I celebrated Thanksgiving Day 1967 in a sandbagged underground bunker at a Marine outpost called Con Thien on the southern edge of the Vietnamese demilitarized zone. It wasn’t much of a celebration. I’m told that in Vietnamese Con Thien means “place of angels,” but at the time I was there, it was just a muddy rat-infested collection of bunkers, trenches, and concertina wire only big enough for a Marine battalion with supporting arms. If there were angels in that place, they did not reveal themselves to me.
But there was fire from the heavens. Because Con Thien was well within range of North Vietnamese heavy artillery dug in on the far side of the Ben Hai River dividing what was—quite temporarily, as it turned out—two Vietnams, we were shelled every day by 152-millimeter howitzers, along with 120mm and 82mm mortars fired from closer range, with the occasional 122mm rocket thrown in for good measure.
We seldom ventured beyond our own perimeter, and when we did, we were usually ambushed by NVA infantry or mortars, for Con Thien was constantly under observation by the NVA, and we did not come or go without their knowing it. Mostly we stayed inside our bunkers inside our wire and hoped that nothing big landed on top of the bunker we happened to occupy. All in all, being at Con Thien was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.
The outpost had been under almost constant pressure since the spring of 1967, and because it was so dangerous and demoralizing a place—even within the dangerous and demoralizing context of what the entire Vietnam War had become—the Marine Corps rotated its battalions in and out of Con Thien roughly once a month. The First Battalion of the First Marine Regiment spent 33 days at Con Thien, from 20 November to 23 December, which is how I ended up in a sandbagged underground bunker on Thanksgiving Day.
We did not like leaving the relative safety and protection of the bunkers unless we really had to, but on this Thanksgiving Day, somebody or other somewhere far up the chain of command— President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself, for all we knew or cared—had ordered that all of America’s gallant fighting men should get a hot turkey dinner complete with all the trimmings. Ours had been flown in by helicopter and was, we were informed by our intelligence chief, waiting for us at the battalion aid station.
None of the inhabitants of my bunker—in addition to myself: Sgt. Floyd Graves, Cpl. John Wallace, and Cpl. Roland Maas—was eager to take the president up on his kindness since it meant slowly and precariously slogging several hundred meters through sucking mud a foot and more deep, all the while leaving us exposed to death or dismemberment from enemy artillery fire. We were content to stay home and eat C-rations spiced with Louisiana Red Rooster hot sauce, the latter bartered from Navy Sea Bees.
But the gunny informed us that this was not actually an invitation, but rather an order. And so the four of us—with much grumbling and profanity, this to hide our fear as much as to show our indignation— donned our helmets and flak jackets, grabbed our mess kits, and set off down the aptly named Death Valley to the aid station, where all the bounty of the pilgrims and their Indian friends was heaped into one indistinguishable pile in our too tiny mess kits. Then we carried it back to the bunker.
It rained all the way down and all the way back. The journey took a long time, and the only good part was that we did not get shelled along the way. But we returned to the bunker with food that was stone cold and heavily diluted with rainwater. The four of us sat there on the duckboard floor, our boots and legs thickly caked with mud up to our knees, too overcome by the enormity of the little disasters piled in front of us to say much.
While we were still in a state of whatever state we were in—shock, disbelief, wonder at the strangeness of life in wartime—a man we had never seen before stuck his head into our bunker and said cheerily, “Happy Thanksgiving, fellas! Mind if we interrupt your meal for a few moments?” Without waiting for an answer, he crawled in, no doubt eager to get under cover. He was wearing a jungle utility uniform, our basic work clothes, but carried no insignia or rank of any kind. Close on his heels came a similarly dressed man with several cameras dangling from his neck. Both had flak jackets and helmets on, but neither was armed.
I remember Graves saying flatly, “Whadda you want?” It was phrased as a question, but it sounded like an accusation. Taking a notepad out of his breast pocket, the man explained that they were journalists on assignment for some magazine or other to do a story about Thanksgiving at Con Thien. To this, Graves said something to the effect of: “A little something to warm the hearts of the home folks, huh?” To which the journalist replied, “Yeh, something like that.”
