Veteran’s Day Talk

Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

November 11, 2007

Early one morning, not long after I first arrived in Saigon in 1965 to cover the Vietnam War as an NBC news correspondent, I was awakened in my hotel by my cameraman, telling me to get up, get dressed, and hurry downstairs. The police had arrested three Vietcong infiltrators and were going to publicly execute them in a nearby park.

When we reached the park, we found three men, blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs, facing a firing squad. The police officer in charge yelled in Vietnamese “ready, aim, fire”…and just as the rifles went off, I involuntary reached up and covered my eyes with my hand. I couldn’t watch three men being shot to death.

But almost instantly, I realized I was a reporter…I was there to cover the execution…I had to SEE it. And I dropped my hand.

At that moment, I learned my first lesson in covering war — my instincts as a news correspondent were sometimes going to be in conflict with my instincts as a human being.

Winston Churchill was my childhood hero and is still my favorite historic figure. He was a war correspondent before he became a politician. In my office at home, I have a framed quotation from Churchill: “It’s better to be making the news than taking the news. It’s better to be an actor than a critic.”

However when I went to Vietnam, I didn’t want to be “making the news”…I didn’t want to be an “actor”.

I believed the proper role of a news correspondent was to be an observer…to stand on the sidelines…to report what other people were doing.

And, I suppose, one reason I chose journalism as my career was because the role of professional observer suited my personality.

But I found out that in a war, the line between being an observer and being a participant is not always so clear.

The Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City once staged a very high-profile seminar to discuss the proper role of reporters in a war.

This scenario was proposed at one of the panel discussions:

Suppose that during the Vietnam War, the Vietcong allow an American network TV correspondent and his camera crew to go along on a mission…and to film the fighting from the Communist side. After a few days, the Vietcong soldiers get in position along a trail to ambush an American patrol that is approaching.

The panel was asked to discuss this question: “What’s the proper role of the American TV crew?”

Are they neutral observers, just there to film whatever happens?

Or are they Americans…and human beings…with an obligation to yell out and warn their fellow Americans?

At that Columbia University seminar, Morley Safer — who had been a CBS correspondent in Vietnam — said that if he had been with that camera crew, he would have filmed what happened and not tried to warn the American patrol…his role as a correspondent was to observe, not to participate.

Well, you can imagine the firestorm of public outrage that set off. And Morley Safer eventually backed down and said that if he had confronted that dilemma, he would have tried to warn the Americans.

But the controversy was a reminder of that never-ending debate – whose side is a war correspondent on? Anybody’s side?

I remember vividly my first day in combat as a war correspondent in Vietnam.

Here’s what I wrote about it to a friend back in the United States:

“The Vietcong started firing at us from three sides – snipers from a dry creek bed on the left, carbine and automatic weapons from the front, and two mortar shells from the right. It was the first time I’ve ever been fired at. Like a damn fool, I stood straight up, right in the middle, running my tape recorder. The American advisor with the company, a sergeant, softly suggested that perhaps I ought to move a bit out of the sniper fire. I crouched down in a hole.”

My tape recorder captured the rest of that conversation:

Me: “What have we got?”

The Sergeant: “About a squad of VC out in front of us.”

Me: “Are they shooting at us?”

Sergeant: “Yes sir, they are. Didn’t you hear the bullets whizzing over your head?”

Me: “No, I didn’t.”

It was my baptism by fire.

For the first time in my life as a journalist, I no longer felt like just an observer. I was a participant.

I was trying to find shelter from the Vietcong bullets and mortars right alongside the soldiers. My fate and the fate of those soldiers were linked.

Another time, I remember walking down a dirt road near Danang the day after the Vietcong and North Vietnamese launched their massive Tet Offensive. On the side of the road was a pile of what looked like charcoal.

“What’s that?” I asked a solider.

“A couple of little Vietnamese girls who burned to death in the attack,” he replied.

Believe me, I didn’t feel like a disinterested observer at that moment.

Another time I remember being in the Khe Sanh special forces camp, completely surrounded by Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops, expecting to be attacked at any moment. An officer instructed me to pick up the M-16 rifle of any soldier who was wounded or killed, and to shoot back at the enemy.

I was not just an observer.

And I remember lying in a clearing in the jungle bleeding from a Vietcong grenade fragment in my lung, and an Army helicopter pilot making a dangerous landing in high elephant grass to evacuate me and take me to a field hospital…saving my life.

As I said, in war it’s not always possible for a correspondent to draw a clear line between being just an observer and being a participant.

There is an expression – “daily news coverage is the first rough draft of history.”

From the perspective of 30 or 35 years of subsequent history, events often look quite different than they did to the war correspondents who wrote that “first rough draft of history.”

That has been the case with the Vietnam war. And I suspect that the “first rough draft” of the history of the Iraq war being written by today’s news correspondents may also change with the passage of a few decades.

One thing that doesn’t change in war is the comradeship between the soldiers and the war correspondents who cover them. Ducking bullets together, sharing a foxhole, sharing rations, and sharing almost unimaginable moments of fear and horror form a bond.

The bond between correspondents and soldiers in Vietnam was based partly on facing together the perils and discomforts of war…and partly on helping each other to survive the perils and discomforts of war.

Soldiers in the field felt that the correspondents were on their side, telling their story.

The troops liked the idea that — thanks to the war correspondents — the people back home in America and around the world could read about and see the difficult and dangerous assignments they were carrying out in Vietnam.

The troops were grateful, but also a little puzzled.

I and almost every correspondent in Vietnam had this exchange with soldiers more than once:

Soldier: “So, what did you do to get assigned to Vietnam?”

Correspondent: “I volunteered.”

Soldier: “You volunteered? You mean you want to be here? You don’t have to be here? You must be nuts!”

Soldiers and war correspondents shared combat, shared the dangers, the fears, the sheer relief of surviving a battle.

But, ultimately, soldiers and war correspondents have two very different jobs. It’s a gap that can never be bridged.

The job of correspondents in war is to point their cameras, point their microphones, write in their notebooks.

And if they need a break, they can leave the battle field, go to the rear, stay at a hotel, shower, sleep, eat a good meal, call home.

The job of soldiers in war is to point their rifles, point their grenade launchers, point their machine guns…look through the sights… pull the trigger…and kill the enemy of their nation…in a good cause, for a greater benefit.

And in those moments, war correspondents are, in fact, observers, not participants.

They can’t go there…they can never know how it feels to go there.

Any one who has been in a war…whether as a solider or as a correspondent…is changed forever. You never forget it.

You see people killed. You see people maimed. You see people so frightened.

You see people do horrible things…things that no human being should ever do to another human being.

You see humans acting inhuman. Referring to today’s reading, you see “the evil and the good, the just and the unjust.”

Nobody who has been in a war ever completely gets over it.

Which is why, on this Veterans Day, we honor those who went to war…who saw it all…who experienced it all…and who will carry forever their memories of war.