Archive for the ‘Vietnam Project’ Category
He’ll talk to just about anybody. He has interviewed doctors who worked among the Montagnards in the Central Highlands. He has interviewed pilots who flew secret missions for the CIA. He has interviewed the helicopter jockeys who gave Nixon his last ride from the White House to San Clemente. He has interviewed Pat Sajak, the “Wheel of Fortune” MC, who turns out to have been a real-life counterpart of the Robin Williams character in the film, Good Morning, Vietnam! He has interviewed Vietnamese veterans who fought for the communists. He has even interviewed some of the Canadians – by his conservative estimate there were ten thousand of them – who fought in the war for Uncle Sam.
Yablonka also has sought the company of the reporters and photographers who covered the war. Perhaps he feels a bond with them because he’s a journalist and photographer himself. In his conversations with Nick Ut and Catherine Leroy, for example, the reader senses affection as well as respect.
Nick Ut’s story is a dramatic one. His brother was on assignment for the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press when he was killed in a firefight in the Mekong Delta. His sister-in-law urged Horst Faas, the AP photo chief, to hire Nick in her husband’s place: the family desperately needed the income. Faas balked at the idea. Nick was in his mid-teens, too young to be exposed to the risks assumed by reporters. Faas did, however, agree to employ the boy in the darkroom – where he thrived. Read the rest of this entry »
Horst Faas photographed a father cradling a child badly burned by napalm. And another of a father holding up a tiny corpse, either in supplication or in protest, while South Vietnamese soldiers impassively returned his gaze. He photographed a South Vietnamese officer, his expression savage, pushing the point of a knife into a prisoner’s abdomen. When the Vietcong caught a South Vietnamese battalion in an ambush at Binh Gia in December 1964, Faas was the only photographer to record the aftermath: one image shows a single South Vietnamese Ranger sitting amid the corpses of his comrades. It’s almost indescribably sad.
These were among the pictures he took that the Associated Press assessed as acceptable for distribution. Others were too grim to send out over the wire. And then there were the pictures that he didn’t take because they would have been too intrusive. Newsmen weren’t censored in Vietnam, he said, so sometimes they had to censor themselves.
Remarkably, for a man who knew far more than most of us do about man’s capacity for inhumanity, Faas seemed to me to be warm-hearted, generous and humane. When, two months ago, I sent him an email message by way of his French publisher, he responded instantly. “Of course I will help you with your project,” he wrote me. “Let me know if and when you would like to contact me.” What I didn’t know then was that he was desperately incapacitated: paralyzed almost from the neck down, able to move one hand just enough to peck at a keyboard. We skyped. Read the rest of this entry »
Vincent Lam, following the success of the story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, has placed his first novel in reputedly the most Chinese of cities (but not in China) in a time of war and upheaval. The novel’s dramatic backdrop draws on Lam’s family history and on other sources, including contemporary travelers’ tales.
In the mid-1950s, a French traveler who wanted to write about the traditional Chinese way of life was advised to go, not to China, but to Vietnam. Specifically he was directed to Saigon’s twin city, Cholon. China was undergoing revolutionary upheaval under Mao Zedong, but the two-hundred-year-old Chinese community in Cholon had resisted change. It was, as the Frenchman wrote, a kind of “cultural island,” which had “retired within itself and, except for business dealings, [remained] utterly indifferent to the rest of the world.”
So the traveler, Gontran de Poncins,* booked passage on a tramp steamer that made stops in Djibouti, Colombo and Singapore, before it sailed up the Saigon River. On disembarking, he was greeted by the expatriate who had undertaken to be his guide and it was the guide who arranged for him to take a long-term room at the Sun Wah hotel in Cholon. There, as the only Westerner amid the indigenous throng, de Poncins was obliged to reconsider his preconceived notions of the Chinese character.
