What “Vietnam” Did to America

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Ethan Casey delivered the following talk in the Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University on September 29, 2016.

I’ve been asked to speak today about journalism during the Vietnam War. There’s a lot to say on that important subject, and all I can do in the time we have is to emphasize some of what I consider most important about it, and why. Journalism is the act and practice of documenting history in the moment, as we witness it unfolding around us. It’s helpful to begin by reflecting on the hoary adage that journalism is the first draft of history, because the 1960s were the first draft of the painful and confusing times that we’re currently living through. And if there’s any one thing that the storied Sixties were really all about, it’s the Vietnam War. As an older friend told me, in exasperation and only after I pressed him, what the Sixties were about was “how the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”

It was sometime in the mid-1990s when my friend said that to me, in a letter sent from Detroit to Bangkok, where I was living. My friend was in his mid-forties then – younger than I am now. During the period we refer to as “Vietnam,” he had been a draft-age antiwar protester. I don’t actually know if he dodged the draft, or if he avoided military service by some legitimate means such as a student deferment. But, knowing that particular friend, I’m sure that if he had been confronted with the obligation to serve as a drafted soldier in Vietnam, he would have done his best to dodge it one way or another, just as many other young American men did in those years. Not only did my friend prefer not to die in Vietnam; like millions of other Americans he also believed fervently that the war was wrong.

And that is why his words were so revealing to me: “The blood of the war got on everyone’s hands,” he said, “and we couldn’t wash it off.” We couldn’t wash it off – my friend was implicating everyone, on all sides, including himself. And then he added: “It’s still all over the place.” My friend wrote those words to me two decades after the infamous moment that we call the Fall of Saigon, and since then another two decades have passed. And one thing I’m here to tell you today is that the blood of the Vietnam War is still all over the place. And so, now, is the blood of several more recent and even more terrible wars. And one reason we still can’t wash it off is precisely that we as a society never allowed ourselves to understand just how and why the Vietnam War went so horribly wrong.

So a great deal is at stake in understanding, as the title I’ve given this talk has it, what Vietnam did to America. Before we go any further, I want to be clear that by “Vietnam” I mean the war, not the country. Vietnam, the country, never did anything to America, and that’s part of what was wrong about the war in the first place. In any case, in order for a society to understand its purposes and its place in the world, it needs to be able and willing to transmit an honest and self-critical awareness of history from one generation to the next. And that is another thing that “Vietnam” – the war, not the country – did to America: the shame of the way the war ended and the pall of its aftermath made the generation of my parents – all of them, I believe, regardless of whether they had supported or opposed the war – avert their eyes from their own country’s ugly and unflattering recent history. That collective act of political, moral, and historical dishonesty was a grave disservice to Americans of my generation, an abdication of parental responsibility. And its consequences are still with us, in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria. They’re also with us just down the road in Dallas, where, on July 7 of this year, a young man named Micah Johnson killed five police officers and injured nine others with a sniper rifle, using the training he had received in the United States Army. There can hardly be a more telling proof of how closely linked our overseas wars are to our increasingly damaging and dangerous social, racial, and partisan politics on the American home front.

The blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.

The failure of the generation before mine belongs to a specific historical moment. I was born in 1965. That was the very year that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan and a Democrat, sent the first officially acknowledged U.S. combat troops to fight in Vietnam. It was ten years later, in April 1975, that the helicopters lifted off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, all too literally abandoning the many Vietnamese who had been brave or foolish or unlucky enough to align themselves with the American-led fight against the Communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies known as the Viet Cong. In April 1975 I was nine and a half years old, and suffice it to say that I had a lot to learn.

I still had a lot to learn as late as 1993, when I was 27 years old and went to live in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, where my plan was to establish myself as a journalist. Literally, my whole career plan was just to show up and start acting like a journalist. But showing up is a big part of what it takes to be a journalist. The only other personal equipment I had were a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin, a whole lot of initiative, curiosity, and ambition (amounting almost to recklessness), and a desk job as a copy editor at the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper. I had wangled that job because I knew a guy. In journalism, it’s often helpful to know a guy (or gal). As I toiled away every evening until midnight in front of a computer screen in an air-conditioned office building, all around me in the fascinating Asian megalopolis of Bangkok, elsewhere around Thailand, in nearby countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma, and further afield in India and Pakistan, real live history was happening every day. It took me less than a year to figure out what was wrong with that picture, whereupon I quit my newspaper job to become a journalist, and I began traveling obsessively all around Southeast and South Asia.

