Covering War Like A Football Game

Three unidentified members of the 25th Infantry Division at Trang Bang, Vietnam, in 1966. Bob Jones photo

“More than 9 million Americans served in the military during the Vietnam War. Three and-a-half million served in Southeast Asia. Fifty-eight thousand died. Three-hundred thousand were wounded. Twenty-five hundred went missing.” –Former U.S. Senator and Army Capt. Max Cleland on Veterans Day at Punchbowl cemetery

Cleland was just 25 when a grenade cost him both legs and part of one arm. He became one of the 300,000 Vietnam War wounded. Still, looking over his life, he (and I) have a whole lot to be thankful for this holiday and every day.

Vietnam was a big part of both Cleland’s and my lives. I spent three years there as a reporter. I’m very unhappy with much of my own coverage then and that of many of my newspaper and TV colleagues, and I’m very blunt about that in my new book, Reporter. I think we covered it as if it were a football game. GIs 20, Viet Cong 2. America’s strong offensive line crushing the VC’s crumbling defense line. We were running the ball right through them.

The truth was that in the long game, in overtime, we’d lose. Our offensive line finally got tired. The VC defense held on. We folded.

It’s important that Americans spend some time reading what’s been written about that war lest we start cheering to go into any new game someplace else – such as Syria. Those other teams that look so bedraggled actually have a lot of fight left in them. They don’t want us playing on their home field.

Some of my book details our bad game plan, our less-than-superlative battalion leaders, the after-action reports that logged kills and weapon confiscations that were sheer fiction, and the corrupt Afghan-like government we were supporting in Saigon. I fear we’ve not learned enough from that Vietnam experience.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t think about the meaningless death of Sgt. Robert Andrade of Waimanalo, one of six killed by a misaimed U.S. mortar shell that also badly wounded me. I was very lucky. It landed on a map we’d spread on the jungle floor, and I was the only survivor of the command group. Such a silly, non-heroic loss!

I tell the story of the 25th Division lieutenant colonel who, rather than send reinforcements to his company trapped by VC at sundown, went on the radio to belittle the captain in charge (who’d been shot), saying: “How could you get yourself into this situation? Do you know how this is going to look?”

And just personally, I owe a lot to Hawaii’s Col. Peter Kama, an adviser to the Vietnamese airborne. He got an armored personnel carrier, dashed into Quang Tri, and rescued me and my NBC cameraman – we were trapped in a deteriorating fight against North Vietnamese tanks in a battle that leveled that wonderful city. I think we’d have been dead men had it not been for Pete. I got out with one small shrapnel nick.

So I’d wish for every American trooper to be home this Thursday – not doing turkey and dressing in some dreary mess hall on Kandahar’s awful base or a mountain outpost.