I remember the journalist gave an odd little half-smile, his discomfort obvious in the face of the quiet menace in Floyd’s voice. And then Graves said, “Get the fuck out of our house. Now.” The two men seemed to disappear into thin air. We got a good laugh at the rapidity of their departure. It wasn’t all that funny, really, but when you’re having no fun at all, every little bit helps.
We did not like journalists very much. They would come to a place like Con Thien by helicopter or by truck, stay a few hours, and then go away again, back to places with silverware and mixed drinks and clean sheets, leaving us to our misery. They got paid a lot more than we did. They got all the perks of officers, and then some. They came and went as they pleased. Even the most experienced of journalists, those that knew what to do when things got hot, were mostly just a burden. When they were with you, you had to look out for them and take care of them and help them if they were injured, but they did not carry weapons and did not fight and therefore could not defend you.
Moreover, by November 19671 had long since come to realize that what I was reading in Time and Stars “n” Stripes and the News-Herald bore no resemblance at all to what I was seeing and doing day in and day out. I did not then yet understand just exactly what was happening in Vietnam, but I knew what I read in the papers wasn’t even close. I don’t recall ever reading a single article that didn’t end with the implicit or explicit conclusion that we were making progress, moving forward, winning the war.
Neither of the men who visited our bunker that Thanksgiving Day was John Laurence, the CBS television correspondent who covered the war off and on for long stretches between 1965 and 1970 and whose memoir The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story was published in 2001 by Public Affairs Press. But one of them could have been. In his memoir, he describes a visit (his second of three) to Con Thien in September 1967. The visit lasted several hours. Together with cameraman Keith Kay and a Vietnamese sound technician, Laurence rode into Con Thien by truck from Dong Ha, got some not-very-good footage of a company beyond the wire getting hit by the NVA, took some incoming artillery fire, and then left a few hours later.
Laurence writes that “the biggest reason for going back to Con Thien was that Kay and I wanted to show Americans how costly the war had become, how brutal and wasteful it was, what it was doing to the individual young men who were trapped in it.” Having come to know Laurence in recent years, I have every reason to believe his explanation. As his memoir makes clear, Laurence, after extensive exposure to the war, came to be thoroughly repulsed by it and driven to try to bring its horrible truth to the attention of the American people in whose name it was being fought. National Book Award-winning Vietnam War correspondent Gloria Emerson, when I first asked her in 1998 who Laurence was (for I had never heard of him until then), described him as “the best TV reporter of the entire Vietnam War.” That is high praise indeed, for Emerson has seldom had anything complimentary to say about most of those who covered the Vietnam War.
Yet reading his memoir, much to my surprise and consternation, touched off a firestorm inside of me, renewing my deep-seated (however irrational) resentment of journalists. For instance, just prior to Laurence’s first trip to Con Thien, he writes that CBS correspondent Harry Reasoner “sat in his room at the Caravelle [Hotel in Saigon]. He could not stop his hands from shaking. Nothing in his life had been as terrifying, he said, as the few hours he [had just] spent in Gio Linh [another Marine outpost similar to and just east of Con Thien].”
A few hours. A few hours?! I spent 792 hours at Con Thien. While I was there, my best friend Gerry Gaffney had his knee shattered by NVA artillery while crossing Death Valley, and it was over three years before I saw or heard from him again; my bunker companions Graves and Wallace were both wounded by shrapnel and spent six weeks in the hospital before being returned to the line. Another scout, Mike Bylinoski, was hit in the head by shrapnel and died on the medevac chopper. The one time I went outside our wire, on a company-sized patrol, I ended up lying facedown in an open field while the NVA, who had the field pre-plotted and the hedgerows on three sides sewn with explosive boobytraps, hammered us with mortars while all around me Marines screamed and shouted and cried for their mothers.