He had thought of the Chinese as reserved, discreet and—inevitably—inscrutable. What he found instead was a cheerful, noisy, uninhibited and intrusive society that seethed and swirled around him in a kind of orderly chaos. Certain conventions took some getting used to. He was expected to leave the door of his room open, for example, whenever he was in residence. To close it was to exhibit a deplorably antisocial tendency. By keeping it open, however, he was fully exposed to the comings and goings in the lobby, which, it turned out, blended seamlessly with the street. Men arrived at all hours to engage in games of mah jong, while women exchanged gossip in gaggles and their children ran half-naked and unhindered around them. Men urinated in a hole in the floor, vendors offered their wares from door to door and prostitutes strode unembarrassed behind the boys who had been sent to fetch them. De Poncins, as an intrepid and inquisitive explorer, was gratified to discover a world that was utterly foreign to him. Read the rest of this entry »
There was a solid turnout of CBC personnel for the launch yesterday (April 17) of a book by one of their own. Nahlah Ayed has written a memoir that integrates her personal history with an account of her reporting from the Middle East.
The personal part started in Winnipeg, where her Palestinian parents settled after immigrating to Canada, and was followed, remarkably, by a seven-year sojourn in a refugee camp in Syria, to which the family returned so that the children would be imbued with the language and culture of their people. Eventually, they came back again to Canada where Nahlah, then a teenager, completed high school, attended university and embarked on a career as a journalist and broadcaster. For a time she was based in Ottawa where she worked for the Canadian Press.
She was with CP when she accompanied then-Prime Minister Chretien on a tour of Middle East countries and came up against the heritage that she had never really left behind. Her book, A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring (Viking, $32), chronicles many journeys over a period of years that encompassed the aftermath of 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a period as resident correspondent based in Beirut. Over the years, Ayed witnessed and reported on sectarian division, anti-government riots, political murders and all-out wars. And, sometimes, through the tumult and terror, she glimpsed the yearning and restlessness that ultimately erupted in the extraordinary popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.
She seemed a little overwhelmed by the turnout yesterday. In her brief remarks, she compared the gathering to a wedding because so many of her friends were there. Perhaps the comparison was apt for another reason: because there was so much emotion invested in what she has written, because it meant so much.
One day in 1992, Tim Page got in touch with Horst Faas. He had a bunch of photographs he wanted to show him.
Both men were veteran war photographers although, in other respects, they were radically different. Page, younger than Faas by a decade, had revelled in both the spiritual and pharmaceutical excesses of the 1960s. He had stumbled into picture-taking at the end of a crazily eventful road trip that ended in Laos when his funds ran out. He discovered more or less by accident that he had a knack for composing pictures when he picked up a camera. That knack led him to neighbouring Vietnam where he was fearless to the point of recklessness when following the troops. He was famously the model for the Dennis Hopper character in the film, Apocalypse Now. Exuberant and a little mad.
Faas belonged to a different generation. He was a child in Germany during the Second World War, had experienced bombing from the point of view of those on the ground looking up, and had acquired fortitude and survival skills of a high order. He served an apprenticeship in photography in Germany, tried a stint on London’s Fleet Street, and then was sent as a staff photographer with the Associated Press first to Algeria and then to the Congo. The African assignment was a bloody one. Faas thrived in it, however, snapping, among other notable pictures, the last known image of nationalist hero Patrice Lumumba before he was killed. Faas was subsequently dispatched to Laos and, from there, to Saigon, where he set up shop as the AP’s photo editor. He remained a fixture there for most of the war.
It was almost twenty years later that Page approached Faas with his sheaf of photographs. He was just back from a trip to Hanoi where he had purchased them for about a dollar apiece. The North Vietnamese, he said, were talking about their photographers and about the many who had lost their lives. Faas looked at the pictures, thought about it, and said, “Page, let’s do a book on the dead from the other side and from our side. But all of them, Vietnamese included.” And this was the origin of Requiem,* one of the most beautiful and moving collections of war photographs ever compiled. Read the rest of this entry »
The correspondents who covered the Vietnam War often were cantankerous and always competitive. They were divided by generation, by political inclination and, arguably, by their capacity for human sympathy. It was rare to find a topic upon which all could agree. There was one thing, however, which they all, without exception, noticed and commented on… Read the rest of this entry »
Vietnam famously was the war in which newsmen were free to go wherever they wanted, write whatever they felt like and file it without interference. No one’s blue pencil or black marker marred the typescripts that were sent out over the wires. And this was a problem, or so critics have argued repeatedly. The unfettered press abused its privileges and consequently subverted the military campaign with its misguided—or simply wrong—reports.
