A war storyPosted: May 25, 2010
This review originally appeared in The Journalism Quarterly.
The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story by John Laurence. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002. 851 pages; $30 hbk.
A little War Goes a Long Way
By Roy Hamric
John Laurence was among the best, the brightest, and the most unique of all the American war correspondents who reported from Vietnam. He arrived in Vietnam in 1965, in his early ‘20s, and he went on to work as a correspondent for CBS and ABC News. Laurence looked frail, more like a graduate student than a war correspondent, but few journalists took more risks or covered Vietnam longer–Peter Arnett and Horst Fass come to mind. Very few covered as many of the well-known battles, and–just as important–the deadly, daily skirmishes.
Covering so much combat, Vietnam-style (from the jungles to the Continental Hotel), cost Laurence dearly in emotional turmoil. His personal view of the war paralleled many of the troops’ attitudes. He began with absolutely no doubt about America’s role and ability to win. Later, both he and large numbers of troops felt differently–shifting from winning to just surviving and coming home. Few works of nonfiction (or fiction) have so much human drama, pathos, bravery and professional and human lessons embedded into the story. We also get an invaluable lesson manual on how war correspondents should, and should not, cover war.
GIs were regularly astounded that TV and print correspondents would voluntarily come in to battlefields while troops were taking fire. The reports Laurence and his team (particularly cameraman Keith Kay and soundman Jim Clevenger) did for CBS television were staples of Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcasts, riveting a national audience that was experiencing its own anguish over the war’s meaning and costs.
Strewn with laurels comparing this memoir to the war correspondence of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, the book is more artistic and powerful than one would expect. It is likely to become a classic in Vietnam War literature. A seasoned storyteller, Laurence’s story was backed up by hundreds of sound tapes and film reports which he has used to reconstruct vivid prose scenes that carry a descriptive punch that pays homage to what the camera and recorder can capture, and memory and emotions can recreate.
Few memoirs rise to such clarity in conveying the exhilaration, fears and rewards of war reportage, or the uplifting and heartbreaking memories many correspondents carried home, only to deal with privately away from the war. Laurence had his peers’ respect, especially the circle known as the “crazies” as opposed to the “straights.” The decompression base for the “crazies” was British photographer Tim Page’s Saigon apartment, known as “Frankie’s Place.”
The later years of the Vietnam War were equal parts marijuana, rock and roll, irony and cynicism for many in the military and press, along with professionalism, loyalty, devotion and bravery. Laurence’s professional and personal life navigated all those shores.
He includes warm sketches of his fellow colleagues: Page, freelancer Michael Herr, CBS correspondent Hughes Rudd, writer Frances Fitzgerald, a contingent of British journalists, and, especially, Look correspondent Sam Castan (who died in combat), and freelance photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn (who were killed in Cambodia). Someone in that crowd, at some point, said, “This is our Paris.” They were right, only it was more dangerous.
Some gleanings from Laurence:
–The full truth of the Vietnam War (or any war) is never reported. Just one area: the carnage regularly inflicted on innocent civilians. In spelling out some reasons, Laurence takes you several notches up on the complexity scale of war coverage.
–“The language of our daily journalism was insufficient,” Laurence says. “For all the facts we poured out of Vietnam, we might better have served the truth by broadcasting some of the letters the GIs wrote to their families.”
–“Of all the media,” he says, “perhaps still photography came closest to showing the truth.The best photographs captured a precise moment, holding it there for inspection, offering each image as a fragmentary symbol of someone’s reality. By the nature of their ambiguity, those pictures gave viewers the privilege of using their imaginations to interpret the reality.”
–Michael Herr’s masterwork “Dispatches” may have benefitted from sound recordings Laurence sent him that were made during a night battle involving a rowdy Army company at “Firebase Jay,” which–symbolically–could stand for “joint,” as in marijuana. To Laurence’s surprise, large numbers of GIs relaxed at night with dope, booze and blaring rock and roll–it was a template for “Apocalypse Now.”
–In times of danger, war correspondents should follow the sergeants–they know what they’re doing. Officers may or may not.
Laurence digs deepest into his three tours in 1965-66, 1967-68 and 1970, but he takes his story up to his 1982 return to Vietnam and the country’s march to renewed prosperity. Students, war colleges, journalists and news organizations’ management can learn immense lessons from Laurence’s story.
If the newest crop of war correspondents read this book, they–and the public–will be well served.