John Laurence
John Laurence
The Cat From Hue:  A Vietnam War Story
ISBN: 1891620312
The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story
John Laurence covered the Vietnam War for CBS News from 1965 to 1970 and was judged by his colleagues to be the best television reporter of the war. He lived with a squad of American soldiers in the jungles of War Zone C to produce an unforgettable documentary, The World of Charlie Company, which won every major award for broadcast journalism and also the George Polk memorial award for "best reporting in any medium requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad."

Despite the professional acclaim, the traumatic stories Laurence covered became a personal burden that he brought home and carried long after the war was over. The result is this passionate memoir about what he witnessed there, laced with humor, anger, love, and the unforgettable story of a very idiosyncratic cat who was determined to play his part in the Vietnam revolution. In reconstructing his experiences, Laurence relied not only on his notes and memory and formidable literary skill, but on dozens of hours of film footage shot at the time, giving the book an uncanny power and fidelity to facts. The Cat from Hue is full of bizarre stories of unknown soldiers and famous journalists and generals, of incredible humanity and tenderness and also corruption and cowardice, of the worlds of the American grunt and of the Vietnamese civilian, and of the price of survival and sanity. Along the way, it clarifies the history of that murky war and illuminates the role that journalists played in it. This book will stand with Michael Herr's Dispatches, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, and Ward Just's To What End as one of the best ever written about Vietnam.

John Laurence was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As a foreign correspondent for CBS and ABC News, he has covered many of the most important events of our times: from the Democratic Convention in 1968 and the subsequent trial of the Chicago 7, to the bringing down of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire. He lives in rural England with a tribe of cats.
—from the publisher's website
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TRANSCRIPT
The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story
Program Air Date: January 20, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Laurence, author of "The Cat From Hue." When you see yourself 32 years later, what do you think?
JOHN LAURENCE, AUTHOR, "THE CAT FROM HUE": I wonder whatever inspired me to go live in the jungle for all that time that I did because I can't imagine doing that now.
LAMB: How long were you in the jungle?
Mr. LAURENCE: Twenty-two months.
LAMB: How many different times?
Mr. LAURENCE: Fifty, 40, 60--I don't know.
LAMB: How many different tours?
Mr. LAURENCE: Three tours.
LAMB: Why this book at this time?
Mr. LAURENCE: This is when I finally finished, got it to the publisher, got it printed. It's done. That's why it's coming out at this time.
LAMB: The title "The Cat From Hue," where does it come from?
Mr. LAURENCE: The title of the book was always going to be "The Cat From Hue." Back in '68, when I met this starving, orphaned, homeless, flea-bitten animal, I recognized that it had the three colors that the Vietnamese believe are lucky in a cat--they call it the cat of three colors--and decided that maybe the cat would be lucky for me. So that was the beginning of a long relationship with the cat. But the circumstances around which I met the animal--the battle of Hue on the 20th day in 1968, as the Marines in the Citadel were driving slowly, foot by foot, the North Vietnamese back and finally out of Hue altogether--were so adventurous, so powerful, so moving in a way that all wars can be, but were in particular for the Vietnam war, that I knew that that was where the story should begin, the story of my time in Vietnam. And so since the cat was involved and high drama were involved, I decided it just had to be "The Cat From Hue."
LAMB: How long did that cat live with you?
Mr. LAURENCE: Thirteen years.
LAMB: When did--he...
Mr. LAURENCE: He.
LAMB: Meo?
Mr. LAURENCE: Correct.
LAMB: ...die?
Mr. LAURENCE: In 1981.
LAMB: This book, $30. No table of contents, no index, no footnotes, no photographs, 850 pages of narrative. Why leave all the rest of that out? What's the thinking, there?
Mr. LAURENCE: I thought it might be distracting. I didn't want the book--and I presume my publisher didn't want it to be any longer, either. So the rest of that--the photographs, the epilogue, which tells you what happened to the characters, the index, and lots of other stuff will be on the Web site that we're now putting together called cat--thecatfromhue.com. It'll all be there; it just isn't available in--in the book.
LAMB: At what point do you expect people to be able to go on that Web site and find the rest of this material?
Mr. LAURENCE: In a few weeks. As soon as I get back home, we'll finish up doing it and get it--get it online.
LAMB: Now no chapter headings except for dates, and the different sections of the book have uneven number of pages. Let me just--for an overview, the first part, 88 pages about Hue, 1968.
Mr. LAURENCE: Just the battle.
LAMB: Just the battle. The second part, 1965-'66, 346 pages. What's that about?
Mr. LAURENCE: Before I tell you, let me say that at the end of part one--and the book is in five parts, or five acts, for a specific reason--at the end of act one, I--I spend a few pages explaining why I wrote the book, why I was compelled to write the book, why I needed to try to relive the experiences I had gone through during my time in Vietnam, which was '65 to '70, and to try to experience some kind of healing process. So that's in the last few pages of part one. But the rest of part one, as I said, is--is simply the battle of Hue and what happened there while I was in it.

