Tag Archives: Vietnam

The Problems With Media Coverage of the Vietnam War Were Only Increased by the Ken Burns PBS Documentary

by: john harrison

The true story of the Vietnam War is dying out. The men that made that history like those before them are now rapidly becoming history themselves. While the Vietnam War was incredibly poorly covered by print journalism, it was well photographed. Those photographs and particularly the information that has come out from North Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended have already given lie to many of the most popular myths about the war. Unfortunately, there are many more myths are still out there, still getting in the way of the real story of what was the Vietnam War.

Except for a few venturesome souls, even Ken Burns agreed in his recent documentary that the print journalists covering the Vietnam War mostly stayed safe in Saigon. They did not really go out and cover the war like the intrepid journalists of World War II. That was particularly true during the Tet Offensive. It is hard to say you are covering a war when you do not really ever go look at it, but that did seem to bother these journalists.

I think that this may have been the first war where it was specifically dangerous to just be a journalist. That is, not only were they subject to the same risks as everybody else in a war zone; the journalists themselves were also purposefully targeted. The photographers had always had that risk, so they did not care. According to Ken Burns the print journalists in the Vietnam War did not respond as well. There were of course numerous exceptions, but they, and their work, was generally ignored.

Part of the problem with sifting out the truth today is that these print journalists covering the Vietnam War were and are very smart. They knew that the winds of public approval would change sometime, because these winds always change. So, they planted a few bombs for later use when people complained about the pervasive bias in their coverage.

For example, before he left Vietnam after covering some of the Tet Offensive there, Walter Cronkite did say in one report that MACV had said that the VC were taking a beating in the Tet ’68 battles still going on. However, when he got home to New York in his one and only editorial comment, a major announcement that was itself big news, on the progress of the Vietnam War Cronkite said that the people that were saying that the VC were taking a beating in the Tet battles were the same ones that had misled America so many times before about the Vietnam War and that they should not be believed again. It was classic, “have my cake and eat it too” journalism. When he was attacked years after the war for bias in his coverage, Cronkite immediately trotted this quote out as evidence of the contrary but ignored his later, much more highly covered, editorial.

As someone who had reported on and lived through the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, Cronkite above all the other journalists reporting on the war should have known better. As America’s greatest living journalist, Cronkite should have done better. He should have done his job.

More recently, someone has analyzed the editorial content of the major newspapers during the Vietnam War and determined to their satisfaction that by far most of them supported the Vietnam War editorially. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but it is utterly irrelevant. It was the reporting on the Vietnam War that was defective, not the editorials. It was the constant claims of a “credibility gap” by the people covering the war from the comfort, and relative safety, of Saigon that was the problem.

These reporters, many of whom had never studied war, who had never gone to the field to look at the war for themselves, who were appalled by the bloody detritus that war churned up constantly, chose to simply disbelieve official reports and to substitute their own judgements. Just like Ken Burns, who presented only those veterans who were now ashamed, or dissatisfied in some way with their Vietnam service in his “documentary” when every poll shows that well above 80% of the veterans who actually served in Vietnam were proud of their service, these reporters too built a case, rather than filed a report on the Vietnam War.

There is a big difference between building a case and conducting a through investigation of facts as a reporter, and that singular difference is the principle problem with almost all of the reporting, and many of the books on the Vietnam War. It is not their “point of view” that is the problem, it is actual, willful, bias based on almost uniform ignorance of the war itself. No-one can reliably report on a battle in Phan Thiet from the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, but that is what they demonstrably tried to do. Unfortunately, having made these ridiculous reports, they now feel compelled to defend them.

In a way it is similar to when the complaints started coming out about problems with the initial M16 rifle. The Army, in reply to numerous articles in several newspapers, put out a much hyped report that the M16 was X times more likely to fire the first shot than the vaunted AK47. All true, but that is a test of ammunition reliability, not a test of rifle reliability.

The problem with the first M16s surfaced only with the second or third shot, and they surfaced a lot. The true test of a rifle’s reliability is its ability to fire X rounds without a failure in a simulated combat situation. Had they made that test, the AK47 would have blown the M16 out the door. The AK probably still would, but even that does not make it a better infantry weapon, things like accuracy, rifle weight, weight of ammunition, bullet performance, ergonomics, ease of maintenance, etc., all come into play then. So, both sides played the same game, building a case rather than telling the truth.

The people making the M16/AK47 tests knew that they were functionally lying, they were after all real experts, but they did it anyway, just like Cronkite did when he made his famous “editorial comment”, just like Ken Burns did when he limited his “Vietnam War veterans” in his PBS documentary to only those of the anti-war persuasion even though they had to be harder to find.

