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Monday, March 17, 2014

One of the best books about Vietnam

Edit 3/17/14  The problem with adding links to reviews is that sometimes they disappear or get bought or whatever. Such is the case with the Dempsey link I reference below. Rather than refer you to a cathouse in Vietnam I dug up a copy of the original from the webarchive which you can reference here:  http://web.archive.org/web/20040210142213/http://thecatfromhue.com/doc.htm

Addendum 10/9/09. I just discovered there is a web site that tells the story of "Doc" Dempsey and a follow-up. Anyone who has read the book, MUST check out this website:http://www.thecatfromhue.com/doc.htm. If you haven't read the book, don't look at the website; it's a huge spoiler.
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What makes this book different from many of the others about the quagmire we call Vietnam is the unusual relationship that existed between the soldiers and the correspondents. After all, the correspondents could chose to leave the front. They fly up from their cozy little bungalows in Saigon or wherever, spend some time with the troops (admittedly often a very dangerous time) and then once they get the story, grab a ride on whatever chopper is heading back to "civilized" country. But there was a symbiosis that existed, too. The troops often used the reporters to get their side of the story out. Without them, our view of the war would have been a very different -- and wrong and censored and manipulated by those in control.

The symbiotic relationship that existed between correspondants and the military had its good and bad sides. In one instance, Laurence and his camera men were given a ride on an AE-1 bombing mission. There are directed to bomb a village by an officer in a spotting plane who gives them directions to bomb on one side of the river. On the other side and they will be bombing Cambodia. They proceed to do so and the plane Lawrence is in then strafes some villagers working in their gardens. Lawrence can't understand why the villagers just look up and watch.He asked the pilot why they didn't run. "Dumb bastards," was the reply. Later there are reports that some American planes had bombed and strafed a village in Cambodia. Of course he suspects that had done so and when he inquires, the PR people in the military ask him to please not write about it. He doesn't and the spotter later confirms he had made a mistake. But Laurence, by not reporting the error, had gained more trust and access to the stories - if somewhat expurgated. 

In April of 1970, Laurence and his crew were given permission to accompany Charlie Company on routine patrols near the Cambodian border. In a series of very personal and incisive interviews they got the men to reveal their personal feelings about the war and each other. Attitudes toward the war were changing drastically, not just in the United States, and those concerns were reflected among the men in the field. So much so, that the Pentagon was getting worried and the PIOs (public information officers,) who hitherto had been most cooperate, had either been replaced or become much more intrusive and pro- and pre-scriptive. Casualties were increasing as well as the NVA and VC became more bold. Firebases were being overrun, in one case an entire battalion was put out of action. There were clashes between the men and the officers. Laurence and his crew were present, and reported on, one incident where a newly appointed company commander ordered his men down a road, something the previous captain would never have done knowing such a tactic might lead them into an ambush. The men just refused to follow him. Laurence and his group reported it as a rebellion. The vigaro hit the Mixmaster when word of the story got back to brigade. Their PIO was reassigned to the front and a series of mendacious meetings occurred as the army tried to cover up what had happened. Official reports from command had a certain antiseptic quality to them: Reading the handout, I thought the language captured the American high command's view of the war precisely. The battle was described almost exclusively in statistics: military designations, units of men, numbers of kilometers, miles, millimeters, hours, minutes, numbers of killed and wounded, numbers of weapons, calibers, times, distances, sizes, quantities, amounts. Looking at the statistics, what I saw was a cold, impersonal, detached accounting of what had happened during those two hours of hell at the firebase, devoid of any sense of the human cost. How else for an establishment of obsessive number crunchers and quantitative analysts like Robert McNamara to describe a battle? Attrition, the number of enemy soldiers killed in each fight, meant more to them than anything, even as the total number of America's own killed and wounded had grown itself over the years to a monstrous statistic. . . No mention of the consequences of the battle on U.S. operations in War Zone C. No suggestion that with so many of its men killed and wounded, and so many others who survived in shock, 2/8 was crippled, too understrength to stay in the field. The MACV handout told a lot about numbers but nothing of the fury and heartbreak of the fight. The battle was sanitized with statistics. But honest reporting had negative consequences for the brass, as well: The public forgets. No problem. But it's within house the generals don't forget. They never forget. Reputations are affected. Promotions are affected." So that's it, I thought. They want us to cover up the rebellion because it will hurt their chances for promotion. No wonder they've gone to all this trouble to meet us. `When the four-stars in the Pentagon see your story,' the sergeant major said, `they'll go into orbit. They'll come down on General Roberts like a ton of bricks. And he'll come down on us twice as hard for making him look bad.'
A whole lot more is at stake than the reputation of just one company,' Coleman said. `You have to understand the way the Army works.'
`Yes,' I said, `I understand. 