Part two begins back in 1965, at the very beginning of the major American involvement. I went in August of 1965, just as the build-up was beginning, the American troops were arriving, and stumbled into someone who took us to where the advance party of the 1st Cavalry division was. So we spend the beginnings of part one--part two—or act two with the 1st Cav, the advance party, with the 101st Airborne who were providing security for the Cav, and then up to meet the Marines, who had been there since February or March, and go on some of the early operations that leads us to the battle of Plei Mei and the Ia Drang Valley, some of the other early battles in 1965 and 1966, the Bongson campaign which Colonel Hal Moore led, and meet some of the most interesting characters of that early part of the war. And that's a much longer section, as you know.
LAMB: You have act four--act--act three as '67, '68...
Mr. LAURENCE: Right.
LAMB: ...88 pages. Act four is 1970, Tay Ninh, and that's another long section of 282 pages. What's that all about?
Mr. LAURENCE: That's all about the making of the "World of Charlie Company," the documentary that we did for CBS in 1970.
LAMB: And why was that important to write about?
Mr. LAURENCE: It was important because in the progression of the narrative, the narrator goes from being this innocent, very naïve 25-year-old exposed to Vietnam and the war and the US military, really for the first, time in an intense way, very gullible, believes everything that he's told. And by 1970, on his third tour, here he is living like a soldier and in the culmination of--of the story, actually becoming a soldier. So that's why it was necessary to tell the story of "Charlie Company."
LAMB: And the--act five is 1970 to the present. Where did you write the book?
Mr. LAURENCE: I began writing it in Vientiane in 1966 on an R&R trip. I had just been in a really awful battle in which my sound man was wounded and--and I was nicked and--and everybody, in the little trench we were, was--was wounded. And the experience was so overpowering, it--it--it frightened me so much, I filed a report for CBS. It took them a week to edit because it was so disjointed. I had tried to write in the first person for the first time and it didn't work, and they had to rearrange it. So I went to Vientiane and—and took my typewriter and tried to write a fictional account of--of a story from Vietnam, and that was the beginning of the compulsion to write what has finally turned out to be this book.

But more of the writing took place and interviewing began in--in a serious way in 1977 when I quit CBS to try to write the book for a year, and then again when I quit ABC in 1980 and went four years, again, trying to write this book and--and getting many of the chapters written as they pretty much appear here. But finally, in 1993, I took a leave from ABC and spent the last eight and a half years working full time on the book.
LAMB: Physically, where did you write it?
Mr. LAURENCE: Mostly, in London and where I live outside of London.
LAMB: And why do you live outside of London today?
Mr. LAURENCE: Well, my wife and I had a country house, and when we split up 10 years ago, she decided to stay in London in the flat that we'd had, and so I got the country house and that's where I've stayed.
LAMB: And why in London--or why in--in Great Britain instead of the United States?
Mr. LAURENCE: I went in 1971 to replace Morley Safer, who'd just been hired to work for "60 Minutes," and because I felt more comfortable working overseas as a foreign correspondent than in New York or Washington as a domestic correspondent, I decided--and the networks let me--stay in--in London.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
Mr. LAURENCE: Now I'm enjoying this interview very much. Going around the country, will be doing more interviews, trying to get people to have some interest, or at least know what the book's about before--before considering whether to buy it.
LAMB: Any other way of making money for you right now? Any other profession? Are you involved in--besides this book?
Mr. LAURENCE: Oh, I've started work on a documentary about optimal human experience and positive psychology. Some of the work has been done. I intend to finish that for PBS. And I'm learning the--the--how to try to raise money from foundations, something one never had to do with the networks.
LAMB: Go back to your life before you got to CBS just for a moment. I read in the book, rural Ohio at one point in your life? What was the--how long did you live there and what were your parents like? What'd they do?
Mr. LAURENCE: My--my mom and dad--both of whom, God bless them, died last year--grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and they met on the shop floor of the Columbia Records factory in the 1930s. Dad organized the first union at Columbia Records, the old CIO in--in the late '30s and became its first president. And after he got back from the war in Europe, the management of Columbia decided to make him a shop foreman so they didn't have to negotiate with him across the table any longer. And he went into management, and they asked him to manage the new factory in Kings Mills, Ohio, population 600. So we went out there in the '40s for three years or so. And--and that was at the heart of my--of my growing up.

