As long as one can remember, there have been scribes who record the happenings, as dire as they are, in war time. In fact, Winston Churchill gained fame as a war correspondent in the Second Boar War. Perhaps, it gave him the ability to support himself as an author when he was in and out of government in his future life. One can hope that even an author of weekly blogs could fall back on writing to sustain himself as well if the day job ever fails.
In traditional warfare, such as in WW II, war correspondents presented graphic reporting of the wanton waste of life as they were seconded to battlefield units to offer images of what the chain of command hoped would be victorious battles. In the case of the Vietnam War, embedded war correspondents, ultimately became disillusioned with what was in reality a war of national unification and not supported by the "domino theory" that all of Southeast Asia would fall to communism if North and South Vietnam were re-united. Lastly, greater clarity from independent eyes peeping up in the rice paddies indicated that it was only a remote possibility that the U.S. would prevail adding support to those who sought withdrawal from Vietnam.
In the case of Laos and Cambodia, the war effort was conducted through more oblique channels such as the Central Intelligence Agency employing methods that were banned by the Geneva Convention. In Laos, ethnic minorities were utilized to provide the manpower for guerrilla warfare that could not be done with U.S. boots on the ground. U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers based in U-Tapao, Thailand carpet bombed "enemy" positions on the Plain of Jars and the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos as well as wherever needed in Cambodia though the U.S. had no official presence there.
The above brief prelude is backdrop following the recent passing at age 82 of Sydney Schanberg, NY Times reporter and said to be one of the greatest reporters of his generation. Schanberg was best known for staying behind at the fall of Cambodia on April 12, 1975 to report on the relatively unknown Khmer Rouge though he came very close to losing his life at their hands. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his documentation of the Khmer Rouge entrance into Phnom Penh which was the beginning of the end for two million Cambodians who perished in the next four years.
As Schanberg was in Phnom Penh at the time Fred (see April 25, 2016 blog "My Friend Fred") was the Esso General Manager of Cambodia, I asked Fred whether he knew him. Fred said he knew of him but had never met him. When I read the NY Times article about Schanberg, I was struck by the obvious. Schanberg's mission was to gather support that the U.S. Air Force was indeed bombing Cambodia, the Plain of Jars in Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Schanberg is shown here with his Cambodian translator and photojournalist Dith Pran who is questioning a Cambodian soldier about the bombings.
Now, if I juxtapose another photo of Fred at a CIA officer's birthday party in 1974, it becomes crystal clear why the two folks never met.
Fred is the guy in the white T-shirt. The CIA operative or "junior spook" as he referred to himself said the boys dressed up like James Dean wannabes to fit the party theme of where were you in 1962. They are shown here removing the armor plating from his Ford Pinto during his party.
Fundamentally, there were two groups conducting the war in Southeast Asia in the sixties and seventies. Group A was the traditional military complex who would embed war correspondents in their field activities. Group B was the CIA, Air America, the clandestine airline funded by the CIA, other contractors of which the most significant were Esso, now Exxon, under an Agency for International Development contract, and Continental Air Services, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, now United Airlines. Group B could never talk to anyone in the news media and stayed pretty much to themselves at work and in their own designated bars.
Group A, as the military establishment, ignored the presence of Group B and denied any knowledge of their presence or very existence except when the B-52's needed juice in U-Tapao. Even if the CIA would have permitted, it is unlikely that the war correspondents would have been willing to embed themselves with the Hmong and Yao fighters in Laos due to the conditions and the massive casualties sustained in an illegal war. There were some private foreign para-military types on the ground with them and plenty of air logistical support from the other folks in Group B.
Since the Group B people would not talk to reporters, the days of the reporters in Vietnam began with the morning briefings by the Group A military complex where they were fed their morning pasteurized porridge of how well everything was going in Vietnam. Following that they would file reports from their favorite bars and settle in for a long day. Whenever, the U.S. happened to win a particular encounter in Vietnam, the reporters were all loaded in helicopters for a photo shoot.
Perhaps, it would not have been such a bad idea if Schanberg could have made contact with Group B and gained credible evidence that would have modified some of the operations that were denied by Washington and in contravention of the Geneva Accord. Had they done so, maybe the elephants eradicated by carpet bombing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail could have been saved and fewer elephants would have lost legs to land mines. The traditional warm hearted Russians merely replaced the elephants lost with Kamaz trucks.
As the author moved out of the dark world of Group B and into the sunshine of a more modest sized public oil and gas company, there was a paradigm change in interactions with reporters. If you are a significant shareholder in a public oil and gas company, your net worth hinges on talking to the public about your activities. As the years pass and we seek oil exploration opportunities in more far afield countries, I find that the questions of the reporters have evolved into the category of intelligence gathering. I finally confronted a French journalist who used to quiz me endlessly about governments in West Africa as to his ultimate employer and we had a good laugh. He said it paid more than being a mere reporter. Therefore, we have come full circle with the reporters moving into the Group B role of spies.
Now, as we have dinner planned with Fred and his wife Dao when they return to Thailand in the Fall, I thought a photo of Dao at the birthday party would be appropriate. Dao is the lovely lady in the center of the photo. If I were Fred, I would not have left her alone with these James Dean wannabes.
Also, as Fred has come up with some photos of Rocky, a soldier of fortune pilot who has been mentioned in previous blogs, stay tuned for something in that regard in the future. Publication may depend on final clearance from The Elephant Story censors but no one in Washington.
Ed and Joey were recently in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam or Saigon as it was known in the past. Below is a short video from the roof top of the Rex Hotel which was a popular watering spot of the reporters in Saigon during the war. It is hard to imagine that there was a virtually unrestricted view of the river and beyond given the number of skyscrapers there today.