Life in Saigon
I had been in Saigon many years before, when the French were just leaving. It was a calm, very French city. Now [in 1970], it was a nightmare. It was chaotic, berserk. Soldiers were not allowed to come into Saigon in 1970 and '71, because they had been a tiny bit unruly. See, just the Special Forces officers came, and they were worse than anything. I was called on two occasions to go to the bar across the street to calm them down as though, you know, I were a kind of Mary Poppins, and the sight of me would restore them to their normal sanity. They were making a mess, breaking things, grabbing girls.
Alvin Schuster was my bureau chief, and he often said he was sure I would give him his first heart attack before he was forty. Here is an example of what he meant. We were crossing the street to go back to the hotel, and I saw a G.I. being very rough with a small Vietnamese woman and trying to take money out of her purse. So I socked him in the arm and said, "Stop that, that's no way to treat a lady." And he looked at me, astonished to see me, and said, "That's no lady, it's a man." He had paid her in advance for intercourse and then discovered she was not a lady, she was an elderly boy. That kind of confusion existed on so many levels. And it was sad, with children in the streets.
I was surprised by the enormity of the Americans. They looked like young elephants. Their bones were massive, and there were so many little hideous places on what had been the Rue Catinat Big Boy Hamburgers and the war had cut down the trees to widen the streets for military traffic, and that was so sad and so painful. The city had been deformed in a hundred different ways. It had a kind of sepsis. The war had gone into every corner of every life, and the Vietnamese value harmony very much. There was no harmony, there was no order, there was no calm. There was corruption at every possible level, and people were sad and nervous.
I pretty much stayed apart from the press corps. I don't drink Jack Daniel's and I didn't take dope or stronger stuff, so I stayed by myself, a little island. I needed more sleep. I had to get up and get helicopters at five in the morning. There were no serious discussions of where this was headed. It was so absurd, it was such a colossal fraud, that any serious conversation would disintegrate immediately.
I could not abide [high U.S. military officials]. I saw them as very dangerous, treacherous people who would lie at the drop of a hat. And they weren't so crazy to see me either. They didn't like women floating around. They were collaborators in the fraud, the military. They gave the false body counts although they may not have wanted to they told the lies, they were not independent agents. There were one or two officers who might have been marvelous, but it was not my good luck to know them.
Vietnam is a very small, narrow country, and the military was packed in and the press corps was huge and we were packed in with them. We were not censored. Of course, you were called in and reproached if your coverage was deemed slightly too negative, but reproached in the most sort of nonchalant way. You were urged to see the brighter side of things. And of course there wasn't any brighter side of things.
The Five O'Clock Follies? Oh, it was ludicrous. It was painful to see. Some briefer, a colonel, would get up there and you'd watch his trial by fire as reporters would taunt him. He was hardly responsible for the mess, but they gave such duplicitous information and figures, and after a while it was just part of the heavy sadness of it all. It was impossible even to laugh at them and their loony tunes.
I wrote a story about buying heroin among American troops and that seemed a fairly important story. I went out and bought some heroin myself, outside a military installation, and brought it back to my office. You could buy anything in South Vietnam any pill, anything. There was heroin being sold for a carton of Salems. The drug use, when I was there, had escalated severely. People smoked heroin because, as they said to me, "Grass is loud, man," meaning marijuana smells, but heroin doesn't smell when you smoke it.
From Reporting America at War: An Oral History, compiled by Michelle Ferrari, with commentary by James Tobin, published by Hyperion, 2003. Copyright ©, 2003 Goodhue Pictures.