Robert Elegant's view became the received wisdom in America and still is. This official truth has determined how every American war since Vietnam has been reported. In Iraq, the “embedded” reporter was invented because the generals believed the Robert Elegant thesis: that critical reporting had “lost” Vietnam. How wrong they are.
On my first day as a young reporter in Saigon, I called on the bureaus of the main newspapers and TV companies. I noticed most of them had a gruesome photo gallery pinned on the wall -- pictures of the bodies of Vietnamese and American soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles. In one office was a photograph of a man being tortured. Above the torturer's head was a stick-on comic strip balloon with the words: “That'll teach you to talk to the press.”
None of these pictures had ever been published, or even put on the wire.
I asked why. The response was that "New York" would reject them, because the readers would never accept them. Anyway, to publish them would be to “sensationalise”; it would not be "objective" or "impartial". At first, I accepted the apparent logic of this: that atrocities surely were aberrations by definition. I, too, had grown up on John Wayne movies of the "good war" against Germany and Japan, an ethical bath that had left us westerners pure of soul and altruistic towards our fellow man and heroic. We did not torture. We did not kill women and children. We were the permanent good guys.
However, this did not explain the so-called “free fire zones” that turned entire provinces into places of slaughter: provinces like Quang Ngai, where the My Lai massacre was only one of a number of unreported massacres. It did not explain the helicopter “turkey shoots”. It did not explain people dragged along dirt roads, roped from neck to neck, by jeeps filled with doped and laughing GIs and why they kept human skulls enscribed with the words, “One down, one million to go.”
The atrocities were not aberrations. The war itself was an atrocity. That was the “big story” and it was seldom news. Yes, the tactics and effectiveness of the military were questioned by reporters, but the word "invasion" was almost never used. The fiction of a well-intentioned, blundering giant, stuck in an Asian quagmire, was promoted by most journalists, incessantly. It was left to whistleblowers at home to tell the subversive truth -- those like Daniel Ellsberg, and mavericks like Seymour Hersh with his extraordinary scoop of the My Lai massacre. There were 649 reporters in Vietnam at the time of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Not one of them reported it."