New York Times Magazine, April 12, 1970
By ROBERT HODIERNE
A PRIVATE first class whose company was ambushed and mauled by
the enemy will know intimately the anthill behind which he hid trying
to save his hide, but his mother in Des Moines, Iowa, will probably know
more about the whole fight than he does.
His mother may well read a wire service account in The Des Moines Register.
The Pfc. will listen to the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (A.F.V.N.) on
his radio, read his unit paper or, if he’s lucky and there’s
some extra room on the supply helicopter, read the Pacific Stars and Stripes.
If he gets Stripes he might know as much as his mother in Iowa.
The reason for this strange and somehow unfair situation is that the
papers and broadcasts that reach a G.I. are, with the exception (up
to now) of Stripes, so controlled by the military that little objective
reporting gets into them. The reader in the States who takes the time
has a chance to read something that hasn’t been muted, twisted
or mangled by the military authorities. Any muting, twisting and mangling
in the States is done by civilian reporters and editors – and
this open the door, willy-nilly, to several points of views, the Vice
To the nearly half-million G.I.’s in Vietnam, though, there is no
escape from the military’s hand on the news. The American public
got some inkling of the Vietnam G.I.’s information lag last fall
when A.F.V.N.’s polices (i.e. that no news is the best news, and
bland news second best) were blasted on the air by one of its own commentators
(who is no longer with the network). And now the G.I.’s one relatively
good source, Stripes itself, is about to be toned down by a new editor
recently installed by the military authorities who didn’t like what
they were reading in it.
THE soldiers here are the “most” of many
things. They are the most expensively equipped, trained and paid soldiers
the United States has ever fielded. They are also the most literate. The
graduating class of 1968, the military says, raised the education level
to the highest ever. The college-educated draftee didn’t stop reading
after his foul-mouthed, comic-book-scanning drill sergeant made him shave
his beard and cut his hair. But when he was marched onto an airplane with
a couple of hundred other G.I.’s and flown off to Vietnam, he was
virtually cut off from a view of the world any broader than a career Army
In Vietnam a G.I. can get news of the war and the world in several mostly
unsatisfactory ways. He can subscribe to papers from home – any
papers, from the most obscene, radical, left-wing underground ones
to the most right-wing. These are often weeks late, later than that
if the G.I. is with the front-line troops, who only get mail once
a week. But the Vietnam coverage of most Stateside papers, in which
the war has moved well off Page 1, does not satisfy the demand of
a G.I. in the war zone. For war news he must turn to the military
The ubiquitous A.F.V.N. – it claims its radio stations blanket
the country – popped into public attention last fall and winter
when several broadcasters accused the military of censoring the network.
It was Specialist 5 Robert Lawrence who did this on the air, much to
the surprise of nearly everyone. Lawrence is now a chaplain’s
assistant in the remote Central Highlands city of Kontum, which surprises
THESE charges “shocked” and “outraged”
several politicians, including Representative John Moss (D., Calif.) who
heads the House Government Information Subcommittee. Moss looked into
the matter in February when he was in Vietnam and concluded that there
was no censorship at A.F.V.N., the same conclusion that a military investigation
Moss said that the instances of alleged censorship were really only cases
of editorial judgment. He suggested that more precise guidelines need
to be laid down to insure that these judgments were at least consistent.
In fact, there is no censorship at A.F.V.N. No one man sits with a blue
pencil and a set of rules that force controversial stories off the
air. The news decisions at A.F.V.N. are made in a most haphazard way,
often by officers with little if any real news experience. The main
criterion for deciding what gets on or rather what does not get on
is one of caution
– if there is a chance, often very remote, that there will be repercussions
from a story, the individual officer on duty will kill it. When Vice
President Nguyen Cao Ky beat President Nixon to the punch in announcing
a troop withdrawal, some officer at A.F.V.N. killed the story. It is
unlikely that very many seasoned editors would have made an editorial
judgment like that.