We eventually came back to Connecticut and Dad went on to become executive vice president of--of Columbia Records, then became a part of CBS, and a staunch Republican till his death. So from union organizer to Republican voter was--was kind of a history of him.

And Mom was a--a housemaker--I have two younger brothers and lived in--in Florida until her final days. She--she gave me lots of good advice about writing this book and keeping at it and not giving up, and, you know, following my goal of being able to write a book. I think she'd have been so proud. She knew that the book was going to be published, but she'd have been so proud of her son to have just finished.
LAMB: Born in 1940?
Mr. LAURENCE: Thirty-nine.
LAMB: Thirty-nine and--and went to Fairfield Prep School?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yes.
LAMB: And what did you do after that?
Mr. LAURENCE: From prep, I wan--I--my--asked my dad for advice what to do with my life, and the space program was just beginning, and since I had been a good science student, he suggested that I might want to go to MIT or RPI and become an aeronautical or electrical engineer. And it was good advice except that I didn't--I discovered that I really wasn't cut out to be an engineer. I was accepted by both those universities, ended up at RPI, felt dislocated in Troy, New York, really out of place, for all kinds of reasons. I missed home. I missed my girlfriend. I--I missed the collegiality of prep, which was a Jesuit school in Fairfield. And so I dropped out fairly soon after I started there and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania.

And after a year or so in Penn, I discovered the campus radio station, WXPN, and realized almost at once that that was what I wanted to do. That was an avocation of the first order. So I never finished. I started right away to--to work in broadcasting and worked in Huntington, Long Island, in Bridgeport, my hometown, in Washington, here at WWDC, where there was a wonderful newsroom run by a couple of college journalism professors, one of whom was named Joe Phipps, and people who had come to Washington with Lyndon Johnson when he became vice president--or senator. They came when he was senator and left when he became vice president. And so they--it was a working newsroom but also it was a journalism school because of--of these two professors.

And from there, after about 10 months, I went to New York and worked for two and a half years for WNEW, again, a radio station, in New York, and from there, I was hired to work at CBS in 1965.
LAMB: How old were you...
Mr. LAURENCE: At CBS?
LAMB: ...at CBS when you started?
Mr. LAURENCE: Twenty-five.
LAMB: How did you get to Vietnam?
Mr. LAURENCE: They sent me as the radio correspondent.
LAMB: How did you get to television?
Mr. LAURENCE: They had an extra camera crew. They'd sent the best combat crew they could find, Jim Wilson and Bob Funk, camera and sound, to Vietnam to work with Morley, who had arrived a couple of months earlier. So they were going to have Morley and this great combat crew, and Jack as the radio reporter on his own, working separately. But Morley had discovered a marvelous Vietnamese cameraman that he enjoyed being with--they were well matched in many ways--named Ha Tu Kan--Ha Tu Kan. And so when Wilson and Funk arrived, Morley was already happily partnered, and so Fred Friendly, who had hired me, decided that he would--he would--he would just try to see if I could do television.

