David Halberstam on journalists and Vietnam

Journalists and their sources who exposed the government's falsehoods about Vietnam were widely attacks as unpatriotic.

Published April 24, 2007 12:22PM (EDT)

In his September 2004 Vanity Fair essay, Halberstam described the role of journalists in uncovering the government's deceit about the "progress" of the war in Vietnam, as well as the accusations made against such journalists and their sources. The parallels are self-evident:

The patriotism debate now going on has unusual resonance for me, because I was one of the first to have his patriotism challenged for raising questions about Vietnam. Very early on I became a target of the war's supporters in the White House, in the Pentagon (which had lots of powerful publicity machinery to use against wayward reporters), and among hawkish journalists, because of my pessimistic reporting. . . .

Finding out the truth from other Americans engaged in a bitter war was never that hard; hiding the truth is always a great deal harder than telling it. The sources we journalists used were the senior American advisers in the field, and they were far more eager to tell their truths to the M.A.C.V. (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and Washington than to a bunch of young reporters. But from the beginning the administration, for domestic political reasons, wanted only to suppress the truth; it wanted to find out who was talking to reporters and then threaten them with court-martial.

The irony was that our sources were motivated by the deepest kind of patriotism. Mine included three senior division advisers, two corps advisers, one assistant corps adviser, and one senior two-star American general, whose specialty was counter-insurgency. There was also one close friend, Major Ivan Slavich, the commander of the first armed helicopter company in Vietnam, who took me and Neil Sheehan on any operation we wanted to join.

In Vietnam, the journalists were accused of minimizing the success that the Americans were grinding out, of downplaying the effectiveness of the overall American operation, and of seizing on small defeats to undermine the war effort. The irony of this, in retrospect, I believe, is that our reporting overestimated the strength of the Americans-which was military-and underestimated the long-range military importance of the political superiority of the other side.

This was especially true of television journalism, because its cameras instinctively reflected what the Americans did best-gunships roaring into combat areas, unleashing awesome firepower, for instance-but they had no capacity at all to report on what the other side did best, which was to keep recruiting after the Americans had left a village on a given day, to keep coming down the trails at night, and to build their remarkable underground network of tunnels.

The enemy's strength, its resilience, its political superiority, and the fact that it controlled the rate of the war simply did not photograph well. The best of the military men there knew what was happening, knew that it was not going well, that we had not dented the other side's dynamic, and that we were fighting the birthrate of the country.

What we reporters wrote then and what the senior military men would later write in their memoirs were strikingly similar.

By Glenn Greenwald

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