And when I left Con Thien, I and the rest of my battalion did not repair to the air-conditioned bar of the Caravelle Hotel, there to drink gin and tonics and tell green reporters how tough it was at Con Thien; we merely took up new positions south of Quang Tri. It was good to be free of the NVA’s bigger guns and the mud, but the war was still the war. Within five weeks, I would be fighting in the streets of Hue. I would be wounded there by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. I would be temporarily rendered stone deaf, in which condition I fought on for another week until my 395-day tour of duty was completed.
So what am I supposed to think when Laurence tells me how frightened Harry Reasoner was by his few hours at Gio Linh? When he tells me how frightened he himself was on more than one occasion during his brief and always voluntary forays into harm’s way. When he shares with me his sorrow at the death of his dear friend Sam Castan. His sadness at the disappearance of the dashing Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. Professional journalists all. There by choice. In harm’s way, when they went in harm’s way, in order to get that story and get it before the other guy does, getting paid well, getting bylines and headlines, advancing their careers—and able to quit the field and quit Vietnam any time they decided they’d had enough. Am I really supposed to give a rat’s ass?
You should know that I did not set out to write this essay. An essay, yes, but not this essay. It grows out of Staige Blackford’s asking me if I might want to write something about the 2000 Public Affairs Press reprint of Ward Just’s memoir of the Vietnam War, To What End, originally published in 1968. At first I declined the offer, telling Blackford something to the effect that I didn’t think very well of journalists and didn’t really care what they had to say about the war. When he offered the fact that Just had been wounded while on a patrol as proof of Just’s bona fides, I replied so snippily that even I was taken aback. Knowing that Laurence was working on a memoir of his own because he had shown me sections of it, and eager to read it because Laurence is my friend and I was curious about his experiences, I suggested to Blackford that perhaps I could do a discussion of both books, to which he agreed.
But when I began to read Laurence’s book—though in recent years I have been a frequent guest in his house, like and admire him deeply, understand that his ideas and feelings about the war are not much different from my own, and know him to have been as profoundly changed by the Vietnam War as any combat soldier I have ever known—up came all those feelings of scorn and resentment and anger and helplessness and contempt and a welter of other emotions too numerous to be sorted out, let alone explained, even to myself. For all that I am now 53 years old and 34 years removed from the war in Vietnam, there is still a wounded place deep inside of me that will forever be the 18-year-old Marine watching journalists come and go as they please while I and my friends must stay where we are until we have served our time, or are severely wounded or crippled, or get killed.
I must tell you also that it embarrasses me to say some of these things. No doubt I demean the professionalism and dedication of at least the better journalists who covered the war by disparaging their experiences, and I demean myself by belittling their genuine hardships and losses. Reporters like Just and Laurence often put themselves at much greater risk than many rear echelon soldiers ever encountered, and if some of that was self-testing bravado and byline-seeking ambition, which it undoubtedly was, much of it was also for reasons as lofty as my own had been when I first enlisted.
If I am to be honest, you should also bear in mind that whatever explanations and excuses I might offer for how and why it happened, I volunteered for the Marines and I volunteered for Vietnam, and I did therefore in fact choose to be in the circumstances in which I found myself, no less so than Just or Laurence. And if, once I discovered that perhaps I had made the biggest mistake of my young life, I could not extricate myself from my predicament merely by the asking, as the journalists could, this was part of the chance I took when I enlisted.
Moreover, as Blackford argues, “If it had not been for their reporting, the American people would have never known what a fiasco we had gotten ourselves involved in. It was people like Ward Just and Jack Laurence who showed the war to be the disaster it was.” Certainly, through the long course of the war, the reportage of the likes of David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan, Jonathan Schell, Gloria Emerson, and others—including Just and Laurence—helped shape public opinion and public perceptions in ways that discomfitted and confounded the Washington powerful.