So, while there is no censorship at A.F.V.N., while there is just overcautious,
amateurish editing, the news comes out sounding censored – and considering
the often distorted and misleading view it gives of the war, it might
just as well be censored. A.F.V.N. broadcasters do not go out to report
the war. Their war coverage consists of reading the officials news releases
– which are censored – or reading untouched wire-service copy.
Most of their newscasts are in the sterile, bookkeeper’s vocabulary
of the military. G.I.’s don’t have raging battles on A.F.V.N.;
they engage unknown-size enemy forces. They don’t blast away at
the enemy with rifles and hand grenades; they respond with organic weapons.
Aircraft don’t bomb the hell out of enemy bunkers; they hit specified
targets with selective ordnance. No cries of pain or views of grief are
conveyed by the A.F.V.N. War looks how commanders want it to look: like
a business-like operation in which decisions are coolly, professionally
made in terms of cost effectiveness. This view of war makes battle deaths
nothing more than the wiggles of a green line on a clear plastic-covered
chart in a softly lit briefing room where the most distracting noise is
the humming air conditioner.
But there’s no censorship at A.F.V.N.
UNIT newspapers, published by nearly every outfit large
enough to own a typewriter, are censored by the command. At the headquarters
of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (M.A.C.V.) is the M.A.C.V.
Office of Information, M.A.C.O.I. It has a branch called Reviews and Analysis.
Read that “censor.” In that office a field-grade officer with
a red grease pencil and two little rubber stamps – “This item
cleared for release by M.A.C.O.I.” and “This item not cleared
for release by M.A.C.O.I.” – looks over all stories dealing
with the operational activities of units in Vietnam; that is, with the
bulk of information put out by the unit public-relations men.
These stories – that is, those that are cleared – comprise
the bulk of what goes into the newspapers financed by unit funds reserved
for the benefits of the G.I.’s. The view of the war represented
there is so foolishly slanted that most G.I.’s don’t bother
to read the papers.
All G.I.’s in Vietnam know that we use tear gas. Many of them carry
tear-gas grenades with them. If tear gas every helped anybody win a
tough battle, you’d never read about it in a unit newspapers.
The M.A.C.O.I. censor has a rule about that: “We don’t actively
publicize the use of CS [tear gas],” he writes on stories like
that. Napalm gets greased out, as do references to snipers. Stories that
talk about getting “short” – that is, stories about
being happy because pretty soon they will be going home – are customarily killed. They present what the
grease-pencil warrior calls a “highly negative image of the United
States fighting man.”
The current emphasis at M.A.C.O.I. is pacification, the so-called “other
war.” There is a concerted effort to play down the fighting and
play up the loving. Unit publications and public-relations releases are
crowded with cuddly orphans, lovable nuns, sparkling new wells, big new
schools and grimacing urchins being given shots by kindly medics. It is
hard to find someone killing anyone anywhere.
The Army Reporter, a 12-pages weekly published by the United States Army,
Vietnam, an award winner that claims to be the largest Army newspaper
in the world, is pretty typical. In its March 2, issue, for example,
the front page had four stories, only one dealing with combat. The
three others were about an orphanage, new wells for a village and
a medical civic action program that was livened up by having a band
The entire second page was devoted to a summary of Army battles for the
Feb. 10-16 period. On Page 12 there was one other battle story. The rest
of the paper was devoted to features of a noncombat nature. In the week
covered by it battle stories, nearly 100 United States fighting men died
and more than 500 were wounded. There was no mention of any Unites States
Army soldiers being killed. Only one wounded soldier was mentioned. No
concept of how a fight went, who won, who lost, can be gained from a story
that gives only one side’s casualties.
The typical rationalization for this unrealistic reporting is that it
hurts the morale of the troops to see such information publicized. The
grunts, the combat troops, don’t like to see their hard fights reduced
to public-relations eyewash. If they went through hell, they want people
to know about it. But unit newspapers are in the business of making the
unit and the unit commander look good. Dead G.I.’s don’t do
STRIPES was the one place that G.I.’s could sometimes
read about the shooting, bleeding, bombing, gassing, dying and killing.