*

It was during that same period that I met Clyde Edwin Pettit, while waiting in line at a Burger King on Silom Road in Bangkok. It’s not an exaggeration to say that what Ed Pettit and his book The Experts taught me was nothing less than how to read both journalism and history.

By way of explaining why I consider that a very big deal, allow me to repeat the definition of journalism that I offered at the beginning of this talk. Journalism is the act and practice of documenting history in the moment, as it unfolds. Journalism is not the same thing as media, as Professor Jay Rosen of New York University helped me to understand. Media are a complex of technologies and commercial and political institutions that function as vehicles for communicating not only journalism but also disinformation, propaganda, gossip, entertainment – the nonstop avalanche of all the mediated crap that infests our minds and souls via the smartphones we now carry wherever we go. Journalism, by contrast, is a way of paying attention, a personal discipline or practice akin to meditation or even prayer.

By this definition, Clyde Edwin Pettit was a journalist of a very high order. To perform journalism at a high level, you have to believe strongly, as Ed did, in your own integrity and dignity as well as, by extension, in others’ integrity and dignity as free individuals, with points of view and interests distinct and independent from those of states and other institutions. In his Foreword to The Experts, his great book that each of you is being given today, Pettit wrote movingly of “young men sent to foreign fields to shed blood, each cell stamped with the genetic uniqueness that once made them individuals.” When I asked how he came to write his extraordinary January 1966 letter to the influential Senator J. William Fulbright, who represented his home state of Arkansas, Ed explained:

Slowly the idea was forming in me, as a contrarian, that it made no sense. If you hear something a hundred times, you’re inclined to believe it. If you hear it a thousand times you begin to wonder: am I mad, or is the rest of the world crazy? I made the perilous assumption that it was the rest of the world.

What Ed proudly called “the Fulbright letter” is included as an appendix to the new edition of The Experts, beginning on page 499. Please read it. Ed’s motivation in writing it was American patriotism of an old-fashioned and unabashedly high-minded kind that was already all too rare fifty years ago, and that anymore is almost an endangered species. Ed was a free individual who considered himself answerable first and foremost to his own conscience, and his patriotism arose from an earnest belief that America’s fundamental reason for existing as a country is to allow and nurture such freedom of conscience and responsibility in every individual American. Ed wrote the Fulbright letter in a hotel room in Bangkok, where he was bedridden following an accident in which a plate-glass window fell or was dropped and badly injured one of his legs. Lying there, he had a lot of time to think about the two weeks he had just spent in Saigon interviewing, as he put it in the letter itself, “over 200 people from colonels to privates, journalists and businessmen, Vietnamese, and English and French colonials.” Such interviewing – such listening, to people with multiple and conflicting points of view – is one of the basic tasks of journalism. Having done that work of a journalist, Pettit had earned the right to draw and express his own conclusions as a free individual governed by his own conscience. “I am very frightened,” he told Senator Fulbright.

I could talk about bright spots; there are many. I do not think they override the stark, terrifying realities of a stalemate, at best, purchased at inconceivable cost and coupled with humiliating setbacks and losses. Then always, and I do not say this lightly, there is the unlikely but ever-present possibility of catastrophe. The road from Valley Forge to Vietnam has been a long one, and the analogy is more than alliterative: there are some similarities, only this time we are the British and they are barefoot. Too long have we taken our invincibility for granted.

Pettit’s letter made a great impression on Fulbright, with historic repercussions. On April 6, 1966, on the floor of the United States Senate, Fulbright exercised his prerogative as a senator to have it read into the Congressional Record. That meant that it became part of the permanent record of the deliberations of our country’s democratically elected leaders. Calling it “a rather remarkable letter from a constituent of mine who was in Vietnam,” Fulbright told the Senate: “Since late developments in Vietnam indicate further deterioration of the situation I think this letter takes on a prophetic light.”

