We gave it an A-
To his Vietnamese colleagues in the CBS News Saigon bureau, Morley Safer’s nickname was ”Stone Face.” To American audiences, Safer was the controversial reporter who broke one of the war’s first atrocity stories — the 1965 torching of a village called Cam Ne by U.S. Marines. As far as Lyndon Johnson was concerned, Safer had defecated on the American flag, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk and U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin suspected (and accused) him of having ties to the KGB. Even that ”overly pious defender of liberal virtue” Bill Moyers — according to Safer — helped LBJ conduct a bit of ”character assassination,” trying to pressure CBS to pull him out of Vietnam.
But to readers of Flashbacks — Safer’s astringent, often moving account of his return to that war-ravaged land almost 20 years after his last visit — the author emerges as something altogether different: a journalist of rare ability and penetrating insight. Not to mention a terrific writer, especially for a guy who has spent much of his working life doing stand-up in front of a TV camera.
Safer’s arrival at the Hanoi airport reveals him in characteristic form. Vietnamese customs officials, he notes, wear uniforms with ”enormous Soviet-style shoulder boards that make the men look like little boys dressed up for a class play. But the attempt at Slavic severity dissolves into a Southeast Asian orgy of nose-picking, phlegm-collecting, and hacking up god knows what from the depths of their thin frames.” Try to imagine any of what Safer calls ”the contract-crazed chorus girls and boys” of today’s TV news producing anything half so vivid or irreverent.
Far from the motives ascribed to him by his detractors, Safer’s ethos as a journalist — then and now — appears to be as simple as it is profound: get to the individuals behind the abstractions, understand them as fully as possible, and tell their stories.
In a war run from the American side by geopoliticians most comfortable at the B-52 level of generalization, conflict with the authorities was inevitable. And remains so today. Musing upon a helicopter ride whisking him over Vietnamese terrain where thousands struggled and died, Safer ventures the opinion that the ”helicopter is a fine way to travel, but it induces a view of the world that only God and CEOs share on a regular basis. The big picture takes on a hypnotic clarity, skipping over the peskier small realities of the earthbound. From the air, from a two-star general’s altitude, the landscape always looks pacified.”
But for all the bluntness of his opinions, Flashbacks displays a born reporter’s political agnosticism. Having disposed of Gen. William Westmoreland as a brave and well-meaning man who displayed a profound and impenetrable ignorance of his Vietnamese enemies and allies alike, and who became a ”simpering toady” in his dealings with the White House, Safer sees no reason to lionize his opposite number. Interviewing North Vietnam’s legendary military strategist Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Safer simply cannot bring the aged warrior to discuss the human costs of the Tet offensive. Mere soldiers, it seems, interest Giap far less than ”boilerplate rhetoric” about American imperialism. Finally Safer throws Giap a change of pace: ” ‘Do you think the Russians made the same mistakes in Afghanistan that the Americans made in Vietnam?’
The kindly uncle’s face turns to granite.
‘I think you should pose the question to our friends.’ ”
Safer’s epigrammatic, often devastating portraits of famous Americans such as Barry Goldwater and Dan Rather are likely to draw most of the attention. (Safer recalls Rather turning up in a Saigon hotel bar wearing fatigues and a nickel-plated .38 revolver. ”I could not imagine who he might have to shoot in the Caravelle. The service was always quite good.” Safer notes, however, that Rather recalls no such thing.) But what distinguishes Flashbacks more than anything else is Safer’s evocation of the lives of individual Vietnamese of all persuasions — from crippled veterans isolated on a ”campus of the damned” near Hanoi to Pham Xuan An, a legendary Time correspondent and, he acknowledges to Safer, Vietcong spy. As a patriot, An explains, he simply had to work for the expulsion of foreigners from his country. But his bitterness abides: ”All that talk of ‘liberation’,” he tells Safer, ”all the plotting and all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”
Nobody won in Vietnam, Safer concludes. Nobody could have. A-