Indeed, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Washington powerful—more convinced than ever before of the need to keep secret from the American people what they were up to and why, believing that the media (a term now more accurate than “the press”) had betrayed them by printing and broadcasting the truth—set about to make sure that war reporters would never again have access to the truth. In consequence, we shall never again in my lifetime see genuine war correspondents genuinely going about the job of finding and reporting the news. If you think I am overstating the case, consider the docile press pools and fawning reporters who “covered” the absurd invasion of Grenada, the illegal invasion of Panama, and the inflated invasion of Iraq. Of Gulf War coverage, former CBS News president Fred Friendly said at the time that reporters should have been ashamed of themselves for putting their bylines on what were from start to finish, in reality, press releases written by the Pentagon.
All of this is even more remarkable when one considers just how little of the total news coverage from the Vietnam War was in any way negative. For every Ward Just or Jack Lawrence, there were many other journalists who questioned nothing. Laurence writes that “the majority of American TV correspondents in Vietnam were on short assignments of three to six months and were reluctant to challenge the slick upbeat propaganda of the American political and military establishment.” In a personal letter, he goes even farther: “Ninety-five percent of what was written and broadcast from Vietnam by American news agencies reinforced the official position of the United States government and military that the enemy was being bombed into submission, that its troops were suffering heavy casualties, that the war was being won. Informative or not, ultimately all that copy helped to prolong the war, and that is a good reason to get angry.”
Moreover, even some of the most acclaimed journalists of the war deluded themselves—and their readers—into thinking they understood the experiences of ordinary soldiers and Marines. Michael Herr, a correspondent for Esquire and Rotting Stone whose book Dispatches is considered by many to be one of the great classics of the Vietnam War, wrote that “I was in many ways brother to those poor, tired grunts, I knew what they knew now, I’d done it and it was really something.” And this delivered with a straight face after stating earlier in the same piece, “Sometimes you couldn’t live with the terms any longer and headed for air conditioners in Danang and Saigon.” Maybe Herr felt like a brother to those poor tired grunts, but I doubt that any of those poor tired grunts ever felt like a brother to Herr.
Even Laurence and Just occasionally fall victim to what I can only call the “Soldier Wannabee Syndrome.” Speaking about the men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, with whom he and his camera crew spent time in the spring of 1970, Laurence writes: “In our way, we had become part of the squad.” Though he acknowledges that “we weren’t soldiers and we didn’t pretend to be and we wouldn’t fight in combat with them,” he insists that “we were honorary members of their team, at least part of the time . . .[we] had been accepted by them . . .and they respected us.” Maybe all of this is true, maybe not. I know it does not reflect my experience with journalists in Vietnam, and it goes straight to the place inside of me where all those bad feelings live.
From a different angle, but in an oddly similar vein, Just recalls the reaction of a soldier when informed that Just would be accompanying his patrol, writing that the soldier “became helpless with laughter. He doubled up, face shaking with mirth at the madness of it all.” But was the soldier laughing “at the madness of it all,” as Just says, or rather at the madness of taking an unarmed, untrained journalist on a dangerous platoon-sized patrol deep into enemy territory? The second interpretation seems not to have occurred to Just. Yet he himself subsequently writes that when the patrol was ambushed and nearly wiped out by the North Vietnamese, he was given a weapon that he did not know how to fire and in fact did not fire, made no attempt to reach a wounded man screaming for help, immediately began calling for a medic when he himself was wounded, yet noted later in the battle that while he had lost both his pack and the pistol he had been given, “I had my camera and my notebook.”
What soldier or Marine in his right mind would willingly accept someone who could contribute nothing to the common defense while requiring protection and attention? Whose allegiance was not to the men around him, but to a camera and notebook. Who was, in the end—regardless of such worthy ideals and distant notions as upholding the traditions of a free press or keeping the American people informed—just excess baggage. Just dead weight. To those of us who had to do the dirty work, journalists were just men—and sometimes women—who had no relevance to us, except that occasionally they got in our way.