It is a very real problem for actual historians of the Vietnam War that there is this sort of overlay of total crap out there, some from both sides, that they have to sift through to find the real stories still hidden down there somewhere, and now the real stories are all dying out as the Vietnam veterans ever more rapidly disappear.

 

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SFC James Albert Bunn

SFC James Albert Bunn

by john harrison

On February 2, 1968 Sergeant First Class James Albert Bunn was killed while serving in the Republic of South Viet Nam. He was my platoon sergeant, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion, 506th (Airborne) Infantry Regiment (aka the “Band of Brothers”), 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. This is a rather long way of saying that he was also my friend.

I gave him the order that resulted in his death. It was Tet ’68.

We knew that we were moving to contact with the enemy that day. It was a question of where and when we hit the enemy, not if. Even as we moved there were already very loud pitched battles going on all over the place, all around us. We expected to hit a well entrenched, well prepared enemy, and we did.

We were looking for the 482nd Viet Cong Mainforce Battalion, near Phan Thiet on the coast of the South China Sea. As the lead platoon we made contact with the enemy first. Early that morning we moved up to a small house. After searching the small house I sent a fire team into the larger blue house next door to the right to clear it too.

They ran into the VC inside the house almost immediately. The last man in the fire team was shot as they ran out of the front door of that blue house. He fell on the front porch and laid there bleeding. He was hurt bad, but alive. Although not that far away, I could see that the porch would be a bitch to get to and then to get away from. I can’t tell you how frustrating that day was or of how many different ideas we tried to get our man off of that porch.

At one point I ordered Sergeant Bunn to take a squad and to see if he could get into the back of the blue house since the front of the blue house was swept by constant rifle and machine-gun fire from several directions. We were literally being shot at from 360°, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, mortars, rockets. You name it; they shot it at us, and we returned the compliment. The level of enemy fire that day was absolutely incredible.

While Bunn tried to get in the back of the house I set about using air strikes, gun ships and artillery to clear out the enemy from our front and left flanks so that I could turn the platoon right and get our man off that damn porch.

Jerry Berry in his excellent book, My Gift to You, (available on Amazon) tells Jim Bunn’s story:

PSG Bunn and Sergeant Stacy Raynor’s squad made their way around the three barbed wire fences that separated the two houses and carefully approached the back of the house. Just before reaching the back of the house PSG Bunn set up the squad in a supporting position and then moved on to the corner of the blue house on his own.

The enemy fire was intense, with heavy fire coming from all directions. With bullets striking all around him, PSG Bunn ran to the back door, threw a hand grenade inside the house and followed it up with several bursts from his M-16 rifle. While standing in that doorway PSG Bunn was shot several times. He was killed instantly.

It took a while, but we finally got our man off that porch and we brought Jim Bunn back as well. The Airborne recovers its dead.

Jim Bunn left his wife Rachel and three young daughters. His name appears on Panel 36E at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. He is interred in Riverside Cemetery in Oklahoma.

I think about Jim Bunn just about every day. This and Memorial Day are his days. He earned them both, full and complete on February 2, 1968.

Tet ‘68 was a long time ago. It was yesterday. I remembered him today, and everyday. Platoon Sergeant James Albert Bunn. My friend, a brave and good man. Airborne!

bunn

Tom Gaffney

Tom Gaffney

by: john harrison

On a recent Saturday morning I was to be the referee at my son’s Montgomery County Swim League swim meet. One of the principal jobs of the referee is to blow his, or her, whistle at appropriate times during the meet to move things along. This happens regularly during these meets.

I keep my whistle and my badge of office as a certified official on a lanyard by the back door of our home. When I was ready to leave on that Saturday morning, the lanyard and the badge were right there where they were supposed to be, but the whistle was missing.

It is impossible to be a referee without a whistle and it soon became clear I was not going to find mine. However, because of Tom Gaffney I knew where I had a spare whistle. It was about 45 years before when he had given me an olive drab green, plastic whistle, with a black cord attached, and I still had it. Technically I guess I stole it when I left the Army years ago.

When I was 19 or 20 years old I had been commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant in the United States Army and Tom Gaffney was my first company commander. When Tom was a teenager, he had been drafted into the Korean War. He did so well in Korea that he was given a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. At the end of the Korean War, the Army, as usual after a war, went through a Reduction in Force or RIF. What that meant as far as Tom Gaffney was concerned, was that, if he wanted to stay in the military, his only choice was to revert from being a commissioned officer to the rank of buck sergeant. He could still be a commissioned officer in the reserves but not in active service.

