Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Southeast Asia: A Correspondent's Vietnam Revisited 35 Years after the Fall of Saigon

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Southeast Asia: A Correspondent's Vietnam Revisited 35 Years after the Fall of Saigon

Article excerpt

Every conflict has its own scribes. Southeast Asia's had a singular take.

For correspondents on the scene of the past half century of foreign wars, there never was anything quite like the decade of United States military involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from the early 1960s to "the fall of Saigon" on April 30, 1975. Call it the best of times, the worst of times, or both, but journalists had a measure of freedom, and often luxury, in those days that they never had in the Korean War or World War II - and certainly don't see in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Memories of jumping on US Army helicopters or lumbering C-130 transport planes bound for distant landing zones and airstrips remind those who covered the war of how easy it all seemed. One letter from an employer to the Joint US Public Affairs Office on the ground floor of the Rex Hotel in Saigon (the name by which the historic core of Ho Chi Minh City is still known), or two letters from editors willing to vouch for freelancers, were enough to get a press card good for military transport, for cheap dining in military mess halls, for shopping at post and base exchanges, and even for using the Army post office. And hotels, markets, bars, and restaurants of Saigon and other Vietnamese cities offered services at amazing discounts for those who changed their dollars for local dong at "the Bank of India" - the catchall name for the money- changers from India who operated behind the cover of bookstores and offices.

"We had incredible freedom in Vietnam and Cambodia," says Dan Southerland, a former correspondent for the Monitor and United Press International (UPI). Mr. Southerland, revisiting Phnom Penh as executive editor of Radio Free Asia, a US government network that broadcasts news into Asian countries, compares the ease with which journalists ranged over the region with the practice now of "embedding" reporters with military units if they wish to cover whatever they're doing.

"What you need is both embedding and the outliers," he says, meaning news organizations should rely on reporters both within and outside military units. In general, he says, "I think they are doing the best they can."

Others, however, strongly disagree. "My instinct is not to get embedded," says Simon Dring, who reported on Vietnam for Reuters in the 1960s. He sees reporters as having done some of their "best work" in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the scope of military control. "It is very dangerous," he observes. "They take tremendous risks. They do fantastic reporting."

Journalists who covered wars in the states of former French Indochina faced many of the same risks but seem to have more of a sense of camaraderie than do those from later conflicts in Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Middle East. They share nostalgic memories of fine French menus mingled with the adrenalin rush of rocket attacks and firefights, distant battles and close-up coups.

Even mentions of the daily military briefings in Saigon, the "5 o'clock follies," evoke stories of tiffs with briefing officers, of reporters noted for relying more on the word of MACV, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, than on firsthand views from the scene. Those days, old-time correspondents concede, have disappeared into the mists of history while US forces wage war in very different environments, in which security is never certain and adventurous, off-base night life largely nonexistent.

Danger lurked in different forms, often where least expected, in Vietnam and Cambodia, where 69 correspondents, photographers, and local interpreters and assistants were killed. The first casualty was the female photographer Dickey Chapelle, killed by shrapnel set off by a booby trap in the Mekong River Delta in November 1965. The last was another photographer, Frenchman Michel Laurent, killed on April 28, 1975, two days before the surrender of the US-backed government in Saigon. …

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