Correspondents get the story right, in Vietnam and Afghanistan
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 anger, 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 18hour 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 pored 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 all-knowing; 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 troubles me. On the same day the Burns-Novick documentary debuted, The New York Times titled a frontpage 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 has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Georgie Anne Geyer