Relations between the correspondants themselves were not always cordial. Morley Safer, in particular, was known for flying in at the last minute, collecting tapes and writing from others, then melding it all together under his own name and garnering all the credit. Many of them managed to get rich off the war. The official exchange rate was 70 piastres to the dollar, but the black market rate was 150. So they would get paid in dollars, exchange them for blackmarket piastres, pay their bills, and make a 100% profit. Some correspondants would rush to get the bills to pay them and left the country with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The pacification program, touted by Johnson and Ky was a joke. Laurence was sent to watch how one such operation was handled. The army moved villagers who had lived in the village for hundreds of years out so they could establish a base camp in a fertile framing area. The children were terrified of the shelling, and when they asked where they could go, they were told they would be flown some ten miles to a nearby town. The promised transportation did not come so they were forced to walk a considerable distance, They were housed in old Frenc barracks, which had no windows in blazing heat. There were no latrines. They were given condensed milk that was too old to sell on the black market and useless. They became sick and many died. That's how we made Vietnam a better place for the residents. At the end of 1965, the US had created 620,000 refugees in some 194 camps. Newsmen who reported the story were accused of being "commie-lovers." It was just newsmen who suffered. Officers who had the temerity to discuss missions that did not go quite as planned got demoted or reprimanded; they were helping the enemy.

The troops were often placed in impossible situations. Impossible to determine just who the enemy was, flown in to perform "search and destroy," watching their buddies be blown away by otherwise seemingly innocent civilians, it's a wonder any of them retained any vestige of humanity or sanity.

It was their practice to fly into a village and dump grenades down into village bunkers. Laurence describes one instance where the grenade killed a young pregnant woman who the villagers then lay out [b:on the road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320606344s/6288.jpg|3355573] and everyone passes by to view the body - and presumably pay their respects. When the captain heard about it, he ordered it stopped and to use smoke grenades instead. " 'These bunkers,' he said, 'They're part of the house. Everybody's got one.' " Lawrence continues, "The peasants were trapped. If they took shelter when their hamlet was attacked and hid in their bunkers they were vulnerable to being killed by grenades. If they stayed above ground when the helicopters came in, they were in danger of being killed by artillery, air strikes, or gunships."

In the meantime, in Saigon, corruption was rampant. "...that pervasive secrecy in the civil service was necessary to protect the intricate networks of graft, bribery, nepotism, payoffs, kickbacks, and other corruption that permeated South Vietnamese institutions. Nor did I understand that most Vietnamese saw us as transients, another temporary army of occupation, like the French."

Death was omnipresent and the soldiers and correspondents soon learned that "the mission was death, cold stinging death, an end in itself, the racking up of bodies -- an NVA platoon here, a VC sniper there, a hostile village here, a few civilians there -- like points on a scoreboard, adding to the illusion of a mission accomplished. . . .winning was more important than any other consideration -- morality not truth, is the first casualty of war -- and that the means, however loathsome, would be justified ultimately by the end, as long as the end brought victory." (Shades of Dick Cheney.)

In WWI, if a British officer became shell shocked he was evacuated to England to a special hospital. Enlisted men were shot for cowardice. Lawrence, trying to get his story filed from Hue, gets to an aid station where three Marines are just sitting on the floor, all of them with the thousand-yard-stare. I quote:
"The Marine had lived in the line for days, his body embedded in the earth until it became part of it, moving on his stomach like a snake, falling asleep exhausted and waking up tired. His senses had absorbed fire and blast, cries of the wounded from no-man's-land, the silences. Most of the men around him had been hit but he had not. He had seen his friend's bodies pierced by flying steel, their blood draining away in the dirt, and so finally the fuses of his modest self-control snapped. Some internal regulator switched off his external senses from the unbearable reality of the Citadel, shut down his nervous system, located a quieter, safer place in the dreamy interiors of his mind, and left him alone. He was finished with the war. His mind had taken refuge in another reality.
"Everyone who went through close combat in the war was like him to some degree: more or less isolated, cut off from reality, lost in other worlds, at least in the mind . . . Who's to say he was less sane than anyone else. . . My guess was that it had more to do with his tolerance for insanity."


Laurence had 3 tours of Vietnam and himself suffered extensively from PTSD. He was responsible for the award-winning documentary The World of Charlie Company.

I graduated from high school in 1965 and college in 1969. Right smack dab in the middle of the war. We were all terrified of the draft, and the war permeated everything we did. We all lost friends there. It's no wonder many of us continue to be obsessed with books about Vietnam and our role there. I don't know what the modal age of Goodreads participants might be, but I suspect many are much younger and might have difficulty understanding how the war and attitudes to it colored everything we did during those years.
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