Vietnam: The Undiscovered Country

Les Americaines face an Vietcong

by Fernand Gigon
Paris, Flammarion

Un million de dollars le Viet: la seconde guerre d’Indochine

by Jean Lartéguy
Paris, Raoul Solar

The best and most balanced reporting on Vietnam today is written by French-speaking writers. This is not because Swiss or French observers have better official sources of information than their American colleagues: They emphatically do not, since there are many briefings in Saigon “For American Eyes Only.” But there are still great numbers of Vietnamese for whom French is a second language, particularly the mountain tribesmen (the so-called Montagnards)—and the Vietcong. Predictably, therefore, books which derive from direct contact with the French-speaking Vietnamese are likely to have a degree of authority and insight which is often quite lacking in much American reporting. To judge by the coverage of the American popular press and television, the second Indo-China War seems as two-dimensional as the wars between the Normans and the English represented on the Bayeux Tapestries. We are shown armadas of flitting helicopters and armored vehicles and ships maneuvering heroically in obscure military actions. If not the Bayeux Tapestries, then it is a spectacle staged by Darryl F. Zanuck. The enemy soldiers, on the other hand, are either invisible—shadows on an infra-red sniper-scope, blips on an anti-personnel radar screen—or they are seen as piles of corpses whose small size and unmilitary clothing make them indistinguishable from the surrounding civilian population.

Nor are we given much information about the 600,000 or so South Vietnamese fighting on the western side: Their officers change too often, their fighting almost always takes second place to American operations, and so often ends in disaster or near disaster that it does not remain newsworthy for long. American efforts to present the South Vietnamese as “our loyal allies” are often undermined by the candid admission that this or that campaign was launched without the help of Vietnamese troops or the knowledge of the South Vietnamese government in order to insure that the Vietcong not be warned of the operation in advance. One could add for the record that three major offensive operations, launched entirely with American and Australian troops for the sake of better security, nevertheless have failed to find much of the enemy. So we are left to choose between two equally uncomfortable conclusions: Either there are pro-Vietcong Americans among the planners in Saigon, or the operations were too clumsy to succeed in the first place.

THE SUPERFICIALITY of the English-language reporting shows up very clearly when compared with the work of writers like Jean Lacouture or the recent books by Fernand Gigon and Jean Lartéguy. Not one American reporter has devoted even a half-hour of TV time to the state of mind of the South Vietnamese students, the overwhelming majority of whom are extremely anxious to stay out of the war and study abroad—the longer the course of study the better. No American reporter has thus far found it worthwhile to do a “human interest” story (an American news specialty, after all) on Sister Marie-Louise and her colony of 400 Jepers sitting in VC territory west of Kontum, in the mountain …

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