Vietnam Báo Chi: Warriors of Word and Film by Marc Phillip Yablonka (Casemate Publishers, 2018, 304 pages)
Báo Chi is Vietnamese for newspapers. And Vietnam Báo Chi finally gives us a look at the men who filmed and wrote the “real “story of Vietnam War battlefields.
Marc Yablonka’s book, Vietnam Báo Chi: Warriors of Word and Film, is a compilation of stories of over thirty military photojournalists and writers from all five branches of the US military. Their combined experiences cover the entire Vietnam conflict, from the beginning days of military advisors in the early 1960s up to the technical end of American military involvement and beyond.
Yablonka is an established author, having written for military and military-related publications, including Stars and Stripes, Army Times, Vietnam magazine, and Soldier of Fortune. He has written three previous books, including two on Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and traveled the region extensively post-war. He has served in the California State Guard, an adjunct organization of the California National Guard, from 2001 -2008.
The book starts at a fast pace with the story of Marine Dale Dye, actor, and well-known military advisor on movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. Dye served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam, first as an infantryman and later as a military correspondent. The next profile is Army photojournalist John Del Vecchio, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam and later wrote the classic Vietnam War novel The 13th Valley. From this point, the book goes on to tell the stories of military photographers, motion picture cameramen, and journalists who severed in Vietnam. It is masterfully written, and each story is a near-perfect blend of narrative and quotes from each individual, with the whole offering a variety of experiences. The format affords the reader the option to spend a few minutes reading several pages that cover the complete story of one individual.
Some common themes emerge from among the stories, the most prominent being that these men were serving military first and journalism second. Many contain depictions to the effect of “…and then I had to put my camera down and start firing” or “started helping a medic with the wounded.” This, of course, was most common with the army and marine correspondents.
To establish creditability, the journalists committed to not be a burden to the combat units they covered. They carried a full field gear load plus their camera equipment, pitching in on any common tasks, and taking their fair share of security and watch duties. While this occurred less frequently with navy, air force, and coast guard journalists, it did occur, especially when covering small patrol boat operations supporting marine and SEAL units or encountering communist supply watercraft in coastal waters. Several of the men died in combat, or wounds received from hostile fire or in aircraft accidents. Many received Purple Hearts for being wounded and decorations for valor, the latter mostly associated with combat actions “after they put the camera down.”
Another common theme is the amazing latitude these military journalists, many of them junior enlisted, were given to seek out their own assignments. One air force journalist simply went from unit to unit, base to base, documenting the mission of each unit, literally flying in jet fighter bombers over North Vietnam on airstrikes and helicopter pararescue missions of downed pilots. At the same time, as in all military life, there were the mundane duties of working in the darkroom, cleaning equipment, and cranking out dozens of “hometown” news releases each day, covering troops newly arrived in country.
Through the eyes of the men, we see the changing arc of the Vietnam War, from its conventional beginning to the ever-increasing disillusionment of soldiers drafted into a war they did not support. The feelings and opinions of the men depicted in Báo Chi are far from uniform, and the author takes great care to respect individual perspectives. We are also given glimpses of the civilian correspondents, several of whom helped provide the negative narrative that shaped public opinion back home through their reporting. The military journalists were required to provide logistical support to civilian correspondents on occasion, and often shared transportation into the field with them. Not surprisingly, many of the military journalists became civilian journalists and photographers after their military service or continued to serve a full career in the military in the journalism, public information, or public affairs field.
The “Real” Story
Anyone born before 1960 or so remembers the nightly television broadcasts from Vietnam on the evening news, especially in the latter part of the 1960s, as well as the antiwar protests. Vietnam has often been described as our first ‘televised” war, with scenes of wounded soldiers beamed into American living rooms for the very first time. At the same time, horrific photographic still images of children burned by napalm and suspected Viet Cong guerillas being summarily executed on Saigon street corners appeared in daily newspapers. While these journalistic vignettes were valid aspects of that controversial war, they grossly overshadowed the larger story of the sacrifice and valor of the Americans serving in that war and the corresponding valor and sacrifice of the men who documented those Americans in combat from the “soldier’s eye” view. Vietnam Báo Chi finally gives us a look at the men who filmed and wrote the “real “story of Vietnam War battlefields.
As our western society has become increasingly averse to any use of force, no matter how justified or necessary to counter existential threats, we will need, more than ever, military journalists that can tell the warrior’s story and capture the factual records of military campaigns. Those chosen for this duty can find no finer example than the Báo Chi of the Vietnam War.
One of the takeaways from reading this book is to always have a default in realizing where your duty lies when the war comes to you. And another, for military readers, is if you are not happy with your current military occupation, find something else you like, and if there are obstacles in the way, do like several portrayed in this book—don’t take “no” for an answer and find a way.
Note: The book also includes a glossary, essential for a book covering five different military branches during a war that occurred well over 50 years ago.This review was written by Terry Lloyd
Book review submitted by Terry LLoyd who retired from the Air Force in 2000, at the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. He retired again in 2019 from a career in civil airport management and is currently a consultant in the airport and aviation industry and a paid freelance journalist and writer. His writing includes articles for a regional Orlando Florida area newspaper, focusing on veterans and our military history and heritage. He is also the National Director, Legislative Affairs for the Armed Forces Retirees Association (www.afra.org).