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Hither and Yon

Still forgetting the ‘Forgotten War’ after all these years

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
WASHINGTON-- You know how forgotten is the Korean War when you see a documentary about the young correspondents who battled U.S. officialdom in the early years of the Vietnam War and hear comparisons between Vietnam and World War II, Vietnam and Iraq ― and not one word about Korea.
Correspondents in Vietnam were a privileged lot. We could go anywhere on military aircraft, get all the quotes we wanted from American GIs and return to the pleasures of Saigon.
Neil Sheehan of United Press International, who was there at the outset, at a showing at the Newseum in Washington of a documentary “Dateline ― Saigon,” talked about the disconnect between what he and others were seeing and the line from American generals.
The most compelling story is the distorted account the generals were handing out about a battle in a hamlet named Ap Bac, south of Saigon, in which nearly 100 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed by Viet Cong guerrillas who stood their ground against assault from three sides.
The debacle at Ap Bac in 1963 has come to symbolize the weakness of the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong and the failure of the American establishment to perceive they could never defeat a “nationalist” movement of dedicated, disciplined Vietnamese guerrillas.
Besides Sheehan, who was with United Press International, the documentary focuses on four other journalists who covered the war in that period ― David Halberstam of The New York Times; and three from the Associated Press, Peter Arnett, Malcolm Browne and Horst Faas, the AP photo chief in Saigon. Halberstam, Browne and Faas have all died in recent years, but producer-director Thomas Herman had the idea for this documentary long ago. He had the foresight to get copious interviews with all of them.
The saga of these intrepid journalists is compelling, especially when you compare their reporting with coverage of World War II and the war in Iraq.
Reporters in World War II were totally on the side of the U.S. and its allies, accepting what they were told about battles that quite often they never witnessed.
By the time George W. Bush got to be president and ordered U.S. troops into Iraq in 2003, the military establishment had a sure-fire way to control the media. Rather than have carte blanche to go anywhere, reporters had to be “embedded” in a unit, forced to stick with the troops and do as they were told. That system remains in effect wherever the media is covering U.S. forces.
But what about Korea? “Dateline ― Saigon” does not mention “The Forgotten War,” and Sheehan and New Yorker writer George Packer, in a panel discussion after the showing, said nothing about it either. There are, however, some comparisons that one should not overlook.
Sheehan talks about “the Vietnamese” who defeated the American and South Vietnamese forces but neglects to mention that the ultimate victors were the North Vietnamese who poured into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail system through Eastern Cambodia and Laos. Nor do any of those in the film find it relevant to note that about 2 million South Vietnamese fled the country, often on dangerous journeys by sea, after Hanoi’s victory in 1975.
When I visited the area of Ap Bac in 1974, a year before the end, I found villagers cowering in fear, wondering why the Americans were no longer coming to their rescue.
One overwhelming difference between the Korean and Vietnam wars was that the U.S. bombed North Korea at will. The air force general, Curtis LeMay, ordered the destruction of just about every target in North Korea, flattening Pyongyang and all other cities.
U.S. warplanes struck in North Vietnam on a selective basis, mostly avoiding civilian areas. Washington strategists, thinking they were being awfully clever, modulated the bombing, turning it on and off during negotiations, convinced that way they could bring the rulers in Hanoi to terms.
In fact, the Viet Cong, whom Sheehan venerates, were increasingly ineffective. No sooner had the regime in Hanoi won the war than the National Liberation Front, the formal name of the VC organization, was marginalized and then discarded.
If the principals in “Dateline ― Saigon” were to broach the topic of Korea, they might ask about the role of South Korean communists before and during the war. They might compare the invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces on orders from Kim Il-Sung with the gradual entry of main force North Vietnamese units in the South. Above all they would have to note the impunity with which U.S. planes destroyed targets in the North.
What were correspondents doing in that war? Two of them, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News and Jim Lucas of Scripps-Howard, covered Korea, writing with passion about the suffering of U.S. troops.
Against that background, they took quite a different view in Vietnam from those in “Dateline ― Saigon.” Those five featured in the film ― and CBS correspondent Morley Safer, who is interviewed briefly ― represent a particular period and a special viewpoint.
For their early defiance of the establishment, they have assumed a mythic status beyond that of most other journalists, notably those whose coverage of the “forgotten” Korean War, like the war itself, is indeed forgotten, not worthy of mention, good or bad.
Donald Kirk, based in Korea, covered much of the Vietnam War. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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