This carping, of course, is the 18-year-old kid talking again, the one who was armed to the teeth and scared down to the very marrow of his bones when he should have been sitting in sociology class or splitting a malt with Betty Lou. As you have long since surmised, it is not easy for me to write objectively or with detachment about journalists and the Vietnam War. At the same time, you should know that I have a higher opinion in my head of the better journalists who covered the Vietnam War than I do in my gut. In fact, my bad attitude aside, I am capable of recognizing that Laurence’s 1970 documentary “The World of Charlie Company” is one of the most powerful and brilliant glimpses you will ever see of what it was like for the men who did the dirty work; that Staige Blackford’s high opinion of Ward Just and Gloria Emerson’s high opinion of John Laurence are fully justified by any reasonable measure; that the job of a journalist is not, cannot, and should not be the job of a soldier.
For the best journalists at least, their ultimate loyalty was to the truth, as nearly and accurately as they could determine that truth, and that is as it should be. If too few journalists in Vietnam could be included among the best, and if the entire system of information gathering and dissemination worked only very imperfectly during the Vietnam War, the coverage of our wars since 1975, as I have already mentioned, has given us all too many reasons to look back upon coverage of the Vietnam War and wish for the good old days. If, in retrospect, we realize that we can count the most disturbing images of the Vietnam War—the ones that made us feel like the war had been brought right into our living rooms—on one hand (a burning Buddhist monk, a Viet Cong suspect getting his brains blown out, a naked girl running down a road), try to conjure a single searing image from Grenada or Panama or Iraq. Whatever shocking images Americans have seen since the end of the Vietnam War—a collapsed barracks in Lebanon, the bruised face of a captured pilot in Iraq, a body dragged through the streets in Somalia—are all of what is being done to us, not what we are doing to others.
Thus, To What End and The Cat from Hue have value both for what they have to say in and of themselves and because they remind us of who and what journalists used to be before the print media were gobbled up by multinational corporations, and the line between television journalism and entertainment ceased to exist, and the greater portion of those engaged in the profession of journalism, recognizing which side their bread is buttered on, became willing instruments of our very own Ministry of Propaganda.
That these two books should be looked at together stems from more than the obvious facts that both are memoirs of the Vietnam War written by journalists who covered the war, both are published by the same press, and both happen to have become available at roughly the same time (I refer here, of course, to Just’s reprint, not the original). Both books also offer unusually vivid representations of the war, ranging widely from Saigon streets to jungle trails, from politics to combat. Moreover, Just actually makes a cameo appearance in The Cat from Hue, Laurence writing: “I began to understand what tough-minded journalists like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, A.J. Langguth, Ward Just, Charles Mohr and others had been writing since the early 1960s: The first casualty of the Vietnam War was truth.”
In fact, in another private letter, Laurence writes that Just’s book “To What End was really the model for The Cat from Hue, or at least the inspiration. When Just’s book was first published in 1968, I was struck by the similarity of the experiences he and I had, and the reactions we felt. I admired him at the time for making the effort to write about his experiences in Vietnam so honestly and so well that I never forgot his book.” And the two books do often cover similar territory from a similar perspective, including striking descriptions of wartime Saigon, official American obfuscation of reality (the daily military briefings for the press eventually came to be dubbed “the Five O’clock Follies”), the contrast between the tenacity and dedication of the Viet Cong with the ineptitude and lack of conviction among the Saigon forces, and the courage and fortitude of individual soldiers and Marines confronted with an absurd and unwinnable war, to mention but a few examples.
But the books are also very different from each other. Just, who covered the war for The Washington Post from December 1965 to May 1967, began working on his book immediately upon leaving Vietnam and published it the following year. Laurence did not first attempt to write his book until 1977, and did not succeed in completing it until another 24 years had passed. There is at least a veneer of journalistic detachment in Just’s writing, while Laurence’s book is, with few exceptions, straight experiential memoir from start to finish. Just’s chapters are organized thematically, while Laurence’s proceed for the most part chronologically, almost every chapter “title” being a specific date.
