By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
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 Postinterview 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."
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 Vietnamrenders 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."