War has always, in some awful way, given rise to dramatic literature.
From the Peloponnesians onward, troubadours, novelists and later journalists have found in warfare echoes of the grand themes of humanity: life and death, heroism and cowardice, courage and betrayal, glory and sacrifice, inexpressible brutality and unexplainable kindness.
But Vietnam may have been a watershed, when coverage reached a turning point of graphic and cynical intensity, when correspondents concentrated on more than the pathological madness and savagery that accompany the call to arms.
Three years ago, the Library of America offered its two-volume set, "Reporting World War II," a fine achievement that showcased the work of the likes of Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow. Their writing glowed with noble themes: good people fighting a necessary war for a just cause.
From its earliest pages, the new two-volume set on Vietnam feels different. Doubt and skepticism abound; far more carnage and cruelty are detailed; and the combatants themselves come across as jaundiced and alienated.
It is striking how quickly those on the ground foresaw the futility of the enterprise:
• "The situation is desperate," an official tells Stanley Karnow for a January 19, 1961, article in The Reporter.
• "The United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war," the New York Times' Homer Bigart reports in February 1962.
• In the November 1962 Saturday Evening Post, Bernard Fall pleads for negotiations, arguing that "the alternative means the bloodshed and misery of a long and probably inconclusive guerrilla war."
Nowhere is the fruitlessness more achingly visible than in the thoughts of the U.S. soldiers themselves. In a poignant set of letters home quoted in U.S. News & World Report, Air Force pilot Jerry Shank wrote in January 1964: "If we keep up like we are going, we will definitely lose. I'm not being pessimistic. It's so obvious. How our government can lie to its own people--it's something you wouldn't think a democratic government could do." Shank died in combat about two months later.
The work assembled here, from newspapers, magazines and books, is outstanding and sometimes brilliant, but even after 30 years it still is hard to read. Like a scar that won't heal, pained memories quickly resurface when you encounter My Lai and Kent State, napalm and tortured prisoners, Tet and Hamburger Hill.
Overdosing on hundreds of pages at one time leaves some strong impressions. For one thing, the work is courageous and much of it enduring, produced by an all-star cast, names including Peter Arnett, Philip Caputo, Frances FitzGerald, David Halberstam, Michael Herr, Ward Just, Mary McCarthy, Harrison Salisbury, Neil Sheehan and Tom Wolfe. A generation of talented people of letters went to war on our behalf.
The editors have chosen well from their work. There are the icon pieces: Seymour Hersh on My Lai. Walter Cronkite's 1968 CBS report: "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people."
Joe McGinniss on Richard Nixon. Sydney Schanberg from Cambodia. Harrison Salisbury from Hanoi.
For all the fine journalism, in many ways the most gripping copy comes from the warriors themselves.
Army Spec. 4 Jack P. Smith, who eventually became a television journalist, offers one of the most harrowing accounts imaginable of being wounded in combat: "I willed myself to stop shaking, and I stopped breathing... [The North Vietnamese] took me for dead, thank God... One of them lay down on top of me and started to set up his machine gun... The Cong opened up on our mortar platoon... The platoon returned the fire, killing about half of the Cong, and miraculously not hitting me...
"The Cong jumped up off me, moaning with fear..a second series of explosions went off, killing all the Cong... One grenade landed between Thompson's head and Sgt. Moore's chest... A piece got me in the head."
You will read few more dramatic examples of agony and courage than Navy Commander (now U.S. Sen.) John McCain's story of his ordeal as a war prisoner, told in U.S. News. But perhaps the most chilling piece is a short excerpt, published in the New York Times Magazine, called "Battle": a direct transcription of the voices of a dozen soldiers engaged in combat.
I could quote these pieces forever. They are remarkable, and the Library of America has again produced a tremendous collection.
Wisely, perhaps, the library has made no effort to evaluate the coverage, offering no overview essay or contextual introduction. The pieces speak for themselves. Three decades later, what they say is still a punch in the gut.
Vietnam seems to have changed
everything, including journalism.