Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bad Intelligence, Sorry 'bout That

Vietnam GI (VGI) led off each issue with a long interview with a combat veteran talking about gritty aspects of the war rarely seen in the more sanitized national media. Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, conducted most of the interviews, identifying an especially dramatic quote and running it across the front page as the header. In Vietnam, mainstream foreign correspondents worked under constraints. If they were too aggressive in their coverage of a combat unit’s embarrassments, a commanding officer (CO) might deny them transportation to the battle scene next time around. Similarly, their home editors in the States soon learned that consistently critical coverage of the war could get their domestic reporters shut out of White House backgrounders on other news stories. Hence, the field correspondents of necessity practiced a degree of self-censorship, and for those who didn’t, the home office would do the cutting.

In sharp contrast, the interviews in VGI with the combat troopers revealed the darker undercurrents of the war not seen on CBS or in the Washington Post – the inevitable command failures, communications breakdowns, and general foul-ups of war. Most often the result was loss of American lives. Here are excerpts from a typical VGI interview with Marine Cpl Craig Walden who served two tours as a recon and weapons specialist and a squad leader. Severely wounded, he was evacuated to the States in spring ’68. He tells the story of a post-Tet battle just below the border with North Vietnam in a calm, understated manner:
VGI:  How did you get hit over there?
Cpl Walden: This last fiasco we were in. I was with Bravo Company of the 1/3. We were sitting across the Qua Viet River last May [‘68] and we got a call there was a platoon of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) – a platoon of theirs is approximately 40 men at most – building up in this village, Dai Do. We were sitting up on the other side of this river, so Lt Norris, our CO, wants this great reputation for himself as a hero – he was gung ho … He says 'my men will go get them'...

Cpl Craig Walden, Vietnam, ‘68

So we got a couple of amtracks, amphibious track vehicles, we got our company on them, started going across the river and got halfway there when we started taking machine gun fire from the village. … So we hit the beach and got off the thing and they just started hitting us from all over. I’m thinking, man, this is some platoon they’ve got …. We started pushing across an open field to this one small little hill right before the large village. We had lost over half the company by now, so we decided this wasn’t a  platoon they had in the village.
All night we were losing people and getting rocket rounds and mortar rounds. Well, the next morning the shit was still flying, we’re still firing back and forth. … We had this one [amtrack left] and we were going to charge across this field and attack the village with about half our company. … We got halfway across the field and then it really started. We had two tanks come down along the shore line, which were blown up immediately, everybody in the tanks was killed. And they were still insisting this was an NVA platoon. …
Well, we kept pushing through until finally everybody was shot, everyone was out of ammunition and everything. We tried pulling back, all the corpsmen were shot. I was shot myself. We dragged back to the river so we had the river to our backs. Wehad 11 of us left now out of approximately 237 people. [AnotherMarine unit took the village a few days later] …they estimated final body count was over 1500. That was what we attacked with 200 something men.
It was in Time magazine.* They wrote up … that this Marine Company had attacked this full division, the 320th NVA Division. Said casualties were ‘light to moderate’, they said we had won and everything. They didn’t mention the fact that only 11 guys survived. I got medevac-ed out of there.
Craig Walden lost an arm and spent months in hospital at Great Lakes Naval Facility. Once again one marvels at the raw courage of Marines, continuing to attack against wildly superior forces with most of their men dead or wounded. And Craig was an impressive story teller, telling the hair-raising tale with the utmost dispassion. As he healed, a Navy doctor asked him if he was going back to his unit in Nam. Craig said, What could I do with one arm; the doc replied, Fire a pistol.

Later, returning to his native Chicago, Craig along with two other ex-Vietnam GIs, John Alden and Joe Harris, became a co-editor of Vietnam GI following Jeff’s death in mid-’69.

*Time, May 10, 1968, p. 32

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