COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, APRIL 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
REPORTING VIETNAM American Journalism 1959-1975 (The Library of America; 1,715 pages; two volumes,$35 apiece.)
Reviewed by Gerald Nicosia
[This review first appeared in The Gate, a section of the San Francisco Chronicle, on Sunday, October 18, 1998 and is reprinted here with the author's permission.]
It has often been claimed that no one will ever understand what happened to America in the Vietnam years, but Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 refutes that as thoroughly as it could ever be refuted. The Library of America's two-volume set illuminates and breathes life into that period so powerfully that to read it straight through is virtually as shattering and mind-altering as going to war.
The Vietnam War has already generated thousands of mostly good books and will undoubtedly generate thousands more, but this book takes a special place among them because it is the work of reporters, those much-maligned journeymen at the bottom of the literary totempole.
The idea that journalists can create literature has usually been as offhandedly dismissed as the idea that, say, a nation could be ruled by children. But Alexander the Great took command at 18, and some of the writers in this collection began producing their own masterpieces at not much older.
Just the authors list in Reporting Vietnam is astonishing; it includes Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Michael Arlen, Tom Wolfe, Ward Just, Martha Gellhorn, Frances Fitzgerald, Harrison Salisbury, Jonathan Schell, Norman Mailer, Peter Arnett, Walter Cronkite, Mary McCarthy, Seymour Hersh, Francine du Plessix Gray, James A. Michener, Gloria Emerson, Hunter S. Thompson, Sydney Schanberg, Bernard Fall, Philip Caputo and Michael Herr. Never before had an American war been covered by such an outrageously rich pool of literary talent.
Some of the material included herein is standard fare on library bookshelves, such as Michael Herr's Dispatches or Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night, but a lot of it has simply yellowed away in the ephemeral dailies. Its cumulative weight forces hundreds of new insights into a war that had supposedly been milked dry.
The first overwhelming revelation is that, from start to finish, the journalists almost always knew more about the war than the politicians, and isn't that scary for a nation to think about? Hindsight lets us appreciate the handwriting on the wall in these pieces. Here's Neil Sheehan, in 1966, anticipating the course of events that would lead to the North's victory in 1975:
"The rate at which North Vietnam is infiltrating its regular troops into the South and the willingness of the United States to engage... the North portend several more years of serious bloodshed.... Washington cannot withdraw its troops from South Vietnam, as Hanoi demands, without making certain an eventual Communist seizure of power there and negating all the efforts of the last decade to maintain a friendly government in Saigon."
The question becomes: If the press was so much more astute and perceptive than the government, why didn't the government listen to the press? This too is answered in sometimes frightening detail. One of the most prominent leitmotifs in this whole tragic saga is the subwar between the military and the press.
In a brilliant New York Times piece, Sydney Schanberg shows how one of the biggest problems with the Vietnam War was simply the fact that it went on too long and thus became entwined with men's careers. " Some of these men (professional soldiers and diplomats) have been in Vietnam for a decade," Schanberg writes. "They know virtually no other life but the one of trying to make American policy come out right. To admit defeat would be to throw away the linchpin of their existence. But the press had reported their failures for them, and under such circumstances, no one can be surprised at their distrust and dislike of newsmen."
We learn that Vietnam correspondents were subjected to an endless series of insults to their intelligence. One example among thousands: The number of bombing raids against North Vietnam increased markedly between Nov. 8, 1971, and March 8, 1972; Seventh Air Force Commander General John D. Lavelle explained the increase to the press by saying, "The weather had improved."
The bombing stopped suddenly on March 8; General Lavelle said, "The weather had closed in again." The truth was that Lavelle had started ordering raids against unauthorized targets in the North under cover of so-called "protective reaction" strikes, and he stopped them as soon as he became the target of a congressional investigation.
Not only were journalists lied to (or, at minimum, misled by sanitized language) on a daily basis, but many also risked life and limb as part of their typical workday. This was a war where the truth could be found mainly in the, field, and the reporters, perhaps for the last allowable time, did much of their best work under fire, side by side with the grunts whose terrible losses and ultimately meaningless victories they reported. The casualty rate among the press corps was tremendous, and some of the war's greatest journalists, such as Bernard Fall, lost their lives in the line of duty.
Ultimately, though, Reporting Vietnam is not so much about the journalists themselves as it is a record of the profound and multifarious impact of the Vietnam War on America and its people. In this respect, Herr's savvy, street-lively prose from Dispatches may convey the psychological reality of the war better than any other single piece. (Nevertheless, inclusion of the entire 200-page book here is hard to justify in light of the omission of many fine other writers---Ron Kovic, Tim O'Brien, Paul Krassner, John Schultz, Richard Boyle, Gustav Hasford, Mark Lane and Robert Scheer, to name a few.)
