Reporting America At War
About The Series
The Reporters
Richard Harding Davis
Martha Gellhorn
Edward R. Murrow
Ernie Pyle
Walter Cronkite
Andy Rooney
Robert Capa
Homer Bigart
David Halberstam
Malcolm W. Browne
Gloria Emerson
Morley Safer
Peter Arnett
Ward Just
Chris Hedges
Christiane Amanpour

For Teachers
The Reporters

Getting to the Story

You could write stories without going to the front. The trouble is, they wouldn't be very good stories. It was a war, after all, and you belonged at the front no less than war correspondents of earlier generations. You had to see how the thing was done. You couldn't get that out of the five o'clock briefing. The five o'clock briefing could give you numbers. It couldn't' show you the way the battle actually went. And if you saw enough of these small actions, then you could add up in your own mind the actual way in which the war was being conducted — how the captains were doing it and how the lieutenant colonels were doing it and what had happened at the end of the day, when you looked at this plot of land and added up our dead and their dead — what did that mean? You couldn't do that without being there.

The American Army did everything in their power to get you anywhere you wanted to go. Typically, you'd arrive on the flight line a six o'clock in the morning at Tan Son Nhut Air Base having heard of a firefight somewhere, and you'd walk up and down the line until you found a Caribou or a Buffalo or a helicopter or a C-130 that was going in that direction. You'd say "Can we climb aboard?" and the skipper would say, "Of course. Get on. You want some coffee?" And you'd end up in Pleiku or Can Tho or wherever the action was. They'd take you where you wanted to go, drop you off, and bring you back, and they did this with the utmost good cheer, even in the later days of the war.

I was with a reconnaissance platoon, forty people, deep in the highlands of South Vietnam. We ran into a lot of enemy soldiers. They thought it was somewhere between a battalion and a regiment of enemy. And I think within the space of an hour we had twelve dead and over twenty wounded in this group. We were bunched in very close, with the enemy all around us. Artillery fire was coming in that, in effect, saved our lives; otherwise we would have been overrun in a minute. These were very tough characters I was with, but there were literally hundreds of them, and there were forty of us.

You find yourself in an ethical dilemma, to the extent that you can think about anything with shot and shell flying around. You really don't want to do anything to make their mission any more difficult than it already is. You're nonessential cargo. You can talk about the public's right to know and the First Amendment all you want, but this is serious business. People are dying in front of your eyes. At a fairly high level, you want to stay alive yourself, but you don't want to do anything to get anybody killed. Particularly, you don't want to do anything stupid.

So, in my own case, a captain said to me, "You're gonna need this," and he gave me this .45 caliber pistol. Well, I'm a hunter. I used to hunt as a child with my father. I'd known about weapons. I didn't know anything about a .45. And the idea of all of a sudden picking up this thing — it's a huge gun, you know — and lying on the floor of the forest, waiting for some helmeted head to come up five or six feet away from me — I wanted to disappear. Because I knew that in terms of the army, I was combat-ineffective. I hadn't been trained to do anything like this. But I was goddamned if I was going to get in their way, either, meaning the Americans. So, thank God, no head appeared, so I didn't have to shoot him, or try to shoot him. And in due course, we were rescued by the medivacs [evacuation helicopters].

I've thought a lot about that. It's essential for things of that kind to be described for people at home, and to be decribed as thoroughly and completely as you can do it. They have a right to know that. But if I hadn't been along, would there have been another infantryman along? And if there had been another infantryman along, maybe things wouldn't have gone quite so badly — although I doubt it, to tell you the truth. But as a supernumerary on one of these missions, you really can't help but wonder if your presence somehow changes the action, and not in a favorable way, sort of like the Heisenberg Principle. Yet it must be done. It can't not be done. So you go ahead and do it, and then sometimes you think about it a little bit afterwards.

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: Ward Just Reporter's Notebook