I wasn't very political in college but I do remember noticing that this Vietnam War seemed to be a sort of unsolvable problem. At the time, I didn't see how we could pull out and I suppose I bought into the domino theory. But I didn't see how we could win. It just looked bad. When I graduated from college in 1965, I went to Japan to study and spend a year abroad. On the way back from Japan I had a round-the-world ticket that permitted me to stop anywhere I wanted. I had a certain ambition to be a writer of factual pieces so I decided I would go to Vietnam. I remember reading Bernard Fall's latest book on the plane, which was my little crash education. When I landed in Vietnam I was the very definition of a pest -- a graduate student who had no knowledge and who vaguely thought he might like to write something.
Somehow or other it occurred to me that François Sully might be in Vietnam working for Newsweek. He was a French reporter I'd met at Harvard when he was a Nieman Fellow so I called up the Newsweek office and, lo and behold, he was there and invited me over.
It was a loft-like office with a back room full of the pseudo-military gear that journalists wore. When I greeted Sully I had Bernard Fall's book under my arm and mentioned that I had been reading it. There was another fellow at a desk who said, "Could I see the book?" So I went over and gave him the book.
He opened it up and signed it. It was Bernard Fall!
So here were these two ebullient, life-loving Frenchmen, brave and brilliant journalists, both. And just out of sheer high spirits, they took me up -- this nuisance, this pest, this ignorant graduate student. They used their connections to perform a kind of miracle. They persuaded the military to give me a press pass on the somewhat deceptive basis that I was there for the Harvard Crimson. I had actually written for the Crimson, and very possibly they would have wanted me reporting for them, but we made up that little tale.
Well, if you had a press pass in Vietnam, it was a free travel ticket all over the country. You could hitchhike rides on helicopters and transport planes, wherever you wanted. It was a meal ticket. It was a hotel reservation anywhere. It gave a fantastic freedom to see what you wanted to see. I think the reason was the cooperation between the press and the military during the Second World War, and the Korean War had carried over for a while to Vietnam. So just a day or two later Fall and Sully called me up at my ratty hotel and said, "Something is going to happen. It's all secret, but you can go and see it if you want. Come over to such-and-such a place at four-thirty A.M. and there'll be a bus." These two wonderful journalists, both of whom later lost their lives in the war, gave me this one-hundred-and-eighty-degree life-changing gift, which set me on the journalistic path I've been on ever since.
We got on a bus and were taken out to an airstrip where we were flown off in a C-5 to a big dusty field in the jungle. A spiffy major with an easel told us we were there for Operation Cedar Falls -- the largest military operation of the war to that date. The idea was to clear out the infamous Iron Triangle [a 40-square-mile patch of jungle with its southernmost tip just a dozen miles north of Saigon], which had been the source of so much woe for the South Vietnamese army and a revolutionary stronghold since the war against the French. The American military wanted to clear it out once and for all. On the major's easel there was a great menu of things they were going to do. One of the items on the list was a helicopter attack on the village of Ben Suc. When we got to that item on the list, I asked, "What's going to happen to the village after it's attacked?" The major said, "Well, we're going to destroy it and move the people out."
"Then what?" I said.
"Well, we're going to bulldoze it and bomb it."
So I thought, okay, I'll just follow that particular story from start to finish. It didn't feel like a singularly adventurous or bold thing to do. And I do recall one little act of cowardice. When they asked which of the 60 helicopters we wanted to go on, many of the journalists were clamoring to be on the first or second helicopter. I was delighted to be on helicopter number 47. You could say that the operation came off beautifully. It worked exactly as planned. The helicopters flew in, moved the people out, destroyed the village. Mission accomplished. But to what end? Most of the reporting about Operation Cedar Falls told you how many Viet Cong were captured or killed, and those may have been true facts. But they left out what I believed was fundamental -- that we were destroying villages and throwing people off their land.
The unmistakable fact was that the general population despised the United States and if they hadn't despised it before we arrived, they soon did after we destroyed their villages. Our whole goal was to build up a political system that would stand after we left, with a functioning government supported enough by its people so it could fight on its own. But our policies were destroying whatever support that government might ever have had, which was probably about zero to begin with. The more we'd win on the battlefield -- and we did just about every day in just about every battle -- the more we lost the political war.
The more we "won," the more we lost. That was the paradox of Vietnam. American soldiers went over thinking they were freeing an enslaved people from their oppressors. I do think the Communists were pretty oppressive. However, it just so happened that they were the representatives of national dignity and that seemed to trump whatever oppression they dealt out. Whatever the reason, the people by and large supported them and they were the de facto government of a very considerable part of South Vietnam. So the idea that the Viet Cong were a sort of mysterious band of people that could be rooted out and separated from the population at large just didn't have a basis in political reality.
One thing that struck me very powerfully was the capacity of both the officer corps and the press corps to see things in terms of a story they had brought with them to Vietnam and not to see what was actually going on under their noses. For example, when I came back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967 I went up to Quang Ngai Province and saw that the place was being leveled by American bombing. But when I got home, I remember reading a story in the New York Times about how the marines had built a hospital in this area. Apparently the Hiroshima-like devastation that was around that hospital was not visible to the reporters of the New York Times because they weren't telling about that.
And it wasn't a subtle thing. The fire and smoke was pouring up to the heavens. You didn't have to be a detective or do any investigative journalism. The flames were roaring around you. I mapped it all out and seventy, eighty percent of the villages were just dust -- ashes and dust. But that was not the story. The story was still how we were going to help the South Vietnamese resist the attack from the North. In Vietnam I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.
When I first went back to Vietnam that summer I joined the journalistic pack, the "boys on the bus." What they were covering at the time was this fraudulent election, a completely farcical election. One day we were all taken to a village for a campaign rally, but the candidates somehow didn't make it. Apart from the journalists, the only person who showed up was an ancient guy going around with a bullhorn shouting that there was going to be an election rally. This was supposed to be democracy in action and we were the only people there.
To report on that as if it was something real would have been absolutely absurd so I just took the next helicopter out and somehow decided to begin covering the air war in the South -- the air slaughter, really. People had been writing about the bombing of North Vietnam, but the air war in the South was far more devastating and not getting much attention.