steady accumulation of detail, Dispatches is its imaginative filter, the long-range lens through which everything begins to cohere. Dispatches is a signal work of Vietnam reportage, a brutal narrative merging journalism and commentary, history and memoir, which, on its publication in 1977, reconfigured war correspondence as a literary art. Herr is not after resolution, at least in a traditional sense. Rather, he takes Vietnam's incongruities and plays them off each other, as if the only meaning is that there is no meaning, just a series of surreal juxtapositions in which the sublime and the unbearable are inextricably linked. Herr addresses the contradictions faced by every correspondent, for whom Vietnam was "a war of our convenience, a horrible convenience, but ours. We could jump into jeeps and minimokes at nine or ten and drive a few kilometers to where the fighting was, run around in it for a few hours and come back." In contrast, the soldiers' lives are summed up by one grunt with Zen-like simplicity: "Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened." Hearing that, Herr makes the distance between his condition and theirs explicit. "I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he'd waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was."

Herr's ability to balance these multiple, and often opposing, perspectives has a lot to tell us -- if only about the dissonant emotions that Vietnam still inspires. At the same time, it reiterates journalism's power not just to inform us but to impact our lives. It's been said that reporters helped turn the tide in Vietnam. Reading these volumes, we can see how true that is. Yet even more important is the fact that the writing stands as a miraculous, real-time journal of the Vietnam experience. "There were some who couldn't make it and left after a few days," writes Herr, "some who couldn't make it the other way, staying year after year, trying to piece together their very real hatred of the war with their great love for it, that rough reconciliation that many of us had to look at."

REPORTING VIETNAM Part One: American Journalism 1959­1969 | Library of America 858 pages | $35 hardcover

REPORTING VIETNAM Part Two: American Journalism 1969­1975 | Library of America 857 pages | $35 hardcover

  • Journalists on Vietnam

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