Vietnam Bao Chi by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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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.

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Marc Yablonka

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.

—Bob Carolla

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Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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In 1983, former Green Beret Jim Morris (four Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts) wrote a book called War Story. In it he wrote about fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Morris convincingly made the point that the “Yards” were fighters unto themselves and never received the recognition they deserved.

In Tears Across the Mekong (Figueroa Press, 280 pp. $25, paper), Marc Phillip Yablonka does an excellent job claiming that the same holds true for Hmong warriors from the highlands of Laos. Yablonka tells the Hmong story through interviews with those who escaped from Laos after the Pathet Lao communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A large majority of the interviewees were soldiers who fought for the CIA and the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army during the so-called secret war in Laos. The men fought primarily in Northern Laos, but they also worked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, conducted raids into North Vietnam, and in at least one instance engaged Chinese infantrymen. Other interviewees had been schoolteachers and administrators—intellectuals the communists did not trust.

Hmong soldiers normally entered the army in their late teens and many fought for a decade or more. Hmong KIA numbered between 25,000 and 35,000. Misled by a false promise to build a free and democratic nation, 100,000 Hmong chose not to leave the country following the war’s end. They ended up in Pathet Lao re-education “seminars” that, for some, lasted more than ten years.

Life in the prison-like seminars consisted of hard labor and indoctrination lectures amid inadequate living conditions and occasional torture. Those who fell sick were allowed to die of “natural causes.” Little wonder that imprisoned Hmong fled at the first opportunity.

Escaping from the seminars and evading pirates when crossing the Mekong River into Thailand was merely half of the journey to freedom. Living conditions were only slightly better in Thailand where government officials stole from refugees, abused them verbally, and herded them into camps with minimal accommodations. Some Hmong spent years getting visas and resettlement agreements. All of the people interviewed by Yablonka reached the United States.

For students of the evolution of governments in what once was French Indochina, Yablonka’s interviews show that the communist tactics in Laos were comparable to those in Vietnam, but far less severe than those of the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Nevertheless, Hmong people who have found freedom still worry about relatives and friends remaining in Laos. They believe that the CIA and the U.S. government have forgotten their contribution to the war. Few have returned to Laos or want to do so. Yablonka echoes Hmong sentiments about the war and calls for worldwide programs to help them.

Interviews with two Air America helicopter pilots—Dick Casterlin and Allen Cates—provide histories of their unit’s organization and background of the secret war. The brief histories are valuable reading because, as Yablonka reminds us, Laos was the “most under-reported and least visited” theater of the Vietnam War era.

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Marc Phillip Yablonka

The two pilots emphasize that Air America worked for the government and not the Central Intelligence Agency, one of its “customers.” Both men flew in Laos during the 1960s. Their favorite memories are of search-and0-rescue missions.

Yablonka is a journalist whose articles have appeared in many military magazines. He served for eight years in the California State Military Reserve, a support brigade of the California National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserves, and did two tours with the Israeli Defense Force. Tears Across the Mekong evolved from his master’s thesis. He was in college and had a high lottery number and did not participate in the Vietnam War, but he did tour Laos in 1990.

Because the interviewees share similar experiences, their individual stories contain repetitions that tighter editing could have eliminated. Furthermore, although biographies of the two helicopter pilots, of an Air America fixed-wing pilot, and of two foreign war correspondents are interesting, they say little about the continuing plight of the Hmong.

A reminder: Read Jim Morris’ War Story. It’s an honest-to-goodness prizewinner—and it complements Yablonka’s perspective on Southeast Asian tribal warriors.

The author’s website is navigator-books.com/marcpyablonka

—Henry Zeybel