Wars are fought twice, once on the battlefield and later in the remembering. In that way, the Vietnam war, though it ended four decades ago continues as a battle of memory, history and truth. And the stakes are still high. Honest narratives about important past events can shape our destinies, helping to determine whether there will be more wars or peace.
Four decades ago we suffered defeat in an unwinnable war fighting against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests.
Vietnam was hopeless enough but to repeat the same arrogant folly years later in Afghanistan and Iraq is unforgivable.
A few years ago, I was pleased to hear that the Pentagon would be funding a committee for the commemoration of the Vietnam war. I thought maybe finally we’ll get the record straight. But I didn’t have to read further than the keynote quote on their new website to realize it was not to be.
Quoting President Richard Nixon, it read…”No event in history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then and is misunderstood now.” It was a slur on the thousands of journalists who tried to honestly cover the war, coming from the U.S. President who was most responsible for misleading the American public.
I badgered the committee for months and finally through clenched teeth they took it down. But many of the myths and falsehoods of the war remain on their website.
So what went wrong in Vietnam? One of the prevailing myths is that the U.S. was betrayed by disloyal journalists. Even the U.S. Army commander in chief, General William Westmoreland subscribed to that old saw…He said…”The press and television created an aura not of victory, but of defeat.”
The best answer to Westmoreland’s quote came from CBS News President Fred Friendly who said ”It was not our war to win or lose, but it was our war to understand and explain.”
It is unlikely that war correspondents will ever again have unfettered access to war that we had in Vietnam.
I landed in Vietnam in May 1965, an eager and enterprising young reporter from Canada. I was like hundreds of other would-be-journalists going into the field to report the war as “freelancers”, arriving as this counter-insurgency became a full blown Asian war. And like so many of us I initially bought Washington’s rationale for the war to save this little democracy of South Vietnam from a communist takeover and the start of falling dominoes in Asia.
The truth however didn’t take long to learn. At that time the United States had some brilliant journalists who took their craft seriously and reported the gaps between “A Bright Shining Lie” the glowing Public Relations advanced by the US military… and what was the grim reality.
My late friend David Halberstam of the NY Times told me about the historic battle of Ap Bac down in the Mekong Delta in 1962. Hundreds of American helicopters had arrived promising great new technological advances to defeat the Viet Cong.
On the first day of battle, a few Viet Cong were killed. On the second day an enormous helicopter assault was launched, but again nothing happened. On the third day, same thing. No enemy, no battle.
On the drive back to Saigon Neil Shehan then with UPI complained about his waste of time. Homer Bigart, an experienced WWII correspondent for the NY Times, said “What’s the matter Mr. Shehan?”
Shehan grumbled… “three days tramping the paddies and no story.”
“No story”, replied Bigart? “But there is a story. It doesn’t work. That’s your story Mr. Shehan.”
Indeed, the U.S. strategy didn’t work. It never worked. Not then, not ever. But the price for the folly was staggering.
Nearly three million Americans served in Vietnam supported by the heaviest bombing in history. When the war was over about 3 million Vietnamese civilians and military were killed and 58,318 names of Americans are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall here in Washington.
In a war of surprises there was no greater surprise than the Tet offensive. For me, in Vietnam for almost five years, the most intense days of reporting were at Tet 1968. At dawn on January 31st, my cameraman and I walked from the ABC News bureau to the U.S. Embassy that had been attacked by 15 Vietcong sappers. Before the attack was stopped five American guards had been killed.
General Westmoreland told us “It’s a relatively small incident. No enemy got in the Embassy building. Don’t be deceived by this incident.”
Westmoreland’s relentless optimism struck us as delusional. The General was still spinning that everything was just fine as the U.S. and ARVN were still fighting to take back dozens of cities from the enemy…as well as the city of Hue which was occupied for 26 days.
Hue was the single bloodiest battle of the war, one of its defining events and one of the most intense urban battles in history. As an ABC News correspondent, I joined the U.S. Marines as they fought for ten days to advance the last 1,000 yards along the south wall of the Citadel. Hanoi had counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon blindsided refused to believe the truth.
The armies of both sides played their roles courageously to terrible effect. The clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. Two Thousand Eight Hundred, graves of the executed were turned up after the battle.
Khe Sahn, the US Marine base in northwest Vietnam was another key battle of the Tet offensive that I covered. General Westmoreland had failed to defend many of the urban centers of Vietnam believing that the enemy thrust would come at Khe Sahn. He was wrong and the Johnson administration lost confidence in Westy’s strategy of attrition, as most of our press corps had, and he was relieved of command shortly after Tet.
So, what about Nixon’s suggestion that journalists “misreported the war”? Am I satisfied with my own coverage? No . I think ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture and the limitations of TV news sometimes made my reports suffer. A minute and a half was about max for a TV report, not time enough to describe the complex events of the Vietnam War. So the truth often suffered, but not in the way Nixon suggested.
Much of the U.S. media reported the war in too rosy, not too harsh a light. More accurate journalism would have consistently challenged what Neil Sheehan called in his book “A Bright Burning Lie.”…the upbeat public relations for a misguided war.
I also found my ABC producers and editors in New York often reluctant to sound negative about the war. Some of my most critical stories got brutally edited or just mysteriously disappeared before air time.
In spite of the difficulties, censorship and the fog of war. I believe much of our reporting was accurate and has withstood the test of time.
When I first went to Vietnam, the war photographer Robert Capa was my hero and I lived by his advice. If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” It was easy to follow when all I had was a $50 Yashica with a fixed 50mm lens. I rarely carried a tripod, shot in low light and was constantly scared out of my wits with my hands shaking. I would often hear from editors I sold photos to….“Don, your pictures are good but slightly out of focus.”
Between Saigon and Baghdad I covered over 15 wars, but now I favor a different quote of Robert Capa’s.
“Photographing war today is like making love to an aging Hollywood actress. More and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.”
Some of us may still have a little shrapnel in the heart after Vietnam, grieving for friends who didn’t survive or who have since passed on. As reporters of the lost war it may have been our finest hour, documenting the defining event of our generation. Being a reporter in Vietnam was probably the best thing I will do in this life. It was important work that marked us for better or for worse the rest of our lives…as a person and as a Journalist.