Morris: Vietnam, a Black Mark on American Journalism
by Leo Morris
I wasn’t in-country for the Tet offensive, but I didn’t quite escape it. I missed the carnage but had a front-row seat for the human detritus it created.
I had been medevacked to the U.S. Army hospital at Camp Zama, Japan – sick, not wounded. Even during the war, the place usually had more infirm than injured, but at a certain point we couldn’t help but notice the influx of the halt and the hurt.
And they kept coming. Young men – boys, really – wounded in more ways than could be counted or purged from dreams. They wandered the halls and leaned on the walls, stoically waiting for their turn at examination or rehab. They seemed so damned cheerful to me at the time, but in retrospect I suspect I was seeing in them something I didn’t have – the beginning of acceptance of things that couldn’t be changed.
They are not always with me, but sometimes they visit, these ghosts from the past, especially when I get too full of myself and think I know something with absolute certainty. Doubt is the beginning of wisdom, they remind me.
It is said today that Tet was actually a decisive military victory for the U.S., and I can believe that.
The North Vietnamese threw everything they had at us in a surprise, coordinated attack on 10 cities. But by the time it was over they had lost 33,000 men and most of the territory they held. It should have been a crippling blow.
But the major media in this country portrayed it as a crushing American defeat, and that turned Tet into a turning point of a different kind. Taking its cue from journalistic icons like Walter Cronkite (we were “mired in a quagmire”), Newsweek and the Washington Post,the public turned decisively against the war, Lyndon Johnson dropped out of the presidential race, and the peace movement went into high gear.
I can believe that, too. I’m not so sure, though, how the press could have been so wrong – it had been barely more 20 years, after all, since Hoosier reporter Ernie Pyle had so earned the trust of American GIs that they considered him one of their own. Perhaps it was an overreaction to having been misled so often by U.S. authorities who kept claiming victory was just around the corner. Perhaps it was arrogance that came with the power of being able to beam a war into American living rooms day after day. Perhaps it was simple journalistic ineptitude.
What I have trouble wrapping my head around is the probability that if the press had gotten it right the U.S. command would have really pushed its advantage, driven into North Vietnam and brought the war to a quick end. Vietnam always seemed as much a political exercise as a military one, and politicians’ motives and goals are never as clear as those of the generals.
After I mustered out of the Army, I watched Vietnam on television along with the rest of the country, the struggle limping on month after month, year after year, our leaders trying to figure out the best way to lose the war, and I got angrier and angrier
Finally came those awful hours in late April of 1975, one of the most ignoble days in American history, as we watched the United States evacuate Saigon leaving the people who had believed in our promises to their fate. More than 58,000 American lives were thrown away, for nothing. I knew my ghosts were watching, too, but I wondered if it was with anger or the sadness of acceptance.
Looking back, I can believe the Vietnam War was a mistake. But whom shall I blame? A government that had good intentions but made bad policy? Politicians who cared more about public opinion than the national interest? A public that daily saw the blood and gore Ernie Pyle’s readers never had to experience? A press that failed in its mission?
None of them. All of them.
Looking ahead, I wish there were one lesson we had learned from Vietnam: War is not something to be fooled around with. It should be engaged only when every single other option has been exhausted. And there is no excuse on this earth for starting a war without the intent of winning it as quickly and with as few losses as possible.
Watching the tortuous pre-surge incrementalism of the war in Iraq, I doubted we had learned it. Trying to understand why we are still in Afghanistan, I know we haven’t. Trying to comprehend what promises to be an endless “war on terror” – which is a tactic, not a cause – I fear we never will.
Time will eventually quiet my ghosts – and the tens of thousands of others from Vietnam left to wonder what they sacrificed for. But there will always be replacements for them.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Morris was stationed with the U.S. Army at An Khe and Long Binh, the Republic of Vietnam, from August 1967 to August 1968. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.