Cor­re­spon­dents get the story right – in Viet­nam and Afghanistan

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By Ge­orgie Anne Geyer NEA Con­trib­u­tor

WASH­ING­TON — Ken Burns’ bril­liant tele­vi­sion ex­po­si­tion “The Viet­nam War” not sur­pris­ingly brought forth in me, as with many other Amer­i­cans, old and trou­bling mem­o­ries.

From the first time I went to In­dochina in 1967, the most dis­tress­ing thing I dis­cov­ered in talk­ing to hun­dreds of Amer­i­can troops was that I could not find one of them who be­lieved in the war.

They were there be­cause they were drafted and be­cause they loved their coun­try, but that was it.

Per­haps worse than that, as I con­tin­ued to go back to Viet­nam as a re­porter for the Chicago Daily News, for short monthly tours in 1968, ’70 and ’71, I would meet gen­er­als who would take me aside and tell me in one way or an­other: “This is not work­ing. The vil­lagers are burn­ing with ha­tred to­ward us when we go in and de­stroy their vil­lages. Tell that story!”

Ev­ery late af­ter­noon in Saigon, there was what the press corps joc­u­larly called the “Five O’Clock Fol­lies.” This was the mil­i­tary’s brief­ing on the day’s events — the “body count” of Viet Cong killed, the num­ber of vil­lages “paci­fied,” the new Amer­i­can pol­icy. Af­ter that, the briefer would take us jour­nal­ists out for drinks and tell us what was re­ally hap­pen­ing.

In the end, be­fore leav­ing for good, more in sad­ness than in an- ger, I wrote a series based on in­ter­views with lead­ing Amer­i­can of­fi­cers and le­gions of grunt sol­diers and aid work­ers. We called the series “The GI Who Asks Why.”

My beloved brother, Glen, had nearly been killed in the Bat­tle of the Bulge in World War II, and he and his bud­dies also asked “Why?” Gen­er­ally, they knew the an­swer, but Viet­nam was a mil­i­tary and moral quick­sand for the Amer­i­cans who had, to the North Viet­namese, sim­ply re­placed the French colo­nial­ists.

In the first two parts of the very pre­cise 18- hour doc­u­men­tary series by the un­match­able Ken Burns and his co-pro­ducer, Lynn Novick — which be­gins in 1858! — one lit­tle-noted theme im­pressed me: Whereas the U.S. mil­i­tary and diplo­mats were al­most al­ways afraid to speak out about the ab­sur­di­ties of the war and then got it wrong, Amer­i­can cor­re­spon­dents on the spot were not afraid — and al­most al­ways got it right.

The doc­u­men­tary tells the story of a young John F. Kennedy vis­it­ing Saigon, hav­ing din­ner on the roof of the Ho­tel Ma­jes­tic on the river and be­ing im­pressed with the then French war’s pro­gres­sion. But New York Times correspondent Sey­mour Top­ping took him aside and told him, no, the French are los­ing.

Neil Shee­han, then of United Press In­ter­na­tional in Saigon, first re­mem­bers “the war as a cru­sade, and it was thrilling.” But as it wore on and grew cruel, as all cru­sades do, he went out in the vil­lages with supreme war en­thu­si­ast Robert McNa­mara, and Shee­han re­mem­bers how, look­ing at the farm­ers, “it was clear to me they’d cut our throats.”

Mal­colm Browne of the As­so­ci­ated Press filmed the first Bud­dhist monk burn­ing him­self to death in a Saigon square to protest the Amer­i­can-backed gov­ern­ment, pre­sag­ing a new anti-Amer­i­can era; and David Hal­ber­stam and Stan­ley Karnow went on to write the two best, and fairest, books on Viet­nam.

Mean­while, Amer­i­can lead­ers were eter­nally am­biva­lent. JFK said, “We have not sent com­bat troops in the gen­er­ally un­der­stood sense of the word.” (As he sent more and more.) McNa­mara re­lied on his beloved statis­tics, brag­ging on the “body count” of the day. (While, in truth, more and more Amer­i­cans died.) LBJ poured out his fears on the phone, but did noth­ing. (Un­til he re­signed in hu­mil­i­a­tion.)

The Burns-Novick doc­u­men­tary made me ask, among too many other ques­tions: Why were news­pa­per cor­re­spon­dents ca­pa­ble of an­a­lyz­ing Viet­nam and the war and our role in it, when most of our lead­ers, mil­i­tary and even civil­ian, were not?

There were sev­eral rea­sons: The cor­re­spon­dents could go ev­ery­where and speak to ev­ery­one, and they lis­tened care­fully; they had re­spect, if not love, for the other side, but they were not gen­er­ally taken in; they re­fused to ac­cept the ex­cuses and lies of of­fi­cials — on any side; they preened, some­times ar­ro­gantly, in their po­si­tion as al­l­know­ing; and al­though all were pa­tri­otic Amer­i­cans, they were not wed­ded to one diplo­matic or mil­i­tary pol­icy.

And they vol­un­tar­ily ac­cepted the risks their free­dom en­tailed — some­times gaily, even as many of them died.

Per­son­ally, I be­lieve that reliving the war, af­ter such a long pe­riod of time and in such a classy way, is all to the good. It helps an­swer the ques­tion of how such an “ex­cep­tional” and “moral” na­tion as ours could in­volve it­self in such a stupid and cruel con­flict.

But in the end, some­thing new trou- bles me. On the same day the Burn­sNovick doc­u­men­tary de­buted, The New York Times ti­tled a front-page story, “U.S. Dig­ging in for Long Haul in Afghanistan.”

There are many ex­cel­lent for­eign cor­re­spon­dents in Afghanistan. I know many of them. They are as good as the Viet­nam bunch. But who is lis­ten­ing, as we ob­sess over Don­ald J. Trump’s tweets?

Ge­orgie Anne Geyer

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