General Westmoreland accused David Halberstam of harbouring a grudge against Westy’s predecessor as commander of American forces, Paul Harkins. (He wasn’t wrong: Halberstam regarded Harkins with undisguised contempt.) The American ambassador in the early 1960s, Frederick Nolting, couldn’t understand why François Sully of Newsweek focused on “the hole in the donut” in his reporting rather than on its fluffy surround. (“Because there is a hole in the donut, monsieur l’ambassadeur,” Sully said.) The influential Washington columnist, Joseph Alsop, called the Saigon-based correspondents “young crusaders.” He said they cobbled together their own version of events in the cushy confines of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel. Marguerite Higgins, another veteran columnist, wrote that Halberstam and his colleagues wanted the Americans to lose in Vietnam simply to demonstrate that their wrongheaded interpretation of the war was correct. Their critics all agreed that the young reporters (who were not, in fact, especially young) were inadequately supervised. It’s just possible that some of their sneering seniors resented the freedoms the young whippersnappers enjoyed.
The judgment of top administration figures was no less harsh than that of their representatives and surrogates. President Kennedy leaned on Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, to have Halberstam reassigned. President Johnson often was enraged by what he saw on television and read in the press. He blew his top when CBS reporter Morley Safer filmed Marines setting fire to farmers’ huts at Can Me in August 1965. He lost it again when AP’s Peter Arnett described the dismay of leathernecks cut off from their cohorts in Operation Starlite. The pattern was repeated over and over. When Arnett quoted a major in the Mekong Delta saying that the town of Ben Tre had had to be destroyed in order to save it, a planeload of colonels was sent to find the officer who had uttered the words, with the presumed intention of making him eat them. (They didn’t and he didn’t.) Read the rest of this entry »
“I cannot seem to convince the embassy that this is Vietnam – not the United States of America,” Mark Moyar (in his book, Triumph Forsaken) quotes President Ngo Dinh Diem telling Marguerite Higgins at the beginning of August 1963. “Without using authoritarian methods, Diem explained, he could not prevent his countrymen’s inherent factionalism and the Communists’ scheming from tearing the country apart. ‘Your press and radio mock the idea of discipline and respect for authority and glorify so-called civil liberties and the right to criticize and the need for political opposition,’ Diem said, ‘but this country is in a life-and-death struggle,’ and ‘even Western democracies suspend civil liberties during war emergencies.’”
This is the kind of claptrap uttered by dictators everywhere to justify repressive measures. In Diem’s case, those measures included rigged elections (in September 1963 he won 98 per cent of the popular vote in a country that was at least 25 per cent under communist control), the demotion of competent generals whom he regarded as a threat, the imprisonment or exile of politicians who would not toe the line and total control of the Vietnamese press. These are not the sorts of civil liberties commonly suspended by Western countries in a time of emergency. But Higgins thought then, and Moyar thinks now that Diem’s authoritarian charter was A-okay. Read the rest of this entry »
Back in the 1960s, the word “revisionist” when applied to American history referred to a handful of iconoclasts who were reinterpreting America’s past as an epic tale of imperial overreach. Practitioners included William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber and Howard Zinn. Their disciples could be found on campuses everywhere. (Some made their way to Canada: I was introduced to the revisionists by Geoffrey Smith at Queen’s University in the early 1970s.) The contention that America was in Vietnam as part of an aggressive worldwide strategy that combined quasi-religious zeal and base self-interest became conventional wisdom in the anti-war movement. Staughton Lynd, a SNCC activist who worked with Zinn, went on to teach at Yale and joined SDS leader Tom Hayden on a “fact-finding” trip to Hanoi in December 1966, was one of many who were inspired by the revisionist version of America history. That trip and his convictions cost him his job.
The imperial thesis has fallen out of fashion but revisionism hasn’t. Indeed, all history, in a sense, is revisionist. Historians constantly look for new sources of information and approach old sources from a different angle. Occasionally a few of them come together to assail what they regard as a failed interpretation and replace it with a bolder, better and more compelling one. Something like this is happening (again) with respect to the Vietnam War.
