Guerrilla war in the Mekong Delta in 1961….
In Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 (The Library of America 1998) there are many stand-out articles written by some of the finest journalists of the last century. Published in chronological order, they map out the war from its infancy until its shameful end offering a new generation of reportage readers an opportunity to follow a conflict with essays and reports which stuck to facts as witnessed on the ground and in the thick of the fighting.
As I read Paddy War by Malcolm Browne I was struck by the frankness of the reporting, even today, close to sixty years ago, the words are haunting. Written in December 1961 and published in The New Face of War in 1965 Browne describes joining a unit of South Vietnamese Soldiers challenging a Viet Cong battalion close to the Mekong River. He describes his relief at landing on the beach without confrontation and the ease at which the enemy could have quickly killed so many of them.
Trekking through green rice fields they found one man who made a run for it only to find every gun trained and fired upon his back. Seeing the still breathing man with four bullet wounds across his chest, Browne describes how the young soldiers (boys) surrounded him and began to try and throttle him with a wooden stake across his throat…”The man continued to move. Someone stamped on the free end of the stake to break the wounded man’s neck, but the stake broke instead. Then another man tried stamping on the man’s throat, but somehow the spark of life was too strong. Finally, the whole group laughed, and walked back to the path”
Browne describes how some village elders rushed to help the wounded man, rolling him in a fish net. One woman puts a hand to her mouth as she recognises it’s the face of her husband. She cradles his head in her lap and washes him with black water from the paddy field: “He died about ten minutes later. The woman remained seated, one hand over her husband’s eyes. Slowly she looked around at the troops, and then she spotted me. Her eyes fixed on me in an expression that still haunts me sometimes. She was not weeping, and her face showed neither grief nor fury; it was unfathomably blank” There was no evidence to suggest he was a Viet Cong soldier.
And so the soldiers moved on, laughing and joking and complementing themselves on a day’s work done, whilst a widow was left to tend to her husband’s corpse. Every time I read reportage such as this I wonder what happened to the victims who lived to endure the ensuing nightmares of a war they never wanted.