The main weakness in Just’s book, in fact, is that it ends in mid-1967. It is only a brief snapshot of the war. Read from the perspective of 2002, it seems in many respects self-evident and obsolete. What must have been bold and controversial insights and observations in 1968 reads like old news now. And so much happened after Just left Vietnam in May 1967 that the war he writes about seems almost quaint. He spends an entire chapter, for instance, on the government of Nguyen Cao Ky, who was prime minister of Vietnam from mid-1965 through the fall of 1967, while barely touching upon Nguyen Van Thieu, who displaced Ky and served as president from September 1967 until only a few days before the fall of Saigon almost eight years later. Just’s account seems incomplete.
This, of course, is not Just’s fault. He was not writing a history of the war, but only an account of what he saw and did and learned while he was there. And there is value in looking closely at that crucial period during which the war ceased to be a Vietnamese war and became an American war. As Just writes, “The Viet Gong had met the Saigon government in a reasonably fair test of arms and ideas and by 1964 by any reasonable standard had won the war. The Americans arrived in force in 1965 and 1966 and thereby upset all the calculations.”
Moreover, reading Just is to be reminded of the deep fissures that existed in Vietnam not just between north and south, but in the south between Saigon and Hue, between Catholic and Buddhist, between urban and rural, between military and civilian. And one is treated time and again to vivid contrasts between theory and reality. Writing about the massive American aid program that was supposed to win the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam, Just observes: “A school was built, but there were no books or teachers. Books were imported, and then sent to a village where there were no schools. . . . Funds were made available for a bridge and the bridge was never built but somehow the funds were spent.” Of the war itself, commenting on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s attempts at “quantitative measurement,” Just writes, “The death toll rises. All the indicators point to improvement, progress, victory. Yet victory does not come. It seems as far away now as it ever did.” His account of “The Gook Dog That Hated Gooks,” though apparently a true story, is a perfect allegory of the magnificent, breathtaking, delusional logic that infected the entire American chain of command right on up through the Pentagon and into the White House, and a brilliant way to end his book.
One of the more interesting aspects of Just’s book is his barely disguised visceral hatred for the Communists. I said earlier that Just maintains “a veneer of journalistic detachment,” and it is when writing about the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong that this veneer appears most thin. Noting that the fight between Americans and VC/NVA was not an equal contest, he cannot refrain from observing: “I have no doubt that the Communists, if they had possessed the aircraft and bombs, would have used them far more ruthlessly than the Americans used them,” though it is hard to imagine an aerial campaign more ruthless than the one we waged for over a decade on South Vietnam. Official pronouncements from Hanoi, he writes with contempt, were “written with all the clarity and insight and candor that you might expect in a propaganda document prepared in Vietnamese by Marxists and translated into English by bureaucrats,” as if the statements and press releases issued by the American military and government were any less bizarre. And after the rector of Hue University all but states that he would rather be subjugated by other Vietnamese, regardless of their political persuasions, than by Americans, Just calls it a “ploy” when the rector then asks, “What do you Americans want?” Surrounded by and apparently recognizing the futility of the American war, Just still cannot bring himself to accept that large numbers of Vietnamese would indeed rather be Red than dead.
All of this makes sense within the times in which Just was originally writing his book. What makes less sense is his foreword to the 2000 reprint. While he is willing to say explicitly that “of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years,” even these many years later he still cannot understand why. He seems still to think that what motivated those millions of Vietnamese who fought on relentlessly year after year against seemingly insurmountable odds was “the noble ideal of unification, and freedom to pursue their totalitarian dream” when in fact for most of them it was simply a desire to have the Americans stop killing them and go away.
Just, at least, did go away. In his foreword he writes, “The war had been my life, and I had no regrets, but it was time to turn to something else,” which turned out to be a successful and still active career as a novelist and short story writer. Though his most recent novel (Dangerous Friend, 1999) returns to the Vietnam War, as do some of his other novels and stories over the years, he seems indeed to have left the war behind and with no regrets.
