MALCOLM W. BROWNE:
Saigon AP Bureau Handbook
XV. SOME TIPS ON OFFICIAL INFORMATION
No government is above distorting or concealing information to serve its own ends, and in Viet Nam the situation is particularly trying to newsmen.
Most official information, not only from the Saigon government and its agencies (which include the local newspapers, since they are under rigid control), but foreign sources must by mistrusted.
Figures on casualties and reports of military engagements are especially subject to distortion.
In covering a military engagement, make every effort to count the bodies yourself before accepting any tabulation of results. In any case, cross check Vietnamese and American tabulations of casualties -- there are often wide discrepancies. Besides official sources, check with officers who were there and whom you trust. And on top of all that take everything with a grain of salt. Always attribute casualty figures to whatever official source they came from. (For example: "The Saigon government claimed that, etc.")
American casualties now are generally reported accurately and fast by MACV information office.
Beware of claims of military victories. This is not the kind of war in which real victories turn up often, on either side. Saigon and Hanoi are equally extravagant in their claims.
Suspect any "victory" in which more than 15 enemy dead are claimed.
Suspect victories based on estimates of the effects of air strikes. Pilots' claims often are exaggerated and rarely can be confirmed.
Suspect claims of large seizures of enemy weapons. There have been cases in which stocks of weapons have been planted in hamlets, "seized" by ground forces, and then claimed as "enemy" booty, for propaganda purposes. This kind of thing is known technically as "black propaganda," and it flourishes in Viet Nam.
Suspect reports of weapons seized with purport to prove communist arms are being smuggled in from Laos and Cambodia. Most intelligence officials believe arms smuggling is not significant in Viet Nam. If captured Red Chinese weapons are displayed, it must be proved they were made later than 1954 to prove infiltration. Many Red Chinese weapons were supplied to the Viet Minh during the Indochina War, and many of these weapons are still around.
Beware of claims that the Viet Cong was "crushed" in such and such a district, or that such and such a Viet Cong battalion or regiment "was rendered ineffective." Waiting a few days usually proves such claims false, when the Viet Cong comes back for another round.
Beware, similarly, of American official reports of such things. Americans occasionally have had to make their reports on nothing more than the Vietnamese claims, although this is being reduced as American field advisors have been reporting more effectively.
Remember, in general, that any information given out by the Saigon government has been well filtered by the propaganda apparatus, and would not be given out at all if it were not intended to have some propaganda effect. Rely basically on your own private sources.
The same, naturally, goes for anything coming out of Hanoi, Liberation Press Agency or Liberation Radio.
Even in the field, beware of impressions you get from things shown you by officials. If you ask to see a strategic hamlet and are taken to one by officials, they obviously will show you only the best they have to offer. You have no one but yourself to blaim if it is not typical of strategic hamlets in general. Do things and talk to people on your own.
After cultivating instinctive suspicion of all official information, don't become so suspicious you automatically reject all statements and claims. Check each one. Sometimes the truth will pleasantly surprise you.
"Estimates" of enemy casualties sometimes are not mere lies; the Viet Cong DOES carry off its dead and wounded, whenever possible. Often, after a heavy engagement, a human brain will be found under a bush, or there is some other indication that enemy casualties were carried off. But remember that if enemy casualties were carried off, the enemy is still pretty strong -- he can't be both wiped out and carry off his losses at the same time. It generally takes two healthy men to carry one dead or wounded away from a battle. When this has happened, it means the enemy did not flee in a rout, but withdrew with discipline and good order. If he managed to take most of his weapons with him (which is often the case) it is additional indication that either the official "estimate" of enemy losses is wrong or that the enemy is still pretty strong.
Only heaps of bodies and captured weapons indicate solid success in this war. Count and check whenever you can.
Beware of claims from either side about Cambodian-Vietnamese border skirmishes. The skirmishes happen, but it is always difficult to name the guilty party. Neither Cambodia nor Viet Nam recognizes the other's maps. The border between them varies by a few kilometers, depending on which country's map you are looking at, and in most places, the border is physically unmarked. Cambodian and Vietnamese sometimes shoot at each other just for the hell of it. The feud goes back for centuries.
Beware in particular of any information at all you get from certain officials, who can be counted on to tell bald-faced, 180-degree whoppers nearly every time. A list of these officials and their relative credibility indices is available at the AP office. Unfortunately, some of them are in high positions.
Courtesy Malcolm W. Browne.