by John Laurence, Author
John Laurence's 'The Cat from Hue' may be the finest book written about the challenges of reporting on the Vietnam War, or any war.
In the following excerpt, Laurence, a CBS News correspondent who reported from Vietnam, writes about the challenge of digesting the myriad "facts" of war - battles, body counts, the rhetoric of generals and diplomats - in a way that tells audiences what it all means.
Laurence touches on how one's perceptions, previous experiences, inherent biases and individual limitations make it hard to convey meaningful "truth." He also notes how states try to control wartime journalism by spreading propaganda and masking setbacks and failures.
May 19, 1966
The true war rarely got reported. A multitude of facts were reported instead. Every day, scores of journalists based in Saigon wrote news stories about any aspect of the war they could find to cover: battles, body counts, bomb strikes, bomb damage, pacification projects, progress reports, the rhetoric of generals and diplomats, details of the daily lives of American soldiers, some of the daily agonies of the Vietnamese. A mighty flood of facts flowed out from Saigon and across the Pacific each day and washed over the American public in waves: wire service bulletins, radio reports, newspaper stories, magazine articles, television pieces, still photographs, hard news, features, mailers, hometowners, sidebars, people stories, news analyses, editorials, commentaries, think pieces, radio and television documentaries—even books of history, policy and reflection. he stories described in an endless flow of detail how Americans and Vietnamese lived, how they coped, what they thought, what they did and said in the war. Mainly, though, the reports described how people fought, suffered and died. The facts were reasonably accurate, double-checked, attributed to the proper sources—most often MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam)—but they were not necessarily true. They weren’t altogether false, just less than the truth.
You could spend a few hours or a few days in the field with an American infantry unit, interview the officers and men, write down the most interesting quotes, make close observations, note the poignancy, and write it up in a neat story with a beginning, middle and end. Then send it off on the evening tide. But it was only a news story, your impression of what was going on, a condensed version of what you saw and what you were told, a description of what seemed important to you, a visitor. Your knowledge was always limited by your lack of access to what was going on when you weren’t there (secrecy being a weapon in war), and by your ignorance of the complex cultures involved, Vietnamese and American. You rarely heard what was said in private. All kinds of agendas were hidden. So, what you wrote was a version of what was happening, what you believed was going on. It was not the same as truth.
Even on television, which relayed more graphic images of the violence and its consequences than press coverage of previous wars, it wasn’t reality. Realistic and dramatic at times, but not real. What viewers saw on TV was a tightly edited version of a few particular moments taken out of twenty or thirty minutes of exposed news film that had, in turn, been recorded selectively. Extracts of an event. All the selections were made by two people, occasionally three: the reporter, the photographer, and sometimes the sound tech. They tried to be objective, but all through the process of gathering information and pictures for the story, often under deadline pressure, they had to make subjective decisions. They decided where to go, what to observe, what to film, what not to film, what questions to ask, and how to describe what they saw and were told. They decided how long to stay with a story and when to get out of the field. Even though they might be experienced journalists, they often disagreed. Once the film got to the States, a producer and an editor decided which extracts from the pictures and narration would be used on the air, and their selections were judged and edited by others. Though everyone tried earnestly to write and edit honest representations of what was going on, what came out was only a limited version of the truth. It was called “objective journalism” because what it reported was factually correct most of the time, but it was still highly subjective, more of a failed truth.
What readers and viewers in the United States could not know from daily journalism, what they could not comprehend, was the wild rage of men trying to kill one another at close range, shooting and shouting and reloading their weapons, the roar of gunfire like a long continuous explosion in their ears, the frustration of a jammed rifle, the panic, confusion and fear, the reckless valor, the anger and desperation, the shock of a gunshot wound and then the slow burning pain, the sensation of one’s own blood flowing away, the uncertainty of survival, the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the stench of the dead. Readers and viewers at home could not experience a soldier’s grief at the loss of a friend, or the intimacy and love between men, their loyalty to one another and their sense of honor even to the point of self-sacrifice, the loneliness, sorrow, frustration and despair that soldiers feel at times in war; and also their obsessive hatreds, especially of the Vietnamese, as if they were responsible for the misery of being there. We could not report these things in truth because we were not soldiers ourselves, we weren’t living it. We shared the risks and discomforts form time to time, but we were always outside the disciplined authority and therefore the true experience of wartime military life. We could leave the field when we wished. We did not have to fight. Although we risked being killed, we did not kill others. Our independence made us less perceptive of the actual lives and feelings of soldiers. Our stories never captured, for example, the mindless tedium of a year in the bush or a year at a military desk job. (Boredom is the antithesis of news.) How could a journalist express the cynicism of “the battalion commander’s package,” a collection of medals, including a Silver Star, routinely awarded to lieutenant colonels for serving six months of command time, whether they had earned it or not? In one division, award nominations for battalion commanders were written up by members of the Public Information Office in the standard language likely to pass the army’s decorations review board. Word got around. How could a journalist know or describe the effect of such dishonesty on the minds of young soldiers who were being ordered by the same ambitious commanders to sacrifice their lives for duty, honor and country?
The U.S. military information system tried to be helpful but failed. Although the armed services were more open to press coverage in Vietnam than they had been before, they also manipulated, influenced and censored coverage. They used a variety of measures. Like a large American business organization, they tried to disguise their setbacks, mistakes and failures. Public information officers, the army’s career public relations staff, shaped reality to fit their version of events. An enemy ambush became “a meeting engagement.” A rifle company that had been outmaneuvered and overrun “fought a running battle in hand-to-hand combat.” When the enemy finished fighting and withdrew with its dead and wounded, it was said to have “fled the battlefield.” These military versions of events were reported by the press without judgment. Truth and falsehood got equal weight. Editors called it “balanced reporting,” believing it fair to report both sides of a controversial issue, no matter how much the facts might be in contradiction, no matter how certain the reporter was of the truth. In the name of balance, all kinds of lies and distortions were reported.
We wrote our news stories in a relative hurry for quick consumption at home, superficial sketches of what we saw on the surface of events, honest without being true. Even when we thought we knew what was going on—that the war, for example, had evolved from a limited program of military and political support for the South Vietnamese government into 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. The language of our daily journalism was insufficient. For all the facts we poured out of Vietnam, we might better have served the truth by broadcasting some of the letters the GIs wrote to their families.
Of all media, perhaps still photography came closest to showing the truth. The best photographs captured a precise moment, holding it there for inspection, offering each image as a fragmentary symbol of someone’s reality. By the nature of their ambiguity, those pictures gave viewers the privilege of using their imaginations to interpret the reality. The very best pictures needed no caption.
Excerpt republished on ConcernedJournalists.org with permission from Perseus Books Group and Mr. Laurence. Excerpt appears on pages 402-405 of the paperback.