Pettit told me that, at the time, he was alarmed and frightened that Fulbright had gone public with his letter. It spawned headlines such as “Fulbright Reveals Note from Vietnam Saying U.S. Losing” and “Arkansan Doubts Viet Nam Victory.” At the time very few Americans, and even fewer who had as many well-placed friends in Washington, D.C. as Pettit had, were willing to say publicly such things as he had said in his letter. Pettit had a lot to lose. But by the time I got to know him three decades later, he was extremely proud to brag of both his authorship of the letter and his association with Senator Fulbright. Fulbright, he told me, “had the courage, the manhood, the good citizenship to say – hundreds of times, in private conversations and on television – ‘I was a fool. I was lied to about the Gulf of Tonkin,’ and to admit his mistake.”

*

So the Fulbright letter was Clyde Edwin Pettit’s first masterpiece of journalism. His second masterpiece was The Experts. The book consists of nothing but direct quotations from mostly American politicians, professors, and press pundits, all purporting to understand what was happening, or to know what was going to happen, in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. The chronological arrangement is crucial, because the overall effect is of a narrative of mounting horror and increasingly tortuous self-delusion. “Most people pick it up and flip through it randomly looking for Top Secret reports,” Pettit told me. “Or they look in the index to find themselves. But the whole point is that you’re supposed to read it straight through, from front to back.”

Thus the book’s broader purpose is as an exercise in paying a different kind of attention to contemporary history as it unfolds, rather than allowing oneself to be led by the nose. The Experts is a merciless documentation of the American establishment’s ongoing attempt to lead the American public by the nose. The book is especially effective because of when it was published: 1975, the very year the war ended in exactly the way the American establishment had all along insisted it never would do, and the way that Pettit had seen coming: at inconceivable cost and coupled with humiliating setbacks and losses. The ever-present possibility of catastrophe that Pettit had been polite enough to call unlikely had turned out to be all too likely all along. Too long had we Americans taken our invincibility for granted.

Pettit’s project with The Experts was not ideological, except in the sense that, as one reviewer described it, it was “subversive to the very idea of government and leadership itself.” The succinct way he put it to me, partly for effect but also in earnest, was that “all governments are bad.” In his Foreword to The Experts he waxed more eloquent:

The Vietnam War is a textbook example of history’s lessons [he wrote]: that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern; that war is necessary to any elite corps, which has no reason to exist without it; that even free peoples are inevitably led to death and maiming because they do not have the intelligence to realize that all wars are against their interests; that there may be some dark and perverse tropism in our very natures that makes us turn toward the senseless destruction of war; that wars, once started, may become inundating forces of nature, inexorable and beyond the control of any of the participants.

*

So, what did “Vietnam” do to America? I think this talk has given you a sense of how I would answer that question. But what’s more important is that you think your own way toward your own answer. And, in order to think properly, you need first to read books of history and journalism. There’s no shortcut; you have to read, and you have to read books. One thing I can tell you for sure is what my friend told me: the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place. For more perspective on that assertion, read Neil Sheehan’s landmark book A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. But I’ll also suggest that perhaps we suffer, in a sense, from too much hindsight on the Vietnam War. We suppose that it’s ancient history, that it’s safe to read about it as such, but it’s not. To understand why the Vietnam War is not safely in the past, it’s helpful to try to reconstruct how the American establishment and public perceived events as they happened, with all their lack of perspective at the time. Hence, I think, the value of The Experts. Hence also the value of books like William Prochnau’s darkly fascinating account of the ostensibly prewar years 1961-63, Once Upon a Distant War, and of the pair of volumes from the Library of America titled Reporting Vietnam.

Both Prochnau’s book and Reporting Vietnam prominently feature the famous reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, as well as contemporaries of theirs such as Malcolm Browne and Homer Bigart. Part of the point of reading about Sheehan and Halberstam in Once Upon a Distant War, and of reading their own pieces from that early period of the war in Reporting Vietnam, is to see that they didn’t start out famous and august. They started out as what I became thirty years later in Bangkok, and what I assume many of you want to become: fallible but gutsy and honest reporters who wrote what they knew, and who knew what they knew because they did the hard and sometimes dangerous work of finding it out. If you want to be like Sheehan and Halberstam, or like Woodward and Bernstein, that’s what you need to do.

