Running against popular opinion in Vietnam reporting

Monday Book Reviews

October 25, 1993|By Myron Beckenstein

MUDDY BOOTS AND RED SOCKS. By Malcolm W. Browne. Random House. 366 pages. $23.

THERE are two types of journalistic memoirs.

One recounts news events the reporter has covered, all-but-forgotten wars and dreams as well as ones better remembered. For instance, the accounts of the '20s and '30s by Leland Stowe, Hallett Abend, Vincent Sheean and others add color and insight that you can't find anywhere else.

The other kind of memoir is autobiographical, written by a reporter who thinks his life and thoughts should be of interest to humankind, or at least to that portion of humankind that still reads books.

Malcolm Browne's story combines the two approaches, though when Mr. Browne writes autobiography, the reader might wonder about unexplained gaps and why the author, in this instance, makes eight references to his dog but only two to his children. (The tally is based on a half-hearted index.)

Is there a reason someone should care about Malcolm Browne's reminiscences? Absolutely. Many people think investigative journalism began with Woodward and Bernstein and the effort to uncover the Watergate scandal. But a handful of reporters, Malcolm Browne among them, carried on an equally difficult battle a decade before Watergate.

The place was Vietnam, just beginning to capture the United States in its quicksand. The challenge was to report accurately what was happening, not to succumb to the official Washington party line and the hawks and propagandists stirring up war fever in this country.

Mr. Browne and a few other reporters resisted. They reported what they saw, not what it would have been nice to see. Mr. Browne got himself away from the bars and military briefings in Saigon and into the field; thus, the "muddy boots" part of the book's title. Red socks have been Mr. Browne's choice in hosiery for more than 30 years.

For doing their job, this handful of Vietnam reporters was pressured and castigated, accused of being lackeys, or at least dupes, of the communists, of being unpatriotic, of anything else the war partisans could think of to try to keep the public from believing their accounts.

Mr. Browne says the charge that he and some of his colleagues colluded in their dispatches from Vietnam "was nonsense. We were friendly colleagues in the same spirit that a prosecutor and a defense lawyer may sit down after hours for a beer together. But competing news reporters can no more discuss news stories pTC with each other than can the officers of opposing armies discuss strategy."

Mr. Browne, who shared a Pulitzer Prize, writes, "It's slowly dawning on me that honest reporting is the last thing most people want when the subject is war. . . War is thundering good theater, in which cheering the home team is half the fun."

Mr. Browne was not a highly experienced journalist when he was sent to Vietnam. He had started his writing career as his military job just a few years earlier.

After getting out of the Army and hooking up with the Associated Press, he spent a year in Baltimore -- "a low point in my life" and the subject of the shortest chapter in the book.

Mr. Browne writes about the veteran correspondents who flew into Vietnam, saw a different reality and criticized younger reporters. These veterans should have used their experience as a filter to better understand what was going on. Instead, they helped perpetuate misunderstanding, the author says.

The book is spotted with nice snippets about the times and the people Mr. Browne encountered, in Southeast Asia and in South America, Pakistan and Eastern Europe, where he went on subsequent assignments for subsequent employers.

Not to be overlooked is CIA director Allen Dulles' wonderful plan for dealing with foreign spies. There also is a worthwhile chapter on the dangers of overpopulation.

But the heart of the book is Mr. Browne's experiences in Vietnam in the 1960s and again just as the communists took over in 1975.

"Somehow, everything we touched in Indochina withered, and I still find it hard to understand how a people with intentions as ostensibly good as ours could have wrought so much ill. . . Small nations are wise to consider carefully before accepting American patronage."

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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