Not so with Jack Laurence. After covering the war for nine months in 1965 and 1966, he returned to Vietnam for another nine months in 1967 and 1968, and then returned yet again for another four months in 1970, repulsed by the war yet unable to get free of it. And as his book makes abundantly clear, in all sorts of ways the Vietnam War has dogged his life ever since. Early on in the book, he says that writing it “revealed some secrets of survival, ways of escape from the trauma of past experience. This I hoped would be true not only for myself, but also for some of the people I know, for my country, for the Vietnamese, and for veterans and survivors of the war who have struggled as I have with the ghosts of Vietnam. By writing about the war I have learned how to survive it.”
Unfortunately, though each of its many parts is intrinsically fascinating and often illuminating, the cumulative weight of the whole begins to press down heavily long before one reaches the end. I fear that only the most dedicated afficionado of the Vietnam War is likely to plow through its entire length, though I hope I am wrong because the book really is a wonderful piece of work, in its own way as insightful as Just’s and in many ways more satisfying because it covers such a wide segment of the historical horizon—from soon after the arrival of American combat troops through the Tet Offensive of 1968 to the invasion of Cambodia.
Indeed, the one great failing of The Cat from Hue is its length. It goes on for nearly 900 pages. A more forceful editor at Public Affairs would have been doing Laurence and his readers a great favor by insisting that he cut the book by half, condensing many of the long conversations and summarizing events and experiences much more often than he does.
Nevertheless, Laurence writes with an earnest candor that is highly engaging, and one could spend an entire essay of this length trying and failing to touch upon all that is noteworthy. There is his account of Operation Piranha on the Batangan Peninsula, long a Viet Cong stronghold, in September 1965, during which the Marines encountered dozens of Vietnamese villagers who had taken refuge in a large underground tunnel and refused to come out. The standoff lasted all day, and finally Laurence and his camera and sound men had to leave. The next day, the military issued a statement under the headline “66 VC Killed in Tunnel Complex in Operation Piranha.” Mindful of the bad press resulting from the burning of Cam Ne earlier in the summer while Morley Safer recorded the whole scene, the Marines were not about to move against unarmed civilians with a TV camera crew watching. But as soon as Laurence left, the Marines had killed them all.
It was incidents like this—dozens of them, hundreds of them, day in and day out—that gradually forced Laurence to stop seeing the war as “an honorable cause” and himself as “a team player,” though the transformation was neither rapid nor easy. “These military versions of events were reported by the press without judgement,” he writes. “Truth and falsehood got equal weight. Editors called it “balanced reporting,”. . . . In the name of balance, all kinds of lies and distortions were reported.” Moreover, he observes, even when he and some of the other reporters concluded that the war had become “an uncontrolled campaign of violence and pain, a runaway rampage of murder and mayhem—there was no way to say it to the public. No one would print it or put it on the air.” (And this, remember, was the war that wasn’t censored—not officially, at least.)
So why did Laurence keep going back? “The official organs of the U.S. government,” he writes, “claimed that the allied war effort was rooting out the VC infrastructure, pacifying more and more villages, helping to train more aggressive South Vietnamese fighting forces, and building more democratic institutions of government.[Keith Kay, Laurence’s cameraman at the time] and I didn’t believe it. We thought what was happening on the battlefields of Vietnam was more urgent, more dramatic, more terrible than the news reports being broadcast on American television. We wanted to capture on film and sound the horror of the war. Our motivation was not high-minded or noble; there was nothing moral about it, not even political. Part of it was our empathy with the American troops. It seemed senseless for them to give up their lives for a war strategy that wasn’t working.”
Eventually, however, it became for Laurence a question both of politics and of morals. As he was preparing to return to Vietnam for the third time in 1970, another reporter accosted him, saying, “You can’t go over there and try and stop the war. It isn’t right. You can’t cover the war if you’re trying to subvert it.”
“You mean it’s okay to cover the war as long as you support it,” Laurence replied.
“It’s okay to cover the war as long as you’re objective,” his challenger countered. “It’s not okay to go over with the intention of condemning it. That’s not reporting, it’s editorializing.”
