War & Peace

As Vietnam celebrates the 35th anniversary of its defeat of the US, Jon Swain remembers the adrenalin rush of being a young reporter in the biggest war story of his life.


Frontline broadsheet, Summer 2010

A few weeks ago, a group of Vietnam Old Hacks returned to Saigon; I can’t bring quite myself to call it Ho Chi Minh City. They came back to mark the 35th anniversary of the end of the war that defined the 1960s and 1970s  and which took the lives of so many of their friends and colleagues.

Quite rightly, the reunion had sombre moments; seventy-three journalists and 135 photographers were killed covering the conflict. But the gathering was marked, too, with a good dose of joyous enthusiasm and banter. I wonder if today’s generation of reporters, who cover Iraq and Afghanistan with  distinction, will be gathering 35 years hence in downtown Baghdad or Kabul - by then, hopefully, cities at peace - to mark the end of the wars that dominate these early years of the  21st century and have characterised war reporting for a brave new generation of journalists.

I suspect not. For Vietnam unlike any other place took over a man’s soul in a way that those other conflicts never can. The proximity of death amid such beauty gave to me, at least, a quality of life unattainable elsewhere  I have covered many wars since then but decades after the war ended Vietnam’s potent spell still dominates my life.

For five years I lived in Vietnam in my very early 20s and I look back on it now, not so much with nostalgia, but with wonderment that such a place existed. I feel privileged to have known and been a part of it. Journalistically, Vietnam was the best and most important story there was.

It was, after all, the most bitterly-divisive conflict in which Americans have fought, apart from the American civil war; it still is. It was the place where young men came from all over America to fight communism and make the world safe for democracy but where the last Americans left in humiliation, concerned only for their survival, wondering whether the sacrifices they had made were worthwhile. It killed more than 58,000 Americans,maimed thousands more, cost tens of billions of dollars, and killed and wounded 2.5m Vietnamese. At its height 400 Americans  were dying a week. The sacrifices in a war that split America still weigh heavily on the nation’s psyche. So if you were in the news business back then you had to cover it.

The massive American involvement made it the middle of the world but Vietnam was more than that for us. The war provided a magnificent arena for adventure.  It was an adventure playground for journalism, a place for a young man to be tested in the most dangerous, yet most exotic environment imaginable.

At the time, there was not another country on earth under the shadow of such misery. The paradox was that being there made us feel alive even though there was a really good chance of getting killed. We welcomed Vietnam, not just for the story, but for its freedoms. Vietnam cranked up our senses like nothing before. In the midst of the raw energy of the war we escaped the confines of ordinary life. Vietnam was our jail-break from mundanity. We were young.  Life was now, without past or future. Those deadly but exhilarating toys of war – the helicopters, the gunships, the jet fighters gripped our imagination. We could experience them all. Everything seemed possible and our existence had many strange and paradoxical moments.

By night you could join a blacked-out C-119 gunship “zapping” supply trucks coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail, watching in awe as the Gatling-style machineguns mounted in its belly spewed out 6000 rounds a minute into the jungle below; by day you could be swimming in the surf in the immense dazzling blue of the South China Sea. You could equally be amid the silent perils of the jungle, in the rice fields prickly with hidden booby traps, or sloshing up to your armpits through oozing mud in the Mekong Delta or belly-crawling for cover amid a mortar attack on a firebase below the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. And then getting smashed in the warrant officers’ club at Quang Tri combat base to the din of a rock’n’roll group accompanied by gyrating Filipina dancing girls, or relaxing in the Pink House massage parlour in Danang.

Saigon, where we lived, the once languid Paris of the Orient, was frenzied and war-fattened, a place of  raucous traffic,  crowded with street-hawkers, beggars and orphans. The price of American intervention was terrible not just in lives but on Vietnamese culture and the fabric of Vietnamese society but the resilient city managed to retain a magical charm especially when  arriving back on the hot tarmac of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, filthy and covered in mud from weeks in the field, exhausted but exhilarated to be alive.

We lived in an insane atmosphere and the memories of  Saigon are strong – the neon-gash of the bars by the darkening Saigon river, the narrow-human-filled alleys,the sensual warmth of the narcotic nights, the shock waves of exploding bombs and rockets rattling the windows, the orange flares sinking towards the ground.

Real life, however, was out in the rice paddies,the woods, the hills. It offered excitement, an indefinable feeling of camaraderie. And it was where we might also die. Many of the adrenalin high-points of the war that still stand out for me are to do with choppers. Nobody who was in Vietnam can ever catch the rhythmic beat of helicopter rotor blades again without a shiver of recognition. The choppers were the workhorses of the US army and every time we stepped in one and headed for a “hot” LZ (landing zone) was a roll of the dice.

But what can be more exhilarating when you are 20 and think you are indestructible than buzzing a few feet above the trees of the jungle in a small OH-6 observation helicopter, deliberately attracting groundfire; or riding over the Hai Van pass in a Cobra helicopter gunship as Sneaky White, a veteran Air Cavalry chopper pilot, stetson plonked on his head, suddenly lets you take the controls; or flying in an A-37 Dragonfly on a bombing mission over communist positions around An Loc, your heart seeming to miss a beat as the bombs are released and the groundfire rises to meet you.

The exposure to danger and violence were part of our lives and we inevitably had to become hardened to the bloodshed to survive. But we never became so hardened to accept it and the pain of memories endures along with the good times.

Some memories from that war remain buried in a bodybag so deep within me that it was years before I let them out: a rain-soaked night spent on a shiveringly-cold and lonely firebase, watching and comforting a wounded South Vietnamese private Pham Van Nhu dying in agony because there was no helicopter to evacuate him because American combat troops had left; the 18-year-old soldiers waking up in hospital and looking for their missing limbs. The soft, sighing hopeless chorus of the wounded; the intensive care unit at the US navy field hospital at Danang, dubbed the “ward of white lies” because medics held their hands and told them they were going to make it when the odds were overwhelmingly that they were not; the Vietnamese clinging to skids of helicopters and plunging to their deaths in the jungle below; the suffering of the Vietnamese boat people. After the collapse of the US-backed government nearly a million fled the country in small unseaworthy boats. Many did not live to see the freedom they sought.

Hours after they sailed from little fishing ports in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam they found rape, robbery and a violent death from pirates in the Gulf of Thailand. Vietnam  is a country at peace now. Saigon is under communist rule and is a tiger economy. The US dollar is king . The old Saigon has gone. Places I loved in central Saigon have been torn down and replaced with marble and glass shopping malls full of fashionable boutiques.

Was it for Prada and Louis Vuitton that the Vietcong sacrificed themselves in their thousands? I think not.

Was it worth it? To those who wonder, go and see the cemeteries and war memorials in America and Vietnam, talk to the thousands who lost arms,legs, loved ones. For them the Vietnam war will never be over.

In my heart, too, I will be there all my life.