Reporting America At War
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Richard Harding Davis
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The Burning of Cam Ne

I had a jeep in Da Nang, and the afternoon before, I went out and did a little tour of some of the marine corps units to find out what was happening, to see if anybody was going on operations the next day, because the operations usually began very early in the morning, four-thirty, five o'clock. I came to this unit and they said, "Yes, we're going on a search-and-destroy in the morning. You want to come along? Please come along."

We went out in a bunch of APCs [armored personnel carriers] and some amphibious vehicles, because it was down the river and then through some pretty high-water rice paddies. I talked to a captain, trying to get some idea what the operation was about. And he said, "We've had orders to take out this complex of villages called Cam Ne." I'd never heard anything like that. I'd heard of search-and-destroy operations; I'd seen places ravaged by artillery or by air strikes. But this was just a ground strike going in. He said to "take out" this complex of villages. And I thought perhaps he's exaggerating.

It was paddy land but not such high water. The troops walked abreast toward this village and started firing. They said that there was some incoming fire. I didn't witness it, but it was a fairly large front, so it could have happened down the line. There were two guys wounded in our group, both in the ass, so that meant it was "friendly fire."

They moved into the village and they systematically began torching every house — every house as far as I could see, getting people out in some cases, using flame throwers in others. No Vietnamese speakers, by the way, were among the group with the flame thrower. The trooper with the flame thrower was ordered to zap a particular house, and our cameraman, who's Vietnamese — Ha Thuc Can, this wonderful man — put his camera down and said, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" And he walked to the house and then I went with him, and a sergeant came on up. We heard people crying.

Now, every Vietnamese house had a shelter of some kind. Often it was an underground dugout to store rice. There was a family down there, probably six people, including a practically newborn baby. They were frightened stiff. I coaxed; they didn't want to come out. Ha Thuc Can spoke softly to them, and he coaxed them out. The house was torched, as every house along the way was torched, either by flame throwers, matches, or cigarette lighters — Zippos.

Those guys, by the way, called themselves "the Zippo Brigade" after that picture was published.

I ultimately got back to Da Nang, tried to file the story, and just managed to get the telex through. It took another day and a half or two days for the film to get back. Harry Reasoner was doing the news that night, and he read my telex.

Of course, the Marine Corps, on the basis of the reading of that telex, went into Red Alert, denying everything, saying that a couple of the houses were burned by collateral damage from artillery or something. It was just blatant bullshit, and that's an example of what really drove me crazy in Vietnam. I mean, if you're going to lie, tell a good one, I mean, please.

Cam Ne was a shock, I think. It's hard for me to know exactly, because I was thirteen thousand miles away, with really lousy communication, so I only got the reverberation of the shock. I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn't imagine. Those people were raised on World War II, in which virtually everything we saw was heroic. And so much of it, indeed, was. And there was plenty in Vietnam, too, that was heroic. But this conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect. Which is perhaps one reason why there was such immediate denial.

And the denials themselves were absurd. [Officials claimed] I had gone on a practice operation in a model village — a village the Marines had built to train guys how to move into a village. Or the whole thing was a kind of "Potemkin" story that I had concocted. There are still people who believe that.

I was getting the reverberations from a distance. Subsequently, I heard that President Johnson called Frank Stanton, who was then the president of CBS, and whom he knew quite well. He called Stanton the following morning, very early, and Stanton hadn't seen the broadcast the night before. As I understand it, the president said, "Frank?" "Yeah, who is this?" He said, "This is your president." "Yes, Mr. President?" "You know what you did to me last night?" "What did I do, sir?" "You shat on the American flag."

It was the end of a certain kind of innocence among the public, really. I mean, soldiers aren't innocent. For the most part, I think American armies are awfully good in the business of protecting civilians, of not going over the line. It happens, but not as policy, not as, "This is how we do things." And that's why it was so shocking, because it's not how we do things. And there we were, and seen to be doing it. So it had a really profound effect.

Of course, this wouldn't have happened in World War II, or if it had happened, it wouldn't have been photographed. Or had it been photographed, the photographs would have been censored. I think what makes the story most significant was that it was happening on television, uncensored, either in picture or commentary. There was a realization — perhaps least of all by the press, but certainly by the military and maybe by the public — that the rules have all changed. It's perhaps another reason why the military did not want people covering the Gulf War.

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.

Photo: Morley Safer Reporter's Notebook