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Sir Max Hast­ings and the Viet­nam War, 1971

We all jumped out of the he­li­copter and ran for the near­est trench. Then we heard laugh­ter

MY WIFE SAID this photo made me look ridicu­lous, but back in 1971 I thought I was ter­ri­bly cool with the sun­glasses and the droop­ing cig­a­rette. Nowa­days one would be em­bar­rassed to look like that at all.

I was learn­ing how to be a tele­vi­sion re­porter, mak­ing films for a BBC cur­rent af­fairs pro­gramme. My fa­ther, Mac­don­ald Hast­ings, who had also been a tele­vi­sion re­porter, gave me a tremen­dous tick­ing off af­ter I ap­peared on cam­era wear­ing sun­glasses. He said, ‘When you’re talk­ing to an au­di­ence, how­ever hot and sunny it is, you should never wear sun­glasses be­cause they can’t see your eyes.’ He was ab­so­lutely right. I never wore them on cam­era again.

I was 25 when this pic­ture was taken and was still finding it a thrilling ex­pe­ri­ence to do that kind of re­port­ing. My pro­ducer, Bill Aaron, was a won­der­ful man – he’s on the left of the pic­ture. Bill was the most tal­ented di­rec­tor I ever worked with, but hated war zones. He was al­most con­stantly blas­phem­ing at how I’d dragged him to this ter­ri­ble place. De­spite that, we made some of the best films I ever made for tele­vi­sion on that trip.

In the photo we were on an army base called Fire­base Six, which was up in the west of South Viet­nam. When we ar­rived the base had been un­der con­tin­u­ous com­mu­nist fire for days. In fact our he­li­copter had a few frag­ments blown out of it just be­fore we flew in, which scared us a good deal.

We landed and, as­sum­ing the base was still un­der bom­bard­ment, we all jumped out and ran to the near­est trench. Then we heard sounds of up­roar­i­ous laugh­ter be­cause we’d ar­rived in the first lull in the fir­ing for days and all the South Viet­namese troops were stand­ing around laugh­ing at the spec­ta­cle of us, cow­er­ing in a trench.

We filmed for a few hours and then got out be­fore the com­mu­nists re­opened fire. Fire­base Six was even­tu­ally lost to the com­mu­nists. One felt des­per­ately sorry for those soldiers you can see in the back­ground – it was the first time in weeks that they’d been able to come out of their trenches, walk around and re­sup­ply and so on.

Work­ing in those sorts of places, one was al­ways in the same state: hot, filthy and ex­hausted. But for my gen­er­a­tion of war cor­re­spon­dents it was one of the most, if not the most, vivid and fright­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of our ca­reers. Viet­nam was where ev­ery am­bi­tious young jour­nal­ist wanted to be. I car­ried on go­ing al­most ev­ery year from 1970 un­til the end of the war, when I left Saigon via the Amer­i­can em­bassy com­pound in the fi­nal evac­u­a­tion in April 1975, at about six in the evening. That was about five hours be­fore the Amer­i­cans aban­doned the em­bassy.

I got to Viet­nam fairly late in the war, yet it was ob­vi­ous from my first day that there was no chance that the Amer­i­cans were go­ing to win it. But I never felt like the other side de­served to win.

The Amer­i­can evac­u­a­tion in 1975 sig­nalled the end of the blood­shed, but it didn’t sig­nal the end of the misery be­cause the com­mu­nists im­posed such a ghastly regime on the whole of the coun­try. For all of us who came away from Viet­nam it was over, but for the Viet­namese peo­ple it never re­ally ended.

— In­ter­view by Jes­sica Carpani Viet­nam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, by Max Hast­ings (Wil­liam Collins, £30), is out now

Sir Max Hast­ings (right) with pro­ducer Bill Aaron (left) in Viet­nam

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