Fortunately, Wilson knew as much about television as--as any cameraman in the business, and so he taught me, story by story. As long as I could find a good place for us to go and do a half-respectable interview, Jim would pretty much do the rest. He'd tell me what pictures to lead with and how to try to match the words with the pictures. It was part of my continuing education, and so I learned in the field.
LAMB: Your first story that got on CBS News?
Mr. LAURENCE: Was a piece called Dawn Attack: The 101st Airborne. One company of the 101st Airborne went into a village, a hamlet in the Vinh Thanh Valley--Happy Valley--near Ah Khe--just northeast of Ah Khe, and tore it up, just--just tore it to pieces looking for the VC, some of whom they found and killed, but burned the houses and threw a grenade in a bunker and killed a pregnant woman, and that was the first story that I did that got on.
LAMB: Now you write a lot about that particular incident. What impacted that--go back and tell a little more about that incident. What--what was--what was the area like, and what was the purpose of the--of the--you know, when the pregnant woman was killed? What was the purpose of that particular operation?
Mr. LAURENCE: The area was what the American military and the South Vietnamese considered to be hostile territory. It had been controlled by the Viet Minh and controlled later by the Vietcong and... Mr.
LAMB: Who were the Viet Minh?
Mr. LAURENCE: They were the people of Vietnam who fought the French and drove them out, defeated them at Dien Bien Phu, led by Ho Chi Minh and--and--and his people.
LAMB: And who were the Vietcong?
Mr. LAURENCE: And the Vietcong were the indigenous South Vietnamese resistance, the National Liberation Front troops, the armed wing of the National Liberation Front.
LAMB: I'm going to, by the way, ask you a lot of questions to define like that because I've found that in preparation for your particular interview, as I carried the book around, "The Cat From Hue", people under 40 wanted to pronounce it Hew-ee, anything but Hue, and I—I started to recognize that people under 40, some under 50, who don't even know anything about the Vietnam War, so that's why some of these questions about something like the Vietcong.
Mr. LAURENCE: I wrote that with them in mind. I wrote it a lot for my daughters who are in their 20s, and because they had so many questions about the war, and because they had known the cat as they were growing up, needed to know, I felt, at least a primary history of--of the war. But I work the history parts into the book little by little so that it doesn't read like a history. I hope it reads like an adventure story.
LAMB: Go back again to that first battle that you saw and the killing of the pregnant woman. How was she killed?
Mr. LAURENCE: A paratrooper was trying to clear some of the bunkers that were under each of the huts, or houses, in the--in the hamlet, and--and just tossed a hand grenade in--in fact, Wilson got a picture of it happening--and he, of course, would not have done that if he'd realized that there was a 19- or 20-year-old girl in there. I--I--I'm just sure that the troops did not intend to kill innocent civilians. And the company commander, as soon as he saw this--and they brought the body of the woman out and put her on the road, because they wanted every one of the soldiers, and us, to see what had happened. It—it was an accident. It--it was a mistake. It wasn't deliberate at all.

And they took--they took a number of prisoners, some of whom were pretty assuredly VC, and tied them up and sat them in the sun. And the company commander, right away, said, `No more hand grenades in the bunkers. Bunkers are like breezeways in America.' He was a very, very bright, young, West Point graduate--young captain--and--named Martin. And--and so the troops stopped--stopped throwing hand grenades, but then they started throwing smoke grenades in--into the bunkers. You know, they didn't want anybody in the ground who they couldn't see. They were trying to flush out the VC. And--and wherever they found documents or a weapon or evidence of VC, they burned the houses down. First they blew them up, and then they burned them down.

And I wrote a very sympathetic report to--to the soldiers. I—I didn't criticize them at all, and we didn't dwell on the fact that the woman had been killed. In fact, the shot lasted six seconds.
LAMB: One of the first questions I wanted to ask you while I was reading the book is how could you possibly remember all these quotes? And that--just to give you an open--of course, did you--when we see a quote marked in this book, did you have that written down somewhere?
Mr. LAURENCE: I either had it written down, but mostly it was on the videotape or on an audiotape that I had made, or in my notebook, or in a letter I had written home, or it's in an historical document written by another author. Every time I use the proper quotation marks, there's a record that exists somewhere of that. In a couple of cases, it's--but only a couple of cases--it's in the retelling of a war story that I have told a hundred times or 50 times to people in the course of--of telling stories about the war, so there is--there is that record.

I didn't rely on memory, except in one unusual case, and--and that was just extraordinary, Brian. I--each chapter took about a month to write, and while I was--and each chapter is about one story. There are 85 chapters in this book, 850 pages. Each chapter is a story, or a large hunk of a story, and it has a beginning, a middle and an end. So the book can be read as individual stories, but all strung together to form a larger story with--with--with--you know, with--with a larger point to make. In one case, what happened was that I would start dreaming about the chapter that I was writing. I would start to relive--my own conscious was getting into the act, and occasionally, it would throw up a scene that I had forgotten. And I'd be sitting there and remember something that had happened, just a description perhaps, or an incident that had happened.

But most of the record comes from elsewhere--from the--from the films that we shot at the time. I went back to CBS in 1977 and screened most of my pieces from--from '65 until--until '70, and took extensive notes and made audiotapes and looked at the outtakes and all of the rest.