Mark Moyar in the first of a projected two-volume history, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, claims that he is engaged in an enterprise designed to demolish what he identifies as the orthodox school. This, in his view, consists of historians who see America’s involvement in the war as wrongheaded and unjust. So described, they might be thought of as Williams’ descendants: revisionists chastened but more deeply entrenched. Moyar, however, sees the war as noble but “improperly executed.” He feels, in other words, like Keyes Beech, the long-time Far East correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, who later grumbled that Vietnam was a war America “should have won.” Read the rest of this entry »
R.W. “Johnny” Apple was the New York Times’s Saigon bureau chief in February 1967 when he mischievously compared William C. Westmoreland to George B. McClellan. Westmoreland, the American general commanding U.S. forces in Vietnam was, in Apple’s opinion, overestimating the size of the communist armies that opposed him just as McClellan, as chief of Lincoln’s army early in the Civil War, overestimated the South’s military strength. For McClellan, the erroneous calculations were an excuse for inaction. For Westmoreland, they were the rationale for endless pleas for reinforcements. What Apple left unsaid was that Abraham Lincoln soon got fed up and fired McClellan. Westmoreland was tolerated by Lyndon Johnson for three years. And then he was kicked upstairs.
Apple’s sly allusion was about as tough as any published remark directed at Westmoreland by reporters during the Vietnam War. Historians also have been generous.
And yet, Westmoreland masterminded a strategy that killed as many civilians as it did guerrillas. He made refugees of at least a million of the people whose country he was supposed to be defending. He devastated large tracts of their land and left behind a legacy of poison and unexploded ordnance that still was claiming lives forty years later. The cost to America was not negligible either.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam, roughly a third of them on Westmoreland’s watch. Three times as many were wounded. More tellingly, he took a professional, well-trained army and left it demoralized. The short tours of duty stipulated by the general meant that old mistakes were endlessly repeated: newly arrived officers were clueless; GIs counted the days as their tours wound down. Neither officers nor men were committed to seeing the job through. The thousands of operations they undertook in search of an elusive enemy underlined the futility of their presence. The obvious resentment of the indigenous population towards them undermined the GIs’ instinctive goodwill. All these factors wore away at discipline. Not only did Westmoreland fail to win the war, he made winning any war harder.
And yet correspondents covering the war rarely disparaged Westmoreland directly. The closest they came to criticism was, as in the case of Johnny Apple, to query the numbers. The body counts, crossover points and estimates of enemy strength all were scrutinized closely. Westmoreland was often accused of excessive optimism, almost never or lying. No one said in so many words that his strategy was misconceived even though it was.
The general wasn’t attacked. Instead, both he and the administration attacked the press. The reporters were accused of seeing only the hole in the donut, of failing to accentuate the positive (Johnny Mercer’s lyrics were invoked in a State Department memo) and of sabotaging the team. When it was all over, there were critics who claimed that journalists, not the military, had lost the war.
It’s by no means certain that the war was winnable. It did not have to be lost so bloodily or so badly. Westmoreland set the course that others followed. His mistakes survived him. And yet, he got off lightly because others took over from him and because potential critics were made to back off. History, meanwhile, tends to present the general in the image he fashioned in his memoir: not as a fool but as an earnest patriot who gave it his best shot.
Cities sometimes have evil sisters. Ottawa has Hull. Windsor has Detroit. Saigon’s wicked sister was Cholon.
Cholon was where the Chinese community settled. It was also the home of one of Vietnam’s gangster sects, the Binh Xuyen. In the late 1940s, the leader of the Binh Xuyen, Le Vien, reputedly purchased the office of police chief from the playboy emperor, Bao Dai. So Cholon was where the vice was. Asia’s biggest house of ill-repute, the House of Mirrors, was in Cholon. So were any number of opium dens.
