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BOOKS: A DISASTER IN THE MAKING

4 minute read
Paul Gray

MEMORIES OF THE VIETNAM War, for those who did not serve in it, tend to be drawn from the image bank of television footage: a U.S. soldier applying a Zippo lighter to a peasant hut; a Saigon official shooting, on camera, a suspected Viet Cong terrorist through the head. But before the war escalated into a staple item on the nightly news, a much smaller conflict had played itself out in South Vietnam. This one pitted U.S. military brass and members of the Kennedy Administration against a small group of young print reporters assigned to cover a communist guerrilla insurrection in an Asian country that most of their readers back home could not locate on a map.

Once Upon a Distant War (Times Books; 546 pages; $27.50) concentrates on this early, internecine American sniping, which flared up obscurely in 1962-63 while much of the U.S. press concentrated its big guns on stories like civil rights, the space race and the Cuban missile crisis. William Prochnau, an author and former correspondent for the Washington Post, argues that the reporters in Vietnam during those years established “the skeptical standards for a new generation of war correspondents–and television as well. These were provocative, new, adversarial standards that broke from the old and would be used to chronicle America’s disaster in Vietnam and events long after.”

This thesis is hardly new–Vietnam has long been seen as the lesson that taught reporters to stop automatically believing government handouts–but Prochnau illustrates it in fresh, interesting ways. He recaptures the days when Saigon was still considered a journalistic backwater, a low rung on the promotion ladder for ambitious reporters. And he describes in considerable detail the reporters who arrived there in the early 1960s, particularly Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, Neil Sheehan of United Press International and David Halberstam of the New York Times.

All three, particularly Halberstam, won fame as pioneering antiwar critics after their Vietnam stints were over. But, says Prochnau, “the idea that this early group carried with them an antimilitary bent, polluting a generation of reporters, is one of the enduring myths of the war.” The author quotes Sheehan: “We all believed in the American cause.” Halberstam sent a message to James Reston of the Times: “I am impressed by what a bold and difficult thing we have undertaken here … we are going up against the best revolutionaries of our time on their home ground in a type of war which they have almost invented.”

Then what went wrong? Why did these reporters slowly lose their faith in a war they were eager to cover, even at the risk of their own lives? Prochnau blames Washington and Saigon for an unworkable strategy against the Viet Cong and for a refusal to listen to journalists who discovered it wasn’t working. The more the officials tried to bamboozle or stonewall reporters, the more they drove them to dig for themselves and to unearth a disaster in the making.

Prochnau belabors these familiar U.S. blunders and self-deceptions more thoroughly than now seems necessary. He has an annoying tendency to introduce a new character and then jump years or even decades ahead in time for an anecdote, leaving him constantly backtracking: “This all came much later” or “But all that came later.” And his grasp of English grammar is sometimes shaky. A husband named Mert Perry wakes to the sound of helicopters: “Next to him, the noise also awakened Darlene Perry.” A slim, original book resides within Once Upon a Distant War, hard to find but finally worth the effort.

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