We can’t end this talk on the journalism of the Vietnam War without respectfully noting the passings, earlier this year, of two of its greatest practitioners, Michael Herr and Sydney Schanberg. Herr’s book Dispatches is one of the truly great works of journalism, a must-read that rises to the level of literature. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, was the main personage in the Oscar-winning 1984 film The Killing Fields, about the genocide in Cambodia that was a direct result of the American war in Vietnam. Also portrayed in that film (by Julian Sands) is the British reporter Jon Swain, whose book River of Time is a gripping and authoritative account of the momentous events in Cambodia in 1975. What makes River of Time authoritative is that Swain was there: he witnessed and experienced the events that he writes about, and the book is constructed directly out of his notebooks. Being there, showing up and bearing witness, is the essence of journalism.

Another figure in The Killing Fields, Al Rockoff, portrayed inaccurately in the film by John Malkovich, had a purity of vision (literally, Rockoff being a photographer). Rockoff’s personal definition of integrity entailed refusing to make a living from his photography. Somehow to Rockoff, making a living was tantamount to being a sellout, but he did have a point. When I knew him in the 1990s he was still obsessively chronicling Cambodia’s history in photographs, purely and living because he felt called to do it, and when he wasn’t in Cambodia he was living off his modest U.S. Army pension in a trailer somewhere in Florida. He was curmudgeonly, sported a ZZ Top beard, and was rumored to enjoy special privileges, befitting his status as a living legend, at the salubrious Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia on the bank of the Mekong River. He appreciated the genuine interest that I expressed in his work, and I cherish memories of looking at it with him under the ceiling fans at the Foreign Correspondents Club, on afternoons when both of us had repaired there from days spent on the streets of Phnom Penh, witnessing and documenting Cambodia’s coup d’etat of July 1997.

*

Sheehan and Halberstam and their coterie of friends and rivals in Saigon in the early 1960s set the tone for how the Vietnam War would be covered and laid the groundwork for Herr, Schanberg, Swain, Rockoff, and many others to follow. One who, like Clyde Edwin Pettit, became a mentor to me in Bangkok was Gavin Young, an awesomely peripatetic foreign correspondent for the once-great British Sunday newspaper The Observer. Some of Young’s articles from Vietnam are included in his book Worlds Apart. Like Pettit, Young found himself returning to Vietnam in the 1990s because it had affected him personally, and late in life he wrote a moving book about his friendship with a Vietnamese family titled A Wavering Grace. By the time I knew him, Young had retired from The Observer to write books of intrepid but whimsical and leisurely travel including Slow Boats to China and Slow Boats Home, bestselling accounts of his journeys around the world entirely by sea. “If you’re a war correspondent as I was,” he told me, “you go to war after war after war. In the end you get fed up with seeing the agony: refugees, killing, fear everywhere about you. It’s a very good thing to be traveling with ships, without any worries about refugees or wartime or anything.”

To me, the point of journalism is inseparable from the point of living as an alert human being in this world. We have an obligation to pay attention, and we have no excuse for failing to understand, even if paying attention and gaining understanding bruises our souls, as it did Gavin Young’s. Inevitably today, we lack perspective on the events – including the wars – that are going on now, just as Clyde Edwin Pettit’s contemporaries lacked perspective on Vietnam. What is the true or long-term meaning of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria? What is the meaning of this year’s extraordinary presidential election? What is the meaning of the discontent festering on the streets of America’s cities? We can’t know, yet.

One thing I do know is something that Pettit told me, many times and insistently: Everything is connected to everything else. And that is exactly why it’s extremely important both to pay attention to all that’s happening around us now – and paying attention includes asking awkward questions whose answers we might not want to hear, as Pettit did – and to study history. We actually can get a pretty good idea of the meaning of present events, if we want to, and if we study the past. The key is that we have to want to. And there is no better place for any American to begin that extremely important project than Vietnam.

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