Cpt. Thomas F. Gaffney - A Co. CO and S-3 Air copy

Tom was the Alpha Company commander in the states and took the rifle company he had trained there to Vietnam. He remained as company commander throughout the Tet ’68 Offensive. After that he became S-3 Air on the battalion staff.

Tom chose to stay in the Army. He remained in the Army for 20 years and was about to retire at its highest enlisted rank, Command Sergeant Major, when the Army made him an offer he did not refuse. The Army offered to reinstate his commissioned officer rank and to promote him to captain if he would agree to stay in the Army for only one more year.

The catch was that he would have to go back to Viet Nam, a place he had already been as a Green Beret A-Team member twice before. At the time such an offer was much more attractive that it sounds today. Even a relatively junior officer could expect to spend at most 6 months in the field and the rest of his 12-month tour in a relatively secure rear area. In addition, Tom was only 38 years old and this one additional year in the Army would significantly increase his monthly retirement income.

On the debit side, the war was clearly heating up in 1966, but in the prior 8 years of warfare a total of less than 6,000 Americans had been killed in action. Tom did not know, could not know, that the 12 months we would spend together “in country” would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War and that far more than double the number that had been killed in the prior eight years would be killed during the time we were there. In fact, of the 58,000 Americans that died in 8 years of a hot war in Viet Nam, almost 1/3 died during the 12 incredibly violent months that we were “in country” together.

TomInMountains

This was taken somewhere in the Cambodian Highlands before Tet ’68 and gives you an idea of the terrain we operated in during our tour in Vietnam. That is Tom walking toward the camera.

Tom was always practical, so he accepted the Army’s offer. He has the face of a man who takes nothing for granted and he knew far better than most what he was getting himself into.

Tom had his own rules in addition to the Army’s for his platoon leaders. Some of the little rules were that: an officer should always have a pen and something to write on in case he had to write something. An officer should carry a whistle in case he needed to get someone’s attention in the middle of loud situation, like a firefight. An officer never ordered anyone to do something that he would not do himself and finally, that an officer never passed the buck. The orders were always his.

Tom also said that after the Korean War a number of officers had bragged that they had to “throw the book away” to fight that war. It was Tom’s view that these officers had never read the book, and that they had learned the art of war at the cost of the lives of their men. Tom thought that this price was too high. He insisted that an officer should know his job before he started giving orders.

Tom was never cautious about expressing his opinions. He was always demanding. However, he was also a realist and he taught that uncertainty would always be part of leadership, as would loss.

When the war he had volunteered to go back to turned ever more violently ugly, he did not complain. He just continued to do his job as well as he could, and we brought a lot of young men home alive because of that.

And so, for more than 48 years I have always carried a pad and a pen. When I needed a whistle, I knew where one was. I never hid behind my boss. If I had tough orders to give, I gave them in my name, no matter where they had originated.

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This picture was taken in 2012 before Len Liebler passed away. From right to left: Jim Schalax, 1st Plt; John Harrison 2nd Plt. & XO; Tom Gaffney CO; Len Liebler 3rd Plt; Joe Alexander Weapons & 3rd Plts. Three out of four of the lieutenants were wounded, one, Joe Alexander was shot five times; three out of four of our platoon sergeant were killed during out tour. Tom Gaffney still points the way.

You do not forget someone like Tom Gaffney, or as he sometimes liked to phrase it, “Mrs. Gaffney’s little boy Tom.” He is an original, an American original and a good one. He and three of his four platoon leaders are still alive 48 years after we first went to war. Given what we saw and what we did, that is simply incredible and a fitting testament to his leadership.

Currahee, Tom Gaffney.

A Vietnam Tale

A Vietnam Tale

by: RonFord

Part one, Training

Airborne! Blood and guts, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! kill, Kill, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! I want to be a Airborne ranger!
Airborne! Live a life of blood, guts and danger
Airborne! KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, AIRBORNE!

Part two, War

Fear! Death, Death, Death, Blood, guts Danger
Fear! Destruction, Destruction, Blood, guts danger Airborne!
Fear! Burn Baby Burn
Fear! Kill them all, Airborne!
Fear! Let God sort them out, Airborne, Ranger, Danger, KILL!

Part Three, Home Coming

Airborne! Who cares
Airborne! So What
Airborne! Baby killers
Airborne! Depression
Airborne! I wasn’t there
Airborne! SUICIDE! I wasn’t there

Part four, Evaluation

Some Vietnam Veterans still suffer from the war
We are unable to close the door
Theres no conclusion I fear
We just can’t get out of here
I am filled with anger and pain
I think the war fucked up my brain.

Ron Ford
101st Airborne
VN 67-68