A 24-page daily tabloid published in Tokyo, Stripes is a direct descendant
of Willie and Joe’s World War II paper. Government-published, it
is staffed by military and civilians alike. Periodically it has published
some unusual stuff for a military paper. It sends reporters to the field
regularly, unlike A.F.V.N. When these men come back from the front to
Saigon, their stories are sent directly to Tokyo uncensored by M.A.C.O.I.
No other military journalists in Vietnam can claim that privilege.
The predictable result was that many military information officers disliked
Stripes. Their job is to make their boss look good or at least to make
sure he doesn’t look bad. Sometimes Stripes did just what wasn’t
wanted. In August the paper reported that one of the Americal Division
companies fighting in the Hiepduc Valley wasn’t doing very well.
That division complained loudly and often to the then chief of information
for the Army in Vietnam, Col. James Campbell (who was slated to take over
as editor of Stripes in January). Campbell, a hot-tempered, cigar-chomping
career officer, publicly called the paper the “Hanoi Herald”
and termed one of the articles about the fighting “treasonous.”
Pretty hot stuff for the usually stodgy military. Almost at once Campbell
was fired as information chief (and his Stripes’ assignment
dropped), not because the military here disagreed with him, but because
the whole affair generated a lot of bad publicity for the military.
job was to prevent bad publicity.
Campbell’s remarks were made in a speech written by him but delivered
by his deputy at an information officers’ conference in Taipei
last September. At the time Campbell said the speech was the official
view of the Army command in Vietnam, a claim that he repeated several
times. Finally, the chief of information for M.A.C.V., Col. Joseph
Cutrona, convinced Campbell on the phone that it was in his best interest
to retract the statement that he was espousing official viewpoints.
It is fairly clear, however, that the Campbell text was indeed speaking
for the Army. One of Campbell’s clerks reports hand carrying
a copy of the speech to Campbell’s general before it was delivered.
THAT wasn’t the fist time that Stripes had been
under fire, however. Daily calls to the paper’s Saigon bureau about
stories that just didn’t do the military any good were so common
that if a day went by when one didn’t come in, the civilian bureau
chief, Pat Luminello, would fret. Luminello, a veteran newsman, concluded
that the military wanted a “pap sheet in which they could air their
views and prevent even a hint that all was not wine and roses on the war
Luminello (as a result, he says, of this statement) was relieved from
his Saigon post and reassigned to Tokyo while this article was going to
In June, when the Benhet Special Forces camp was under siege, Stripes
got daily calls from M.A.C.O.I. saying stop using the word siege. When
the paper reported the road to Benhet was closed, the command insisted
it was open. The many reporters who risked the roller-coaster rides into
that outpost, on resupply helicopters that almost always drew fire but
were the only way to get to the camp, knew the road was closed. But the
M.A.C.O.I. briefing officer had to stand up in front of these men and blandly
tell them the road was open. One day the Air Force release quoted an Air
Force captain as saying the road was cut in several places. M.A.C.O.I.
still insisted it was open.
Stripes also reported that the South Vietnamese Army wasn’t doing
much to help the camp and that there weren’t any South Vietnamese troops
near the base. The reporter on the scene had watched in the command center
as the artillery officer got permission to fire into all the area surrounding
the camp, which he certainly couldn’t have got had friendly troops
been there. All of the officers at the camp were complaining, bitterly,
that there were no South Vietnamese on hand. But M.A.C.O.I. kept calling
Stripes, saying not to run this information. Stripes ran it anyway.
