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The War of Words

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Poet and writer W.D. Ehrhart is author or editor of seventeen books, including "Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir." A longer version of this essay will appear in the Winter, 2002 Virginia Quarterly Review

I celebrated Thanksgiving Day 1967 in an underground bunker at a U.S. 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. If there were angels in that place, they did not reveal themselves to me.

But there was fire from heaven, because Con Thien was well within range of North Vietnamese heavy artillery. We seldom ventured beyond our own perimeter. When we did, we were usually ambushed by North Vietnamese infantry or mortars. Mostly we stayed inside our bunkers inside our wire and hoped that nothing big landed on us.

We did not like leaving the relative safety and protection of the bunkers unless we really had to, but on this Thanksgiving Day, somebody far up the chain of command--President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, for all we knew or cared--had ordered that all of America’s fighting men would get a hot turkey dinner. Ours had been flown in by helicopter and was, we were informed by our intelligence chief, waiting for us at the battalion aid station.

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None of the four inhabitants of my bunker was eager to take the president up on his kindness, since it meant slogging several hundred meters through sucking mud a foot deep, all the while exposed to enemy artillery fire. We were content to stay home and eat C-rations.

But the gunny informed us that this was an order, not an invitation. And so--with much grumbling and profanity--we donned our helmets and flak jackets and set off down the aptly named Death Valley to the aid station, where turkey and all the trimmings were heaped into an indistinguishable pile in our too-small mess kits.

It rained all the way down and all the way back. We didn’t get shelled, but we did return to the bunker with food that was stone cold and heavily diluted with rainwater.

While we were still musing on 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. Close on his heels came another man with cameras dangling from his neck.

Taking a notepad out of his breast pocket, the first man explained that they were journalists on assignment for some magazine to do a story about Thanksgiving at Con Thien. “A little something to warm the hearts of the home folks, huh?” my bunkermate Floyd Graves said. “Yeah, something like that,” the journalist replied.

“Get out of our house. Now,” Graves said with quiet menace. We got a good laugh out of how quickly they disappeared. It wasn’t really all that funny, I suppose, but when you’re having no fun at all, every little bit helps.

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We did not like journalists very much. They would come to a place like Con Thien by helicopter, stay a few hours and then go away again, back to places with silverware and mixed drinks and clean sheets. They got paid a lot more than we did, and they came and went as they pleased. Even the most experienced journalists were mostly just a burden. 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 therefore could not defend you.

Moreover, by November 1967 I had long since come to realize that what I was reading in Time and in Stars and Stripes and in my hometown paper bore no resemblance at all to what I was seeing and doing day in and day out. I did not then understand just exactly what was happening in Vietnam, but I knew what I read in the papers wasn’t even close. Today, journalists are credited with having focused attention on the war in a way that ended it sooner, but 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.

Next month will see the release of “The Cat from Hue,” a Vietnam War memoir by John Laurence, the CBS News correspondent who covered the war between 1965 and 1970. In his book, he describes a brief visit (his second of three) to Con Thien in September 1967.

Laurence writes that “the biggest reason for going back to Con Thien was that ... 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.”

As his memoir makes clear, Laurence, after extensive exposure to the war, became thoroughly repulsed by it and tried to bring its horrible truths to the attention of the American people in whose name it was being fought. He was without question one of the most honorable journalists in Vietnam.

Yet, reading an advance copy of his memoir in conjunction with the recent re-release of former Washington Post war correspondent Ward S. Just’s 1968 memoir “To What End” touched off a firestorm of resentment inside of me, however irrational. Laurence writes about how CBS correspondent Harry Reasoner, safe in his Saigon hotel room, “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” at Gio Linh, a Marine outpost similar to Con Thien.

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A few hours. I spent 792 hours at Con Thien. While I was there, my best friend Gerry Gaffney had his knee shattered by North Vietnamese artillery while crossing Death Valley. My bunker companions Graves and John Wallace were both wounded by shrapnel. Another scout, Mike Bylinoski, was killed. The one time I went outside our wire, I ended up lying face-down in an open field while the North Vietnamese, who had the field and the hedgerows on three sides sewn with explosive booby traps, hammered us with mortars. All around me, Marines screamed and shouted and cried for their mothers.

And when my battalion left Con Thien, we did not repair to the air-conditioned bar of a Saigon hotel to drink gin and tonics; we merely took up new positions south of Quang Tri. Within five weeks, I was fighting in the streets of Hue, where I was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.

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. How saddened he was by the deaths of colleagues. Am I really supposed to care?

For all that I am now almost 53 years old and 34 years removed from the war in Vietnam, there is still a wounded place deep inside that will forever be the 18-year-old Marine who watched journalists come and go as they pleased while I and my friends had to stay until we’d served our time--or were severely wounded or killed.

Certainly, through the long course of the war, reporting by 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 discomfited and confounded the Washington powerful. But very little of the total news coverage from the Vietnam War was in any way negative. For every Just or Laurence, there were many other journalists who questioned nothing. 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 Rolling Stone whose book “Dispatches” is considered a Vietnam War classic, 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.” It’s a remarkable statement given that earlier in the same piece Herr wrote, “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.

In “To What End,” Just recalls how a soldier, when informed that Just would be accompanying his patrol, “became helpless with laughter 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 patrol deep into enemy territory? The second interpretation seems not to have occurred to Just, although he subsequently writes that when the patrol was ambushed and nearly wiped out by the North Vietnamese, he made no attempt to reach a wounded man screaming for help, yet immediately began calling for a medic when he himself was wounded. Later in the battle, he lost both his pack and the pistol he had been given, but, he writes, “I had my camera and my notebook.” What soldier or Marine in his right mind would willingly accept someone whose allegiance was not to the men around him, but to a camera and a notebook?

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It is not easy for me to write objectively or with detachment about journalists and the Vietnam War. No doubt I demean the professionalism and dedication of men like Laurence and Just by disparaging their experiences, and I demean myself by belittling their genuine hardships and losses. In truth, I have a higher opinion in my head of the better journalists who covered the war than I do in my gut. And I understand 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 has given us cause to look back on journalism from 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 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. The only 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, memoirs like “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.

But even that is not the last word. In the midst of working on this essay, I received a letter from Edward Worman, a former U.S. Army combat photographer in Vietnam. He included a copy of a letter to the editor he had written that was published in a Rochester, N. Y. newspaper. Worman was angry about “Requiem,” a powerful book of photographs from the Vietnam War, each one taken by a journalist who was subsequently killed in Vietnam or Indochina. Worman bitterly noted that while the book includes photos by civilian journalists from all over the world, and even photos by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army photographers, it includes none by U.S. military combat photographers.

“The names of four of my friends and fellow photographers are on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.,” Worman wrote, “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.”

I had been struggling for weeks to separate my heart from my head in order to be fair to the journalists who covered the war. 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.

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