“How can you be objective about this war?” Laurence responded. “We’ve been killing people for five years for no reason other than to prop up a bunch of thieving Vietnamese generals who’ve made themselves rich on our money. . . . Communist menace, my ass. . . . It’s madness. We’re not going to win, everybody knows that. But we won’t admit it and go home. So we go on killing people, thousands and thousands of people, including our own. And for what? For pride! For the egos and vanity of a bunch of old farts in Washington! How can you be objective about that?”
Good question, and Laurence raises a lot of good questions in The Cat from Hue. He also does some things I’ve never seen done anywhere else. For one thing, he’s the only writer I can think of—combatant or journalist—who actually takes the time to consider the toll the war took on animals: “Meo [the cat from Hue that Laurence rescued and that gives the book its title] had a better chance of surviving than most animals caught by the war. Bombed, burned, shot at, starved, uprooted, displaced—animals suffered the whole vicious frenzy of violence that fate gave to living creatures in Vietnam.” For another thing, his account of the so-called “Hue Massacre” is one of the very few to take into account that large numbers of civilians were killed not by Communist liquidation squads—though it is all but certain at least some people died in this manner—but by the accidental misfortune of getting caught in the midst of the savagely violent house-to-house street fighting that engulfed the third most populous city in South Vietnam for nearly a month.
Laurence’s book is also fascinating for the occasional insights it gives into how some of our most visible and prominent journalists made their way to the top. At one point, for instance, Morley Safer—who was “anxious to get away” from the battlefield in any case—offered to get Laurence’s crew’s film footage and written text prepared and shipped to New York for broadcast. From the safety of Saigon, writes Laurence, instead of giving Laurence and his cameraman credit, Safer “wrote a single narration incorporating all the elements of the two stories that both of our teams had shot that day. . . . It was broadcast on the CBS Evening News and later won him many broadcast journalism awards for his skill and courage.”
How do I sum up so rambling a discussion, part book review, part confessional (my own), part discourse on the nature of war and journalism? In the midst of working on this essay—the most difficult, I think, that I have ever attempted to write—I received a letter from a man named Edward Worman. I’ve never met Ed. Our connection is through his cousin Kenny, who was a childhood friend of mine and who died in Vietnam in May 1967. Ed Worman himself was a U.S. Army combat photographer in Vietnam. Included in his mailing to me was a copy of a letter to the editor he had written that was published in a Rochester, New York newspaper. He was writing about Requiem, a powerful book of photographs from the Vietnam War, each one of which was taken by a journalist who was subsequently killed in the war. The editors had been war correspondents themselves, as had all of those who contributed essays to the book—including Jack Laurence, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Peter Arnett.
Quite remarkably, the editors thought to include photographs taken by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army combat photographers who had died in the fighting as well, along with civilian photographers from the United States, Japan, Thailand, France, Austria, and many other countries. But as Worman writes of U.S. Army and Marine Corps combat photographers in his letter, “The names of four of my friends and fellow photographers are on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Neither their work nor the work of Rochester native and Medal of Honor recipient Marine Corps combat photographer William T. Perkins Jr. is shown or mentioned in any way [in Requiem]. Another U.S. Army photographer, Verland Gilbertson, died in the battle of Ong Thanh, Oct.17, 1968. . . . The editors of Requiem, Horst Faas and Tim Page, have been making money off the Vietnam War for 35 years. That’s many more years than my friends had. . . . These soldiers deserve more than to be missing in action [in Requiem].”
I had been struggling for weeks to separate my heart from my head in order to be fair to Just and Laurence. When I realized I would either have to explain the feelings their books turned loose in me or not write about them at all, it made it a little easier. I would come clean up front, vent my spleen, and then get on with it. It almost worked. But then Ed Worman’s letter arrived and reminded me all over again that those civilians with the notepads and the cameras could come and go as they pleased while we were stuck in the mud and madness to survive as best we could. I can’t help it. It still hurts. I suppose it always will. And if those two journalists from that long ago Thanksgiving showed up at my bunker again, I’d throw them out again just as quickly. God forgive me. And the journalists, too. The good ones, at least.