But once--there's a description as Charlie Beckwith and his Special Forces Delta team--in fact, one of the first military operations that Delta ever did was to relieve the garrison at Plei Mei Special Forces camp. This is in October of '65 just before the Great Ia Drang Val--Valley battles. And--and we are coming in--Wilson, Funk and I, and an NBC cameraman named Nguyen and Charles Mohr of the New York Times.

We are coming in with a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion, and it is ambushed. The--an armored convoy on its way to Plei Mei, a South Vietnamese armored convoy, lots of American advisers, is ambushed by a regiment of North Vietnamese. And this is the first major contact between regular units of the North Vietnamese and American forces. The South Vietnamese hold with--with casualties; the North Vietnamese take a lot of casualties, and it ha--the attack takes place at twilight, and it was one of those beautiful, glowing, orange and blue sunsets behind us, and American planes were sent--F-105s, I believe, came in to bomb along the side where the attack was taking place, and both Charlie and I remarked, for years later, at how much of a medieval duel it seemed like between the North Vietnamese antiaircraft gunners--they had antiaircraft guns with them--and the American pilots, and the--the tracers of the bullets shooting out of the airplane and the tracers coming up towards the airplane were intersecting like crossed swords, very colorful, very bright, especially at that--that time of day.

The next morning, after the battle, after the North Vietnamese had retreated, our Ranger battalion walked down into the valley where the fighting had taken place, and by chance, we came across that North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun and--and it was still pointing in the air and all the gunners were dead from the bombs the American pilots had dropped. And--and--and Wilson took a picture of a North Vietnamese soldier. He--he couldn't have been more than 18 years old, and half his head had been blown away, and it was exposed to the light, and--and, you know--it--it was an ugly thing to have to look at. And I was sitting there at the computer writing, trying to describe this, this young soldier's eyes looking at me and my reactions to it, and I remembered something that I hadn't taken a note about. Wilson got down on--on one knee with his big Oracon film camera and put the lens about that far--you know, the minimum distance he could to take a close-up from the soldier's exposed head with the wound, and turned it on--focused it and turned it on and looked up at me and said—and rolled for about a minute, and he said, `They'll never use the shot,' meaning they'll never use it in New York because that's where the film was processed and screened. He said, `But it'll sure `F' up their lunch.' He had a wicked sense of humor.

That quote came from memory. And I think I probably only put it in single--I'm not sure now--single quotation marks. But if I hadn't gone that deeply into the experience and examined my memory, conscience, imagination, creative abilities as thoroughly, it would not have come back. But it was truly reliving the experience when the subconscious can throw up a quote like that.
LAMB: By the way, he started out--Jim Wilson, the ph--photographer, calling you a tenderfoot?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yes.
LAMB: Didn't like you?
Mr. LAURENCE: Not particularly. I wasn't professional enough for him. We got along and we became friends, but Jim was a hard taskmaster. He--he wanted to work with--with big-timers who could write great scripts, as Morley Safer did working with him.
LAMB: I'm going to jump around a lot. As you know, your experience over there--one moment you're in Saigon, the next moment on you're in the field; one moment in a battle, next minute you're in a bar. And so I apologize, but I want to--for this reason, because there is something that happened in your reporting that changed the way the military and television get along to this day, and it's the whole business of the rebellion, walking down the road, and we jump from 1965 for a moment to 1970. What are the circumstances of this series of reports and then a documentary?
Mr. LAURENCE: I went back with Keith Kay and Jim Wilson—Jim Clevinger--sorry--as camera and sound, three guys commissioned by CBS to go and do a series of reports living with American soldiers in the field. Before then, the best documentary I thought that had been made about the Vietnam War was by a French camera team led by Pierre Schoendoerffer, a fine, fine writer and fine documentary maker and filmmaker and--and a fine man. They'd called it "Anderson Platoon." And they'd spent a few weeks living with a platoon from the 1st Cav in 1966, and made this marvelous documentary full of action and combat and very sensitively made and beautifully photographed.

We thought we might improve on that by doing an hour, doing it in color and spending more time with a smaller unit, a squad, or even a fire team, 12 or four guys. And we went to the 1st Cavalry division, and it turned out that the information officer was an old friend of mine from the '65-'66 days, J.D. Coleman, who was a major. And J.D. knew my record and--and we told him what we wanted to do and he took us to the di--assistant division commander, General Casey, who listened to what we had to say and signed off on us going to live in the field without an officer in escort, or any escort, and just simply living with the troops and trusting us to get it right.

