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Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam.

Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam

There are those who genuinely believe that Morley Safer, all by himself, lost the Vietnam war. One of the persistent myths of that conflict is that television, by bringing the horrors of war into American living rooms, fatally undermined American public support for the war. The example most cited is Safer's emotionally wrenching August 1965 coverage of a U.S. Marine company putting the torch to Cam Ne hamlet while women screamed and cried in the foreground and their wailing children clung to their skirts in terror.

"The Cam Ne story was broadcast over and over again in the United States and overseas," Safer remarks in Flashbacks, his retrospective on his time as a Vietnam war correspondent and account of his 1989 visit there to make a CBS documentary. "It was seized upon by Hanoi as a propaganda tool and by scoundrels of the left and right . . . . To the Peace Movement it was The Revealed Truth . . . . To the war movement it was blatant evidence of the perfidy of journalism." Of course it was neither.

Intentional American cruelty toward the Vietnamese was far outweighed by the thousands upon thousands of acts of help and generosity resulting in a reservoir of good will toward Americans (as Safer discovered) that continues until this day. And vivid combat television coverage of "the horrors of war" was also a rarity. As Battle Lines, a 1985 Twentieth Century Fund report on military-media relations found, from August 1965 to August 1970, only about 3 percent (76 stories out of 2,300) of all the evening network news film reports from Vietnam showed heavy fighting, with dead and wounded displayed on the screen.

Morley Safer did not lose the Vietnam war. Neither did television, although there are those like George Will and William Westmoreland who would have it otherwise. Television is without parallel in showing the cost of war. But the cost of war, as with the cost of anything, has meaning only in relation to value. It is the objective of the war, Carl von Clausewitz wrote in 1832, that determines its value, and it is that value that determines the sacrifices to be made for it both in magnitude and duration.

For Americans the objective of the Vietnam war, and hence its value, was never made clear. That was true even on the battlefield. "Almost 70 percent of Army generals who managed the war," reported Brigadier General Douglas Kinnard, later chief of the Army's Center of Military History, "were uncertain of its objectives." No wonder the American people eventually judged the cost to be exorbitant.

But for the Vietnamese communists it was a different story, as Safer found during his return visit to Vietnam. "Your soldiers fought very well," said North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap (whose reputation, Safer notes, was based "on the bones of perhaps two million of 'the sacrificed'"), "but they did not know why they were here . . . ours were martyrs to a cause."

Safer got the same story from retired Colonel Bui Tin of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In one of the many contradictions he encountered, Safer was surprised to learn that Tin, a 37-year NVA veteran, has a sister living in Los Angeles. Not only that, but Colonel Tin had visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. "You must remember the kind of bravery those young men had," Colonel Tin told Safer. "They may not have had much understanding of the aims of that war. But the sacrifice, so much sacrifice, must not be forgotten."

Asked if it was hard to keep his own men motivated during their incredible hardships moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail, Colonel Tin replied, "It was not hard because our men had an idea, a cause."

But was the cause worth it? This was the question Safer posed to Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, one of the 16 founders of the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong. Dr. Hoa left the communist party in 1979, "thoroughly disillusioned with what she called the second-rate people who had taken over."

"I thought I was making a revolution for the people," she said. "I discovered that I made a revolution for a cause, for a discipline, for an ideology. The people had nothing to do with it."

Such disillusionment was mirrored in Safer's conversation with Pham Xuan An, an erstwhile correspondent for Reuters and for Time magazine in Saigon who turned out to be a Viet Cong colonel who had been working for the communists since 1944. "By 1975 I had few hopes left that the revolution would be anything but the disaster it has turned into," he told Safer.

"Why did your revolution fail so miserably?" Safer asked. An replied, "They called it a people's revolution. But of course the people were the first to suffer; the people were immediately forgotten. They still haven't remembered the people."

Asked if he had any regrets, however, An said "No. No regrets. I had to do it. This peace that I fought for may be crippling this country, but the war was killing it . . . . The Americans had to be driven out of Vietnam one way or another. We must sort this place out ourselves."

Safer has a way of illuminating the truth, even to a degree that he himself does not understand. His 1965 coverage of the burning of Cam Ne, for example, hit on the truth that American military forces were in a no-win situation when it came to subduing the internal Viet Cong insurrection. Their cruelties, as at Cam Ne, inflamed the passions of the American people; and their kindnesses undermined the very purpose they were in Vietnam to achieve.

Strengthening the Saigon government was supposedly the primary reason we were in Vietnam. But to the degree that Americans won the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people, they further alienated them from that very government. Yet another contradiction "in a society that had made contradiction its one unshakable precept."

And during his 1989 return, Safer again hit on the truth. The revolution had failed. As Pham Xuan An, the former Viet Cong colonel, told him, "All that talk of 'liberation,' 20, 30, 40 years ago, all the plotting, and all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists."

How sad. Yet in Dr. Hoa's and Colonel An's words, and especially their emphasis on the "people," there is hope. In 1990, "All power to the People" has taken on new meaning. People brought down the communist tyranny in East Europe. And people will eventually bring it down in East Asia as well.

Morley Safer. Random House, $18.95.
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Author:Summers, Harry G., Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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