icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Hither and Yon

War and peace, then and now

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
In sunny Florida, while storms and blizzards rage in the American Northeast, old war correspondents from our days in Vietnam and Cambodia talk about those days of fighting in the jungles, of going down remote roads, of running into the bad guys and coming back alive.

One of them, Don Tate, one-time star of the Scripps-Howard chain, shows me fading newspaper clippings featuring his stories on the front pages of papers that have long since gone out of business. And he also digs out features and photos from war games in Korea where he was writing about American and South Korean troops as they floundered over snow-covered crags south of the DMZ. The going in Korea, if anything, was tougher than in Vietnam, Tate notes, but the difference was that no war was going on.

Tate tells war stories as armies fight off and on in the Middle East and war clouds gather from Africa to Northeast Asia. For sure, these wars look quite different from the ones we covered as journalists decades ago. High-tech means weapons with far greater range and accuracy than those we saw in our time. With all that weaponry, it seems amazing that U.S. troops still carry M16 rifles fighting enemy soldiers carrying AK-47s. The M16 and AK-47 have gone through a few generations of modernization but remain the basic infantry weapons.

Dropping by the home of veteran Canadian TV correspondent and producer Bill Cunningham, we share memories of our encounter with a North Vietnamese and Viet Cong unit in Cambodia. We had driven down from Phnom Penh on the strength of rumors that the North Vietnamese were building up for an offensive across the South Vietnamese border in the Seven Mountains region deep in the Mekong Delta.

Turning up a side road, I saw soldiers wearing pith helmets festooned with camouflage leaves carrying AK-47′s. Reversing course was not an option. They would have fired on us if we seemed to be fleeing. Slowly, we inched into a base camp where a thin, grizzled older man, fondling a grenade, pointed a pistol at Cunningham and cameraman Maurice Embra.

I remember a female soldier, carrying an AK-47, looking somberly at me as I opened my notebook — a real notebook, that is, not a notebook computer, a latter-day device that no one in those days imagined. Cunningham showed his Canadian passport, assuring the old man we were “all Canadians” as I was about to pull out my U.S. passport. After a few minutes’ hesitation, they let us go after giving us propaganda leaflets in Vietnamese and Khmer.

Those of us who lived through these wars were lucky. A lot of journalists got killed in Vietnam and Cambodia, a number as they drove down roads in search of war. As the weaponry, conditions and battlefields change, the dangers are just as extreme. Journalists get killed by rifle fire and execution — these days they are beheaded, a method of death that seems unique among Al Qaida and ISIS extremists.

The big difference between covering U.S. forces then and now is journalists these days have to be “embedded” in operations. They go through an elaborate accreditation process and then are okayed to join up with an American unit. Their interviews are monitored, missing that first-hand spontaneity of quotes and glimmerings that we were always hearing and seeing.

In our time, a press card from the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam — MACV — was a pass to anywhere.

Free to roam, Don Tate survived firefights, close calls and near misses throughout South Vietnam. I was with him on some of these adventures, jumping in and out of helicopters, riding on American tanks and armored personnel carriers, roaring across the Cambodian border as U.S. forces rampaged through North Vietnamese base areas after the fall of Prince Sihanouk in 1970.

But those were not really the good old days. Rather, they left an indelible impression of the cruelty and horrors of war. Older Koreans, having gone through the hell of the Korean War, know the feeling much better than I.

A second Korean War, a wider Northeast Asian war, would if anything be more frightening than all the mayhem we see and read about in the Middle East. And the specter of war in Eastern Europe, as Russia asserts its presence in eastern Ukraine and maybe elsewhere, is still more horrifying.

Years after our encounter with the bad guys in Cambodia, Cunningham and I went back again. The idea was to see what people remembered of the fighting that once swept their villages and how they looked decades later. Cunningham did a great TV special, and I did a lengthy story for the International Herald Tribune, for which I was filing at the time.

New buildings, concrete and shiny aluminum had turned hamlets into roadside shopping areas. People were crossing the border into Vietnam, trading, visiting friends. It was a relief to see the region at peace all those years later. You wonder if some years from now peace will settle upon the Middle East and caravans will crisscross the region as in centuries past.

Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
Be the first to comment