It was from his house in Cholon in March 1955, a house improbably (but really) surrounded by a crocodile-infested moat and populated by a menagerie that included a python and leopard, that Le Vien, with tacit French support, launched a short-lived rebellion against the newly installed government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The dumpy president surprised almost everyone (though not, perhaps, his CIA adviser, Edward Lansdale) by suppressing the attempted coup. In extirpating the gang, large swaths of Cholon were laid waste by Diem’s forces and thousands of people were dispossessed.
American servicemen and journalists later went to Cholon to escape the war. David Halberstam, New York Times reporter in 1962 and 1963, described evenings at a restaurant in Cholon, the Diamond, where ravenous crews of reporters would gather to consume enormous platters of cracked crab followed by similar quantities of baby pigeon – “wondrous little birds, perfectly done, placed with admirable spacing, equidistant from each other, like 30 or 40 miniaturized turkeys” – all washed down with beer made perfectly cold not in a fridge but a freezer. At the Diamond, for a few hours, the reporters could find refuge from the hostile mission functionaries and from Diem’s secret police.
When the coup that finally unseated Diem was launched at the beginning of November 1963, Diem and his brother Nhu took refuge with a friendly merchant and then in a church in Cholon. They were betrayed by a woman who saw them enter the church and murdered on the way back to Saigon.
At least some of Cholon was friendly territory for the communists. When Vietcong cadres infiltrated the city, intending to foment a popular uprising at the beginning of Tet in 1968, they met with some success in Cholon. They set up popular committees and tried and executed collaborators in the streets. American and South Vietnamese forces beat back the attackers at most of their targets in Saigon – the embassy, the palace, the airport – but found it harder to roust them from Cholon’s narrow streets. They ended up, as so often happened, by summoning air support, bringing in helicopter gunships and fighter bombers. Some sixty or seventy city blocks were reduced to blackened dust.
Notoriously, it was possible in those early days of February 1968 to order up cocktails at the roof-bar of the Caravelle Hotel and watch the city explode a few miles away. British photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, no fan of the war effort, caustically observed that the hotel bar “offered a grandstand view of Phantom jets dropping bombs and napalm on the homes of the only pro-American Vietnamese in Saigon.”
It’s hard to know where public sympathy really lay. The Vietcong committed atrocities during the Tet Offensive. Not everyone looked forward to the communist purge. But the brutality of the counteroffensive was stunning. For the Saigonese who witnessed it, the razing of Cholon must have been terrible, like watching a sibling being tormented and killed.
More thoughts on the significance of the Tet Offensive…
A cliché of the Vietnam War is that it wasn’t about territory: The enemy was everywhere. There was no front line. The refrain was patently true – at least from the American point of view. Westmoreland measured allied progress in terms of dead bodies rather than land. His search-and-destroy operations routinely scoured the same regions over and over again. They racked up more or less big scores in terms of corpses but planted no flags.
But of course the war was about territory. The very definition of sovereignty begins with control of the land. Westmoreland’s emphasis on body counts diverted attention from the fact that, for millions of Vietnamese peasants, the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) was irrelevant. It was the Vietcong who recruited their children into the guerrilla forces, collected taxes and patrolled the roads.
The Americans and the GVN could sustain the fiction of sovereign control for as long as the cities were secure. The Tet Offensive blew that pretence to bits. Eight major cities, more than thirty provincial capitals and the administrative centres of more than sixty districts were either bombarded or occupied in the first week of February 1968. In Saigon itself, the bombing, mortaring, shooting and, ultimately, razing went on for two weeks (and then flared up again in “mini-Tet”). In Hue the fighting continued for almost a month. If neither Americans nor South Vietnamese were secure in the capital and a major city, what was left?
Westmoreland’s and the military’s defenders point out that the Communists were, in fact, pushed back from of the cities. They admit that the damage done to regain control was severe but argue that it hardly compares to the damage done in World War II to liberate parts of Europe. That’s all very well, but Europe before liberation had been occupied by the Germans for years. They were dug in and dislodged with difficulty. Once beaten, the allied line moved forward, drawing constantly closer to Berlin.
The difference, in Vietnam, is obvious. In repelling the Communists during the Tet Offensive, the Americans and their Vietnamese ally were destroying vast swathes of the urban centres they already owned – or so it was supposed. And when it was over, in rural regions, it was still the Communists who reigned.