Herr showed us the Vietnam War as a bloodbath scored to rock music: "The Sixties had made so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn't even have to fuse."
Throughout these nearly 2,000 pages we find almost every American social issue and social ill somehow gaining sharper focus through the lens of Vietnam. There is a great deal of moving material on the role of blacks and the irony of their participation in an overtly racist war almost every soldier quoted, even future Senator John McCain, refers to the enemy as gooks, dinks and slopeheads.
At several points during the war, blacks suffered the highest percentage of front-line casualties, and yet blacks were forever volunteering in large numbers for the most dangerous assignments. Black reporter Thomas A. Johnson comments wryly: "For the most part, Negroes in Vietnam say that the closest thing to real integration that America has produced exists here."
The list of astonishing scenes and stories in Reporting Vietnam would take a dozen pages to recount. Here is Mary McCarthy describing a social hour in a Hanoi bomb shelter; here is President Lyndon Johnson, following the debacle of the 1968 Tet Offensive, practically in tears as he tries to convince a room full of once-hawkish advisers that the war is not truly lost; here is Seymour Hersh's shuddering account of the unbelievably inhuman murder of women and children at My Lai; here is an absolutely gripping series of memoirs of the last few days in Saigon, in April 1975, as the South Vietnamese forces crumbled before the final, irresistible Communist drive on the capital.
What it all has in common is the "world of hurt" the grunts themselves used to talk of facing every day of their tours "in country." As Paul Krassner once wrote, "Although the war is over, the malady lingers on." But in this enormous body of almost a million words, there is a heroic determination to understand, and to redeem physical pain and loss with mental clarity. For that alone, we owe these writers a huge debt of gratitude. ##
* * *
WHITE CROSSES By Larry Watson (Pocket Books, $23)
Reviewed by W. K. Stratton
[W. K. Stratton is a writer living near Austin.]
Welcome to Bentrock, Montana, in the year 1957. From the outside, Bentrock appears to be a trim, upright community. It has its dirty little secrets, but those secrets are kept concealed by a code of civic denial. In this way, Bentrock is typical of small-town America in the years before the social upheaval of the 1960s and `70s.
But everything in Bentrock starts to unravel early on in Larry Watson's new novel, White Crosses. The junior high school principal, Leo Bauer, abandons his wife and son to run off with June Moss, a girl who has just graduated from high school. Unfortunately, they scarcely make it beyond the town limits before Leo crashes his car into a tree, killing them both. The truth of the situation hardly can be hidden from the townspeople who discover the wreck, but Sheriff Jack Nevelson will do his damnedest to preserve the social order.
As Jack sees it, he has no choice: "Leo had disturbed the order of things by attempting to leave Bentrock, to sneak off with a young woman who's not his wife. Once the other men in town figured out what Leo was up to, what would keep them all from running off? Why should anything remain as it had been? Why should the children go to school? Why should the baker prepare loaves of bread?"
So Jack falls back on the tried and true way of dealing with such matters: He invents a lie. Leo and June aren't the ones running off together, according to Jack's lie. It is really Leo's son, Rick, and June, who plan to elope. Leo is just helping them out by driving June to a rendezvous spot. Jack pressures Rick into going along with the fabrication.
But as it turns out, the falsehood solves fewer problems than it creates, and we are given a picture of what Mr. Watson has called "the dark side of Lake Woebegone," leaving us to wonder about the true sexual orientation of this character, about the number of sexual conquests of that character, and so forth. In the end, Jack's lie uncovers more than it conceals. And, rather predictably, it spells his own doom.
White Crosses is a curiously old-fashioned novel, reading a little like a relic of social realism written three or four decades ago.
Therein lies its biggest problem: The material does not seem fresh. Mr. Watson cuts no new ground here. Mr. Watson chooses to write from Jack Nevelson's point of view. Unfortunately, Jack is not a particularly interesting character. The other characters in the novel for the most part are flat. Though White Crosses is relatively short (just over 200 pages), the story unfolds slowly, almost to the point at which one wonders if this is a short story that's gotten out of hand instead of a true novel.
In the end, this slow-moving plot takes an implausible turn. Before he meets his demise at the hands of June's uncle, Jack is transformed into the very kind of character from whom he wants to protect Bentrock. But this transformation doesn't seem very convincing to me.
The local newspaper uses the term "ambush" in a story about a shooting in which Jack himself is wounded. Jack is dismayed by the term.
"It was a word out of wild west days, and it conjured up a place where outlaws and assassins lurked behind rocks and trees, waiting to rob or murder the unsuspecting citizenry. That was not Bentrock!"
Pity it wasn't. A little wild-west excitement would have done wonders for White Crosses. ##
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