A Failed Truth -- A Reporter's View of Vietnam

By Laurence, John | History Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

A Failed Truth -- A Reporter's View of Vietnam


Laurence, John, History Today


THE TRUE WAR RARELY GOT REPORTED. A multitude of facts were reported instead. Every day, scores of journalists based in Saigon wrote news stories about any aspect of the war they could find: battles, body counts, bomb strikes, bomb damage, pacification projects, progress reports, the rhetoric of generals and diplomats, details of the daily lives of American soldiers, some of the daily agonies of the Vietnamese. A mighty flood of facts flowed across the Pacific and washed over the American public each day in waves. The stories described in an endless flow of detail how Americans and Vietnamese lived, how they coped, what they thought, what they did and said in the war. Mainly, though, the reports described how people fought, suffered and died. The facts were reasonably accurate, double-checked, attributed to the proper sources, but they were not necessarily true. They weren't altogether false, just less than the truth.

We could spend a few hours or a few days in the field with an American infantry unit, interview the officers and men, write down the most interesting quotes, make close observations, note the poignancy, and write it up in a neat story with a beginning, middle and end. But it was only our impression of what was going on, a condensed version of what we saw and what we were told. Our knowledge was always limited by our lack of access to what was going on when we weren't there, and by our ignorance of the complex cultures involved, Vietnamese and American. We rarely heard what was said in private.

Even on television, which relayed more graphic images of the violence and its consequences than press coverage of previous wars, it wasn't reality. What viewers saw was a tightly edited version of a few moments taken out of twenty or thirty minutes of exposed news film that had, in turn, been recorded selectively. All the selections were made by two people, occasionally three: the reporter, the photographer, and sometimes the sound technician. We tried to be objective, but we had to make subjective decisions. We decided where to go, what to observe, what to film, what not to film, what questions to ask, and how to describe what they we saw and were told. We decided how long to stay with a story and when to get out of the field. Once the film got to the US, a producer and editor decided which extracts from the pictures and narration would be used on air, and their selections were judged and edited by others. Though everyone tried earnestly to write and edit honest representations of what was going on, what came out was only a limited version of the truth.

What readers and viewers in the United States could not know was the wild rage of men trying to kill one another at close range, shooting and shouting and reloading their weapons, the roar of gunfire like a long continuous explosion in their ears, the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the frustration of a jammed rifle, the panic, confusion and fear, the reckless valour, the anger and desperation, the shock of a gunshot wound and then the slow burning pain, the sensation of one's own blood flowing away, the uncertainty of survival, the palpable smell of death in the air. Readers and viewers at home could not experience a soldier's grief at the loss of a friend, or the intimacy and love between men, their loyalty to one another and their sense of honour even to the point of self sacrifice; the loneliness, sorrow, frustration and despair that soldiers feel at times in war; and also their obsessive hatreds, especially of the Vietnamese. …

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