A Failed Truth

John Laurence presents a Reporter’s View of Vietnam.

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.

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