Forever Saigon

Forty-five years since the fall of Saigon, seventy-five since the fall of Berlin, six hundred and forty since the death of Catherine of Siena — the anniversaries have been falling thick and fast this week. For an Idleblogger it has been an embarras de richesses. The first two of those events fill my head with the images of so many long dead, and perpetually beloved; and too, with so much business unfinished, that will never be finished in this world. One thing follows another, downhill, as we recall each catastrophe, and with it the miracle that some of us have lived.

An article in the New-York Post (here) brings one historical event back into view, with a bitterness I haven’t yet overcome. It is only an aside on an old photo-caption, which like so many others from the Vietnam War was, shall we say, inaccurate. Taken for a symbol, it has passed into our electronic folk memory, as one of innumerable lies it contains. I wasn’t there, of course, but I had visited that country, and once, too briefly, lived in Saigon. The (very consequential) deceit, dishonesty, and faithlessness of “the mainstream media” was among the lessons I took from my apprenticeship. My ludicrous ambition, to “correct it” some day, will never be fulfilled. But to the link: my praise to one writer who did his homework. Let me be grand and say, the truth has set him free.

It will soon be fifty years since I first attended the “Five O’Clock Follies” at “MAC-V,” where the best hamburger in South-east Asia could be obtained for the price of a chocolate bar. This press conference format — bluster and counter-bluster — has not changed in all this time. Everything in that vast sprawling compound of military administration was sprayed, swept, and polished; I always entered with wide eyes. There, and in bars along Tu-Do Street (the old rue Catinat, once an exquisite ribbon from the Cathedral down lines of fragrant tamarinds), was where I first fell in with “real professional journalists,” practising their trade.

Those I met were, by and large, pathological liars, and extremely vain. They were also coarsely disrespectful, much like our journalists today: rudely cynical and sarcastic. The only serious exceptions I came to know were a couple of religious weirdos — one a Lutheran ex-pastor from West Germany, the other a reject from a Catholic seminary in southern France. They, like me, had strayed into the field, from a misplaced sense of adventure.

At all levels, and on all sides, I was witnessing a freak show — there and wherever I wandered outside the Unreal City. I owned a reliable Nikkormat camera, that would sometimes earn me much-needed cash, but was quite unsuccessful as a print journalist. My earnest despatches, sent to newspapers on spec, were routinely “spiked” — not, I think, because I was so young (they didn’t know that), but because I kept, often unknowingly, writing things that contradicted what the New York Times and CBS were reporting.

Not only was I learning that the “mainstream” was all lies, but too, that it invariably followed an agenda. The self-appointed purpose of the press was to sabotage the American war effort. (That of the life-or-death desperate Viets was, at best, ignored.)

But then, I was deceitful, too. I was pretending to be over 18 when I was still only 17, in order to get a press pass.

War zones can be grim, but they can also be the happiest and most uplifting places, and I have the fondest memories of people, especially brave GIs, who were caught up in that one. Seldom will there ever be a seriously difficult human situation to which one of the humans does not rise, and that includes the Mekong Delta. I have names to visit on that monument in Washington, DC. Indefensibly, I also have names that I have forgotten.

I lived with friends, for a time, in a magnificently decaying French colonial mansion, out Tan Binh way, almost to the Tan Son Nhut air base; my bedroom directly above a little arms cache. (I was the lowest-ranking member of the household.) It had been overrun during the Tet Offensive, and was therefore surrounded, above one storey of garden wall, with two storeys of barbed wire. Very loud C&W music could be heard from a USO juke box next door. In the evenings, from the flat roof, one could smoke ganja and watch the Phantom jets light up rice fields around the city with their flares, for the pilots were curious about Viet Cong movements.

One day I had the honour of being picked up in a jeep, by military police, on the suspicion that I was AWOL from the army. I finally agreed to show my passport, with the lion and unicorn gilded on the front. That farce, and many others, including thrilling rides in helicopters upcountry (at the expense of the American taxpayer), and nearly-free misordered stuff at the Cholon “PX,” was my vantage into an extremely populous bureaucracy that, with resources beyond imagining, was assiduously losing the war.

But I was very young, and by nature and upbringing an anti-communist; more broadly, against murder and massacre, as young idealists sometimes are. I never fell for the anti-war bullshit. I had indeed arrived in Saigon, gung-ho for the Yankees; and left, still believing that they should change their minds, and win.