COL. WILLIAM V. KOCH, then a lieutenant colonel, was
a persistent caller of Stripes’ Saigon office last summer. He complained
a lot about word usage. He didn’t like Stripes calling Hamburger
Hill Hamburger Hill. He thought it should be called Hill 971. Calling
South Vietnam South Vietnam didn’t please him. He said Stripes should
call it the Republic of Vietnam. North Vietnam was North Vietnam to Koch,
however, and not the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese
Army should be called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam but the People’s
Army of North Vietnam should be called the North Vietnamese Army. Koch
also suggested that Luminello bring each night’s group of stories
to M.A.C.O.I. so it could offer guidance. This was flatly refused by Stripes.
This sensitivity to certain words is what led the military to issues
its directive, “Let’s Say It Right.” That directive
prohibited calling mercenaries mercenaries. Vietcong tax collectors
became extortionists and search-and-destroy missions became search-and-clear
missions. This list also revealed the military’s often fuzzy
understanding of the enemy when it ordered that the National Liberation
Front and the People’s
Liberation Army both be called the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army.
The file of complaints that Stripes received from the command is thick.
One repeated complaint was the Stripes reporters asked questions.
Lieut. Col Ross Johnson, now chief of information for the Army in
Vietnam, made that complaint when a Stripes reporter was looking into
racial disturbances in Camranh Bay. Lieut. Cam Stewart, an Air Force
information officer, said to a Stripes reporter that another writer
on that paper was “always
asking questions. I don’t like his attitude.”
Joseph Heller may have called it right in “Catch-22” when
he said, “Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what
people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions
they wanted to.” Heller’s headquarters solved the problem
by making a rule that the only people who were allowed to ask questions
were those who never did. The resemblance to Vietnam is striking.
The pressure on Stripes from the military continued last summer through
the fall and into the winter. The paper so irritated the command that
it stopped inviting reporters to briefings even though Admiral John S.
McCain Jr., the commander-in-chief for Pacific forces, had ordered that
Stripes be given the same cooperation and assistance as the commercial
President Nixon’s Vietnam visit provided a case in point. Everyone
guessed he was coming, but no one knew when. Luminello happened to be
in the U.S. Government’s information building in downtown Saigon
one morning when he noticed a large number of other bureau chiefs present.
When he asked what was happening, they told him they were there for the
briefing on Nixon’s upcoming visit. Luminello called Col. Gordon
Hill, then chief of M.A.C.O.I., who told Luminello, “I don’t
know anything about that, Pat. That must be an Embassy affair.”
One hour later Hill conducted the briefing on Nixon’s visit. That’s
the kind of thing that makes the Stripes people think the military in
Vietnam has it in for them.
The paper had several good things going for it during this period. The
editor was a sharp newsman, Col. Peter Sweers, who is now retired and
teaching journalism. The managing editor, John Baker, a civilian, is a
bullheaded man given to sharp displays of temper, especially when he thought
the paper was being treated poorly. Both of these men were instrumental
in making the paper a pretty honest publication.
Stripes civilian staff, which outnumbers the military editorial staff,
acts as a buffer to military pressure. These civilians are experienced
journalists recruited from the States to work in Tokyo and several other
bureaus for three-year periods. Their pay is standard Government scale,
but extra benefits such as housing allowances, military post exchange
and commissary privileges, as well as free medical care, always draw more
applications than there are openings. The Vietnam bureau chief, who bears
the brunt of the criticism, makes more than $20,000.
The paper’s military staff in Saigon was pretty good, too, during
this mid-1969-early 1970 period. It was certainly well-educated, with
degree holders from prestigious schools – Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins,
the University of Chicago, Berkeley, Medill at Northwestern – and
most of these reporters had professional experience before they were drafted.
For a while these reporters went on writing what they thought ought to
be written, and while lots of it got cut by the editors – mentioning
bombing Laos was then forbidden – much got printed.
But the military commanders who objected to Stripes were bound to win.
