From my Military Reporters & Editors colleague Don North.
By Don North
“Try to look unimportant. Never draw fire – it irritates everyone around you. If you hear a shot, don’t get up and look around.”
Every journalist going to war should be required to take a slow boat. In May 1965, going from Hong Kong to Saigon, mine was the SS Messageries Maritimes Cambodge. For three days, as it rolled and pitched in choppy seas, I lay in my bunk and read three books, hoping to figure out what the hell I was getting myself into. All three were brilliant and wise on the war in Vietnam, and I wish I had been smart enough to take them much more seriously. As it was, they helped a naïve lad understand a little of what was in store. They would serve me well in Vietnam and in conflicts to come.
The first book was Bernard Fall‘s Street Without Joy. A French-born scholar and a professor at Howard University in Washington, Fall was one of the few historians writing in English with firsthand knowledge of the French Indochina war. He documented the French military’s mistakes and the failures of their tacticians to recognize unconventional guerrilla war. He was a historian who worked like a journalist. He could have hung out with generals and ambassadors because his writings were well respected, but instead he chose to observe the war from the grunt’s point of view.
The first book was Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy. A French-born scholar and a professor at Howard University in Washington, Fall was one of the few historians writing in English with firsthand knowledge of the French Indochina war. He documented the French military’s mistakes and the failures of their tacticians to recognize unconventional guerrilla war. He was a historian who worked like a journalist. He could have hung out with generals and ambassadors because his writings were well respected, but instead he chose to observe the war from the grunt’s point of view.
The third book I read probably saved my life, particularly on my first forays into the field. Malcolm Browne, the Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon who had won a Pulitzer for his reporting a year earlier, had written a 24-page mimeographed pamphlet, “A Short Guide to News Coverage in Viet Nam.”
In the introduction, Browne suggested the contents were confidential. “Coverage in Viet Nam requires aggressiveness, resourcefulness and, at times, methods uncomfortably close to those used by professional intelligence units. You can expect very little help from most official sources, and news comes the hard way. Correspondents in Viet Nam are regarded by the Saigon government as ‘scabby sheep,’ and treated accordingly. At the same time, the Vietnamese people are friendly and agreeable, and private sources can be cultivated. Because of the political climate, it is vitally important to protect sources—particularly those of Vietnamese nationality. Disclosure of sources by several indiscreet newsmen in Viet Nam have wrecked careers, or worse. American military sources must be similarly protected. Good Luck. You’ll need it.”
Browne dealt with a wide range of problems unique to a new reporter, including health problems, basic survival in combat and who to trust. “Don’t trust information you get from anyone without checking it the best you can, including this booklet. You will find quickly that most ‘facts’ in Viet Nam are based at least in part on misinformation or misunderstandings.”
Browne advised that longevity in war isn’t just luck. Survivors are smart, superstitious, careful and often get good advice from their experienced colleagues. Browne had a lot of good advice in his booklet that I learned by heart before I got off the boat:
“If you hear a shot and think it’s not from your side, don’t get up and look around. The second shot might get you. Lie prone and move on your belly toward cover.”
“When moving with troops do not stay close to the head of a column or the ‘point man.’ Soldiers are paid to do this. Stay in the middle of a column near the radio operator where you will hear what is going on.”
“Beware of water buffalo. When excited they stampede, charge and kill. Don’t be misled by seeing children playing on their backs. Children and buffalo are friends.”
Later I learned from the grunts I walked with and particularly from Vietnamese camera crews who had long experience at war and I added some of their sage advice to Browne’s list:
“Try to look unimportant, the enemy may be low on ammo and not want to waste a bullet on you.”
“The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions. When they’re ready. When you are not.”
“Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.”
Fresh off the boat, my first stop was at the Government of Vietnam press office for a press card, usually freely provided to anyone who claimed to be a journalist. Next stop was the U.S. Military Assistance Command press office. A photo, a letter from a news agency saying that they would buy news stories from you and your signature on a list of common-sense regulations (like not revealing the military’s future plans or reporting the exact number of casualties of friendly forces) got you a press card.
There were only about 50 journalists covering the war when I arrived, but that number would swell to more than 500 at peak periods like Tet in 1968. Pentagon data shows some 5,000 journalists given press cards over the course of the war. Of this total, only 224 were stringers or freelancers.
With a MACV card in hand, my goal was to get as close to the war as quickly as possible and capture it with an inexpensive Yashica 35mm with a fixed 50mm lens. The urge to make pictures that will remain as witness for generations is one of extraordinary hopefulness—hope that in looking and remembering, we will be touched and even changed for the better. It is that urge that drives the photo-journalist to take enormous chances, and not the 10 bucks that AP or UPI paid a stringer for a photo in those days.