TOPICS > Nation

The Cat From Hue

July 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: The book is “The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story.” The author is John Laurence, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam as a correspondent for CBS news. In his 30-year broadcasting career, he has covered 15 wars and revolutions for CBS and for ABC News, as well as reporting and documentaries on politics and culture from his base in London.

Jack Laurence, welcome.


TERENCE SMITH: Explain the title, the cat metaphor.

JOHN LAURENCE: The cat was actually a small, starving, orphaned, homeless kitten I met in Hue when it was about eight weeks old and I was 27 or 28 years old, and near the end of my tour. And we started a relationship in a bombed out house that was during the 20th day of the Battle of Hue, when the Marines retook it from the north Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, in 1968.

That’s right. It was the single worst battle of the war. There were over 10,000 people killed in that battle. And how the kitten survived, and turned out to be a Vietcong cat– he’s the symbol for the resistance for the other side– was really a miracle.

TERENCE SMITH: You were just 25 when you went to Vietnam for the first time.


TERENCE SMITH: …In 1965. What was your mindset at that time, as far as the war went?

JOHN LAURENCE: The only research I took with me from New York on the long flight to Saigon was David Halberstam’s new book, “The Making of a Quagmire.” And so that was my mindset. I believed that, as Halberstam concluded, it was worth being in Vietnam; the country was worth saving; the sending of troops– as President Johnson had ordered 50,000 initially, 500,000 within a few years– was a noble cause, to save that little country from the civil war it was engaged in with the North.

TERENCE SMITH: A noble cause when you first went there. What did you think at the end of the third tour?

JOHN LAURENCE: I was against the war on every count. In the time I was there, I saw that, “a,” it was going to be impossible to achieve a successful result against the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong; “b,” that the amount of devastation and destruction and killing that we were causing in Vietnam outweighed the circumstances that might come with a more peaceful solution to just let the Vietnamese settle it themselves. So I went from being a hawk to a dove in five years.

TERENCE SMITH: You went back in 1982.


TERENCE SMITH: …To Vietnam. And in fact there’s a passage in the book where you describe a very difficult night as all of the memories come back in Saigon. Would you read it for us?

JOHN LAURENCE: Yes, surely. You get paranoid when you don’t sleep enough and you’re in a place that has a lot of… of terrifying memories, and so this paragraph in the book, which is on page 837– we’re getting near the end– described this. It really was, in some ways, my message to all the Vietnam veterans, civilian or military, who still had the same problems I did after the war.

“Sometime before dawn and the deepest despair, working its way up from unconscious depths and running beside the accelerating depression, a conscious flash cut through the gloom– a bulletin from beyond, a psychic antidote suggesting itself among memories of war madness, a secret to sanity for such moments. The thought was not profound or even particularly enlightened, offering only a small consolation for those of us who had put it on the line in Vietnam.

“It suggested that those who came here and got away alive, who made it through the bad times and the good, are stronger than they may think by having survived it; maybe also wise with the knowledge that nothing ever, anywhere, would be as hard. It was another way of saying that having survived the war, I could survive this night. I held on to the thought, nurtured it, invoked it every time the fear was strong, used it to fight the madness, and eventually it got me through.”

TERENCE SMITH: You know, the writing of this book, which I know took years, must have been something of a catharsis in itself.

JOHN LAURENCE: It was. I’m 62 years old now. I was in my 20s when the war was happening. I was seeing a very small corner of the war each time we went out into the field, and it was so traumatic and disturbing, it made my world be turned upside down, that I couldn’t assimilate the horror of it at the time. And it got buried somewhere in my unconscious, and that affected the way that I felt and thought in the rest of my life. But being a mature human being and being able to put these incidents in the context of the bigger picture, I was able to see that it all actually did make sense, but that I had to write the book to make sense of it.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, right. Let’s put it in that context, and even the context of today. When you look back on it– you, this hawk turned dove– and you look back at it with the advantage of hindsight, what lessons from Vietnam… what should we draw from it?

JOHN LAURENCE: Well, many of the lessons of Vietnam have already been implemented, whether they were intended or not. The reorganization of the military, for example. It’s now an all-volunteer army and marine corps and the rest of the services. It’s perhaps much more professional. The training methods are much more realistic. I met someone in the Gulf War, after it was over, say that fighting the Iraqi tanks was not as difficult as some of the training exercises that they had gone through beforehand. We are rotating units in Afghanistan today, rather than individuals. That’s a lesson from the Vietnam War. But… and there are many others.

But maybe the most profound is that the U.S. Government and military are no longer willing to accept casualties the way they were during the Vietnam War, so that all of the casualties since Vietnam are fewer than, for example… all the casualties from all the wars the United States has fought overseas since Vietnam are fewer than those who were lost from the state of Connecticut in the Vietnam War: 612.

TERENCE SMITH: And for people in your profession, our profession, journalists– what should they draw from Vietnam — because it’s the template for so much coverage of wars after that?

JOHN LAURENCE: Well, all that has changed so much now. It’s so much more difficult to get out and cover a story, say, for example in Afghanistan or anywhere the U.S. Military is. And that’s a real dilemma because, as citizens, we need to know as much as we can within the limits of secrecy and security that the military sets. But without being censored for the sake of being censored, not to learn the mistakes that are being made. The longer the wars go on, the more necessary it becomes to see them as they are happening.

TERENCE SMITH: And that reluctance on the part of the military, you see as an outgrowth of Vietnam?

JOHN LAURENCE: Yes, yes, and also its own security needs, and those have to be respected. You can’t have 500 reporters chasing 7,000 troops. You can have 500 reporters trying to get stories when you have 500,000 troops over a great big area, as was the case, as you know, Terry, in Vietnam. But it’s a different set of circumstances in Afghanistan. I don’t degree that Afghanistan is like Vietnam, as some have been quoted as saying. Afghanistan is exactly like Afghanistan.

TERENCE SMITH: Jack Laurence, thanks very much.

JOHN LAURENCE: Thank you, Mr. Smith.