Journalism’s Vietnam Syndrome: Thoughts Upon Brian Williams’s Return to Work

One of my best friends in Vietnam was Ron Gawthrope. In 1969, we were both assigned to the Headquarters Battery of the 41st Artillery Group. Home base for us was Camp Fidel, a small compound 800 meters off the south perimeter of Phu Cat Airbase, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon near Quy Nhon.

Ron seemed to have nothing to do. He floated freely around camp, chatting through his days, comfortable with both officers and enlisted men. He rarely if ever left camp. Sarcastically, I asked one day—Ron, what do you do? “Press Liaison” for the 41st, he answered. Explaining, he said he occasionally filed stories about what was going on in the 41st area of operations in the Central Highlands; and, he added, his job was to “intercept any news reporters getting this far, give them a story and put them on the first plane back to Saigon.”

It is Ron’s words that come to mind when I hear stories contrasting the freedom to cover the war enjoyed by reporters in Vietnam versus the more restricting conditions imposed on their coverage of the wars in the Middle East today. One such contrast is drawn by the writer Ward Just in his Introduction to the 2000 book Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1973:

Vietnam was the last war in which American military authorities willingly transported reporters into battle. All you had to do was show up on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut, hail a C-130 or a Caribou, and climb aboard. When you arrived at the command post you were briefed, pointed in the direction of the gunfire, and then left alone to do your work.

Now it’s Ron’s chuckle that I hear. A C-130 leaving Tan Son Nhut near Saigon needed more than a half-mile strip for landing. Some large well-established Landing Zones like LZ Betty had that capacity by the late 1960s but the reporter would more likely have been dropped somewhere, like, maybe, Phu Cat Airbase—where Air Force personnel wouldn’t know gunfire if they heard it, much less what direction it was coming from. The closest Army “command post” he might have found his way to, beyond the airbase perimeter, would have been Camp Fidel where Ron would have given him “a story” and a ride back to the airbase.

Really, the scenario sketched from Ward Just’s memory—he did report from Vietnam in the early years of the war—smacks of a good ol’ days, reporters-of-yore fantasy, the plausibility of its details strained by my experience and the military regulations I knew at the time. Much of my duty as a Chaplain’s Assistant in the 41st and other artillery units was driving by jeep with the Chaplain to firebases and LZs along highways 1, 19, and 14, and accompanying him by helicopter to more remote sites. Wanna get to Firebase Pony? Our chopper is going to LZ English and we’re driving out to Pony from there—c’mon along. That never happened, nor did I ever see or otherwise know of any American civilians asking for or getting rides in that fashion. And it could not have happened because we had no authorization to provide anyone, even military personnel, with transportation. It just never happened.

As important for me, is that I never heard of it happening. Had a news reporter somehow made it to a lonesome place like Pony, the guys who there that day would have been talking about it weeks later—but I never heard of any reporters having been in those places.
That said, there is truth to the adage that there are as many “Vietnams” remembered as there were men who were there. It was a long war with U.S. military policies and practices that varied over time by place, branches of service, and units. What Ward Just remembers might have been more true at

Tan Son Nhut near Saigon, at the time he was there, than someplace upcountry five years later. And, as with other war stories, the legends of reportorial daring-do have some basis in the reality that Vietnam was a tough beat to cover, with unpleasant and sometimes dangerous work and living conditions. In his history of newsweekly coverage of the war, The Weekly War, journalist James Landers describes the pressure put on reporters to produce the “drama of combat” stories they thought readers wanted, and the difficulties and dangers that reporters faced in meeting those demands.

But Landers also notes that reporters took few trips out of Saigon and, even then, it was on authorized space-available transportation that usually took reporters to brigade and division headquarters—where they would have been met by Ron.

What would not have varied is the reluctance of commanding officers to have any inessential personnel on operational sites, much less reporters being “left alone to do [their] work”, as Mr. Just put it. Historian Milton Bates, in his book The Wars We Took to Vietnam, describes “the work of war” being “most obviously like factory or construction work” with the added dangers of exhausted and minimally trained young men operating sophisticated heavy machinery under extreme conditions. In Vietnam, that work was hot, heavy, and dirty with tight divisions of labor and no toleration for the distractions that onlookers—like reporters—would be. For exactly that reason, the Chaplain and I were routinely escorted away from the artillery gun pits when fire-missions commenced; our chopper once put in a holding pattern until the wounded were cleared from an LZ overrun by enemy ground forces the night before.

How the experience of reporters in Vietnam is remembered is important for more than the historical record it composes. The widely-held misperception that Americans were better informed about the war in Vietnam than the current wars in the Middle East is largely due to the belief that reporters then were given free rein to go where they wanted and report what they saw—an idealized view that sustains public expectations for ground-level reporting that today’s news organizations can’t possibly meet.

Meanwhile, the tales of Rambo reporters swashbuckling across the Mekong Delta become the measure of professional mettle to which today’s correspondents are held—or to which they appear to think they are held. Pressure to meet those expectations can put them at risk. When newsman Bob Woodruff was wounded in Iraq in 2006, his critics speculated that his employer, ABC News, had put him in harm’s way to garner higher viewer ratings, and that Woodruff himself had been “hotdogging,” unnecessarily exposing himself to danger with his head above the hatch of the armored personnel carrier in which he was riding.

In January 2015, NBC newsman Brian Williams claimed he had been in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. He had been telling versions of the story for years but this time veterans of that same chopper-borne mission said his craft was never in danger—his story was not true. Williams was fired as news anchor by NBC, casting a shadow over his legacy and doubt over his future in journalism. Now, as NBC prepares to bring Williams back through its minor league affiliate MSNBC, pundits will be reprising the details of his self-destructive overreach for combat bona fides that brought him down and embarrassed NBC.

However, commentary on the Williams rebound will likely stay at the level of personal failure. The better-informed of those voices will broach psychiatric narratives, indicting his “damaged masculinity” for not checking the urge for authenticated manliness through a false association with battlefield valor. But most of that commentary will fail to note the pattern formed by his and Woodruff’s cases (and other’s), a pattern pointing to the culture in which war reporters are faced with the unrealistic expectations of their employers and news-consuming public. Still further removed from comment will be the legacy of Vietnam-era reporting in which those unrealistic expectations are kept alive. It is the myth that public interest was better served during Vietnam by an unfettered corps of chopper-hopping “right stuff” news-getters that haunts the professional esteem of today’s war reporters.

The truth is that today’s wars are different, with combat—even as association with it remains valid—being less defined by the of physical and material dangers it once was; the truth is that even Vietnam was different than the now-imagined glory years in which a generation of reporter-heroes was supposedly formed; the truth is that the free-range buccaneers remembered by Ward Just are more akin to Ernie Pyle, the legendary war reporter of World War II (without the helicopters) than the real-life reporters encountered (or not) by my friend Ron in Vietnam.

The truth is that if journalism’s institutional memory retained Ron as a central figure in the history of Vietnam-era news coverage, Bob Woodruff might not have been put in harm’s way to collect some “combat drama,” he might have kept his head safely inside the hatch of his APC and not been wounded, and Brian Williams might still be an NBC anchor.

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Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

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