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Commentary : TV Journalism's Tour of Duty : Retracing the Changing Perceptions of Vietnam War at AFI Video Festival

October 22, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The year was 1965. The reporter was Bill Beutel, a hot-shot correspondent from WABC-TV in New York.

The place was Dong Xaoi, a Vietnamese hamlet that had beenbombed into smithereens, first by the Viet Cong, then by U.S. advisers and South Vietnamese troops.

The film footage, an obscure nugget from America's first televised war, gives us a glimpse of the combat zone--at ground zero.

The local U.S. Army commander, Capt. Aker, cheerfully greeted Beutel. "I want to be real frank with you," he said, cleaning his rifle. "I can't guarantee your safety here. I can't even guarantee our own."

Not long after, a salvo of artillery fire drowned out one of Aker's optimistic assessments of the war. Beutel involuntarily ducked. Showing a quick mastery of military terminology, he said hopefully: "That's outgoing, isn't it?"

It wasn't always easy to figure out which way the bombs were falling in those days. Vietnam was unlike all other wars--an eerie, unsettling "bad acid trip," as one soldier put it--and not just for the battle-scarred grunts, but for the media as well.

One of the highlights of the American Film Institute's seventh annual Video Festival, which runs today through Sunday, is "Media and the Vietnam War," a fascinating collection of more than 24 hours of local, independent and network-news war coverage drawn from the Peabody Collection and the Washington Project for the Arts. (The festival will also feature a "Media and the Vietnam War" panel discussion at 10 a.m. Sunday.)

For those too young to have more than hazy memories of what critic Michael Arlen called "the living room war," the footage is a revelation. These aren't outtakes from "Platoon." They're the real thing.

TV has always been celebrated as a medium of immediacy, but the images on display are not just eloquent: they are indelible.

--A wounded soldier--his helmet gone, his head swathed in bandages--tries to crawl away from a Viet Cong ambush, saying: "I'm getting dizzy, so if I don't make it, wish me luck."

--A platoon sergeant, who's nicknamed "Killer" but wears a big peace symbol around his neck, says he's tired of the war: "But if I see someone waving an NVA (North Vietnamese) flag when I get back home, I'm gonna bust him in the chops."

--Covering an army patrol in the Mekong Delta, NBC correspondent Ron Nessen is hit by a grenade fragment. Dizzy and down on his knees, he asks his cameraman: "Why am I coughing up blood?"

Journalism professors and historians will argue for years about TV's effect on the war. How did these searing images shape popular perception of the conflict? Did the increasingly skeptical tone of network correspondents really turn public opinion against the war? Or were they just messengers bearing the bad tidings, perhaps more astute than the top brass back in Washington?

Thanks to video hindsight, some people may realize that the war wasn't lost at home but in Vietnam. One 1966-era general, apparently oblivious to the notion of guerrilla tactics, tells a morale-building luncheon back home: "If we get those little devils to stand and fight, we'd end it a lot sooner."

As viewers see the war expand, they may sense that the most astute correspondents--far from imposing their own biases on stories--echoed the mood of their savvy front-line tutors, the battle-scarred soldiers.

In fact, the GIs' mood swings so radically as the war progresses that viewers might guess, almost without fail, which year a news story ran simply by eyeballing the troops' faces.

In 1965, the men are virtually all white and mostly volunteers--cool, confident, crooning "Detroit City" while outfitted in crisp khakis and brush-cut hair styles. By 1969, lifers have been replaced by a racially mixed host of volunteers who prefer Jimi Hendrix to honky-tonk heroes.

The eyes of the new recruits are wide with fear, like a doe staring into a hunter's cross hairs. They've also brought the anti-war movement with them--they wear love beads, peace symbols, 18-day beards. Their bravado has been replaced by torpor and open rebellion.

As one bearded GI explains on a "CBS News Special Report" from 1970: "The Woodstock generation has come to Vietnam."

"Grunt's Little War," a 1969 documentary from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, emphasizes the stark contrast. The GIs are moody and confused, complaining about incompetent South Vietnamese support troops while buying marijuana from Vietnamese girls who also offer sex for the same price--$5 a shot.

Reporter Al Austin has also learned how the war really works. Out on patrol, the squad regularly bumps into a pair of boys selling Pepsi for 50 cents a can. As the troops pick 6-inch leeches off their legs, Austin shrewdly observes: "This proves that the Vietnamese are getting the hang of capitalism and that the patrol lacks the element of surprise. When the boys fail to appear, the soldiers became wary--an ambush could be waiting."

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