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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969 (Part One) (Library of America) » User review

Contemporary accounts contains truth if you look for it

  • Sep 3, 2000
Rating:
+5
Reading this collection of Vietnam-era reportage from The Library of America is a stark reminder of the lasting power of the written word. Has it really been nearly a quarter-century since the black and white images of the helicopters taking off from the roof of the American Embassy faded from our television screens? Grenada, Panama, Iraq -- three wars and God knows how many humanitarian efforts (Somalia, Yugoslavia, did I miss any?)

Yet, the power of memory is such that it doesn't take much to bring it all back. Dipping into these compilations of writings about Vietnam -- the original reportage and memoirs in the Library of America volumes and the best of everything else in "The Vietnam Reader" -- shards of long-forgotten memories were struck just by reading the names of towns and villages. Khe Sahn, Haiphong: The words sound so completely alien, as if they had been coined by H.P. Lovecraft. They trigger memories of tracing the S-curve of the countries on maps in the newspapers, seeing the photographs in Life magazine -- for me, the 1960s will always be remembered as a series of black and white freeze-frames from the magazines, with color reserved only for the more silly stories found in the back of the book -- and hearing them recited on TV in the stentorian tones of Walter Cronkitethe who would recite the weekly casualty figures, printedon screen before the national flags, like baseball scores, while the family ate our meat loaf and mashed potatoes and waited for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom to come on at 7.

Time has passed and in this media-drenched age, so much history has been created, screened and absorbed over the past quarter-century. Vietnam and Cambodia became a backwater in the American consciousness, flaring up from time to time in response to specific, finite events such as the debate over Agent Orange, the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the screening of "Platoon" and "The Killing Fields," and the debate over draft evasion by Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich.

For those of us who were not there, who can view the war almost dispassionately, it is this lack of intervening history that makes these books so powerful and painful to read. This is a chronicle of a nation marching deeper and deeper into a war that the journalists there saw as early as 1965 -- about 150 pages into two volumes that total more than 1,600 pages -- could not be won the way it was being run. Historians will probably argue eternally if it could have been won at all. The repressive and corrupt South Vietnamese government could not win enough "hearts and minds" of the people to defeat the Viet Cong, and an invasion of North Vietnam could have triggered a Korean War-style invasion from China. It took nearly a decade for the United States to find the way out of that bloody tunnel and another two decades before full diplomatic relations were reestablished.

The casualty figures fly beyond the mind's grasp: 58,000 Americans killed, 4,400 South Koreans, 500 Australians and New Zealanders, 180,000 Cambodians (with another million perishing under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978), a half-million South Vietnamese and an estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

"Reporting Vietnam" starts with Time Magazine's report on the first U.S. advisers killed in South Vietnam, then continues chronologically with the inevitability of the Zapruder film of John Kennedy's murder ride. It moves with reports from the field -- a report on a Viet Cong massacre in the Ca Mau Peninsula, Neil Sheehan's account on South Vietnamese troops refusing to fight in the battle of Ap Bac, to Joseph Alsop's profile of South Vietnam's president Ngo Diem, from the scenes in Washington of President Johnson and his advisers defending their policies to Tom Wolfe's account of Ken Kesey disrupting an anti-war rally in Berkeley and Norman Mailer's self-important essay about the March on the Pentagon.

Then there are the incidents, as bizarre as any recounted in "Apocalypse Now." The American-run television channel presenting the German opera "Hansel and Gretel" backed by the American Chamber of Commerce; Gloria Emerson reporting the idea by the head of the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, challenging his fellow CORDS members to participate in the 1971 decathlon comprising "bridge, tennis, gin rummy, volleyball, nautical sports, Chinese chess, winetasting, close harmony, etc." (Emerson, who had spent two years in the field as a correspondent, quoted and commented on Richard Funkhouser's memo: "`It is always open house here at Bienhoa for competitors,' Funkhouser wrote, in that playful spirit so many of us in Vietnam really lacked.")

With respect to the Vietnam veteran who reviewed this collection, it should be pointed out that this is not a history book. It is a collection of contemporary articles, and as such there's nothing an editor can do to juice them up. The books are not meant to be read from front to back either. It is by dipping in and out that you can find rewarding reading.

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About the reviewer
Bill Peschel ()
Ranked #482
Bill Peschel was born in 1960 in Ohio, and grew up there and in North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism. At The Avalon Hill Game Company … more
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Wiki

In the last few years, with the publication of such books as Jacques Leslie'sThe Markand William Prochnau'sOnce Upon a Distant War, historians and former correspondents have been examining closely the role of journalism in the conduct of the Vietnam War. The two volumes ofReporting Vietnamoffer a trove of material for such studies. Part One contains combat-front writing by journalists who are well known to students of Vietnam War history--Stanley Karnow, David Halberstam, Frances FitzGerald, Bernard Fall, Neil Sheehan, Ward Just, and Zalin Grant among them. The hefty volume--which runs the gamut of journalistic genres, including hard news, analysis, profiles, think pieces, and interviews--covers the home front as well, from which the likes of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe have their say.

The collection opens with a fairly dispassionate account from Time magazine reporting the deaths of the first U.S. military advisors in 1959; it ends with the complete text of Daniel Lang's long New Yorker piece, "Casualties of War," the basis for Brian De Palma's controversial movie of the same name. In between are accounts of battles on the streets of Chicago and the Central Highlands, studies of the rise of black-power militancy on the ever-changing front lines, and perceptive portraits of ordinary soldiers on both sides of the war. Among the book's many highlights is Neil Sheehan's memoir of his change from hawk to dove as the war progressed. "I have sometimes thought," he writes, "when a ...

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Details

ISBN-10: 1883011582
ISBN-13: 978-1883011581
Author: Milton J. Bates
Publisher: Library of America

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