After Campbell was fired, the search for a Stripes editor to replace
Sweers began. Sweers left the paper early last fall and on Jan. 1
of this year, Colonel Koch, the man who wanted Stripes’ copy
checked by the M.A.C.O.I. people, took over. He says he is preparing
a new editorial policy for the paper. It still hasn’t become
apparent in print but the hints are everywhere. His first act was
to put the Saigon reporters back in uniform. Whereas before they had
always worn civilian clothes, they now have to wear a uniform that
immediately identifies them as enlisted men. The civilian clothes,
it was thought, helped them mingle better with civilian reporters
and made it easier for them to gather information from sources who
often have little respect for enlisted men.
An even bigger bombshell came, though, when it was learned that Koch
is planning to move the bureau out of Saigon 16 miles north to the
Army base at Longbinh. Isolated there, an hour’s drive away
through maddening traffic from the Vietnamese Government, and from
U.S. Embassy and U.S. military command sources, the bureau would be
crippled as a news-gatherer and transmitter. But this doesn’t
both Koch, who says he wants his reporters to stop concentrating on
news and do features. The move out of Saigon would certainly accomplish
WITH Stripes teetering on the brink, with A.F.V.N.
uncensored but uninformative and with unit publications pumping out stories
of G.I.’s teaching primitive villagers how to brush their teeth,
where does that leave the G.I.? No one in the military information business
seems to care much. The system isn’t geared to keep the troops informed.
That is not what the job of the information officers turns out to be.
Being a combat commander in Vietnam, for a career officer, is good for
that career. But it is very dangerous. Besides the chance of getting killed,
threats lurk everywhere, especially in newspapers. A Vietnam commander
has to watch his public image very carefully. Much of the public has a
great distaste for the war and hence a great distaste for people associated
with it. That’s why there aren’t very many colorful leaders
here. Col. George S. Patton III, Blood and Guts’ kid, was quoted
as saying before he left Vietnam that he liked to see Vietcong arms and
legs fly. Colorful stuff that today makes many Americans vomit. Twenty-five
or so years ago when his father was saying similar things, Americans were
smiling and saying, go get ’em George. As a result of this change,
most division combat commanders resemble henpecked bookkeepers rather
than the dashing battlefield officers of earlier wars.
Each of these self-conscious commanders has a public-relations man whose
main job is to see that nothing gets out that might tarnish that nonimage,
that might get in the way of the next promotion. Gen. Creighton Abrams
has a whole office of P.R. men who try like made to make sure no distasteful
news gets out. Since many Americans find gas warfare distasteful, the
P.R. men have a rule which prohibits the publication of news dealing with
gas warfare. Napalm and flame-throwers are ugly and make for good material
in antiwar (and hence anti-Abrams) demonstrations; the P.R. men don’t
let stories about these weapons out. Stories that detail how G.I.’s
feel about the war, honest stories that is, are also suppressed (there
is precious little flag-waving in the rice fields).
The civilian media can report most of the distasteful aspects of the war.
They are being hidden only from the G.I.’s in Vietnam. When a unit
gets in a tough fight with lots of people hurt, it comes out sounding
like a tea party in the division newspaper and on A.F.V.N.
This process of softening a harsh image might, in Washington, be called
keeping a low profile. In the military it’s called keeping your
rear down. The people who suffer the greatest lack of news as a result
aren’t the people back home but the kid who has to fight the war.
It’s bad enough to have to fight a war that you don’t understand
at all, but when you can’t even find out how the war is being fought
there is something wrong.
A RECENT telephone conversation in Saigon between a
reporter for Stars and Stripes and a military police officer:
REPORTER: I’m interested in statistics you have on the number of
G.I.’s smoking pot in Vietnam.
OFFICER: I can’t give you those.
REPORTER: You mean you don’t have them?
OFFICER: No, I can’t give them to you. You’ll have to talk
to the information office, M.A.C.O.I.
REPORTER: They’ll give them to me?
OFFICEER: Probably not.
REPORTER: Then why should I talk to them?
OFFICER: They’re the people in charge of not giving out information.