Most Vietnam War histories on the broadcast media focus on, and critique, civilian coverage of the war. TV television coverage brought the war into America’s living rooms and many believe turned public opinion against the war. President Johnson hated most coverage, at one point saying that it was as if CBS and NBC were “controlled by the Viet Cong.”
Journalist and author Marc Phillip Yablonka’s Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film (Casemate, 320 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) provides a different point of view. Yablonka tells the stories of more than thirty Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine military correspondents, photographers, and TV and documentary cameramen and directors who covered the war for Stars & Stripes and various military media.
Marines, as Yablonka shows, were warriors first and reporters or photographers second. In one case, Yablonka writes of a Marine cameraman, as the next most senior in rank, picking up his M-14 and calling in an airstrike after his lieutenant and sergeant were severely wounded. In another, a Marine journalist captured six Viet Cong.
Loosely translated,“Bao Chi” is Vietnamese for journalist. But the men Yablonka writes about covered the war more viscerally, with emotional perspective cast in terms like bravery, courage, honor, and loyalty. The Marine cameraman who took command declares, for example:
“I was with the finest company of those Marines and Navy corpsman and thank them for giving me the rare privilege to bear witness to their efforts and sacrifices. I wish all the images in my mind could be reproduced because they are far more exceptional than the images I captured on film.”
Each chapter deals with a different person’s experiences in the war. To some degree the chapters are repetitious. At the same time, a reader can pick and choose among chapters, drawn in by titles such as “Rockin’ and Rollin’ with the Montagnards” and “From Hot Rod Comics and Hemingway…to Vietnam.”
Military abbreviations and jargon pepper the text; the glossary is seven-pages long. Some veterans may find the terms nostalgic; civilian readers may find themselves regularly referring to that glossary.
Some chapters recount the war’s “surreal” moments.” In one case, ten Marines on a roof watch flashes in the distance as rockets fall on Da Nang’s airbase, excited by “the fireworks show.” They sit in beach chairs and drink beer. Then someone yells out: “Get naked.” So they did.
Another time, after a firefight, a lieutenant had his unit call out their last names to determine if anyone had been killed. One guy didn’t answer. After a frantic search, he was found behind a boulder—calmly eating C-ration fruit cocktail.
Vietnam Bao Chi isn’t for everyone because of its repetition and level of detail. But that was the mission of military correspondents: to provide context and details that arguably escaped recognition by civilian reporters.
The book’s perspective may be unique among the number of books written about the Vietnam War.