Well, we did. We lived with a squad in Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Calvary, 2nd and the 7th, and--and got to know them, won their trust. They--we got to know them, they got to know us and we trusted them as well. We were in an extremely hot area of War Zone C in the Dog's Head in 19--in the spring of 1970, just before the invasion of Cambodia. And the North Vietnamese 95C Regiment was very, very active in that area and was--was just raising Cain with—with that brigade of--of the 1st Cav. Our--our battalion was--fire base was overrun--wa--was very seriously attacked, and p--part of the artillery was overrun. And they lost their commander as--as a result.

Charlie Company's sister companies were all hit; Alpha, Bravo and Delta were all engaged in--in serious firefights, took serious casualties in the same period, and by some miracle, we weren't hit. C Company was a very careful rifle company under a very careful and cautious commander, Robert Jackson, Captain Jackson, who was on his second tour and had taught the troops, `Never walk down a trail.' Well, he had a heart attack in the field. He was relieved by a younger captain, a very good man named Al Rice, who took over and, within the first week, asked his troop to walk--his troops to walk down a trail. And they didn't want to do it; at least the lead platoon wasn't going to walk down the trail.

And we photographed this and recorded this and reported this on "Cronkite." And as a result, as much because of a Newsweek article that the troops got to read, there was dissention in the company; there was unpleasantness directed toward us, and we were expelled from Charlie Company for a time. About a month later, the Pentagon put enough pressure on the division commander to let us back in, to finish the documentary, and we did. They--the--you know, they were gentlemanly enough to realize the project was unfinished, and we went back in. But they felt that we should not have shown that on "The American Public."

You see, the military likes to take care of its own house; this, I--I've learned over the years. And they're very good at it. If you're an officer and you make a mistake, that's the end of your career or it means you're unlikely to get a promotion. And the more senior you get, the more difficult it becomes. They--they discipline their own very efficiently, but they don't like it to be seen in the outside world and we had done that.
LAMB: Let's show just a little bit of that point, where the rebellion starts to take place, and we'll continue talking about this. (Excerpt "World of Charlie Company," CBS News, 7/14/70)
LAMB: Could you do that today in the war on terror, talk to soldiers like that in the middle of the battle?
Mr. LAURENCE: No.
LAMB: And was this the last time you could do that?
Mr. LAURENCE: No. Despite the perceived wisdom, it was possible to cover the Gulf War. For example, John Sack lived with an armored battalion right the way through the war and wrote a wonderful book called "Company C," interestingly, about the Gulf War. He just stuck with it from--from training camp to--in the same way that he did in Vietnam with a--a great book called "M."

We who covered the Gulf War were able to get out to the units. It would have been possible to get up to the front lines if--if--if you tried hard enough. That was the key, just--just to press it. Nobody pressed harder than Bob Simon, and he got captured by the Iraqis as a result. But he and his camera crew, Dave Green and the others, had a plan--Dave Green, by the way, was the first camera crew or anyone from outside to get into Kuwait City when it was over. They--they had a plan to do that.

And so it--it was possible in that war to get up to the troops and do interviews--honest interviews with the troops. You might not get that kind of dissension today because you've got an all-volunteer Army, and these soldiers, as good as they were--and they were excellent soldiers in Charlie Company--were mostly draftees. And, you know, as—as Gordie Lee said, `Heads are going to roll.' I wish I could find Gordie Lee. We've been trying to find him for months, without luck.
LAMB: There is a name in the middle of all of this. Is it Bill Ochs?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yes.
LAMB: And the reason I bring it up is because of The New York Times family in Chattanooga. What was his role in all this?
Mr. LAURENCE: He was the brigade commander, and it cost him his job, unfortunately.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LAURENCE: Well, you see, when you--when you--when you get up to general officer level in the--in the Army, the number of good people available for promotion every three years is greater than the number of slots available. So--so if you make a mistake or you don't know what's going on in your AO or you--you--you know, if you slip up in--in any way--and I'm not suggesting that Bill Ochs did slip up. It's just that as a result of the rebellion and the walking down the road, a B-52 strike was canceled, and the Pentagon doesn't like B-52 strikes being canceled. And--and Bill Ochs was relieved of command sometime later, a month or so later, and--and that was the end of his career. He d--he didn't make general as a result. But the Army works that way. It--it will stop your career if--if you make a mistake.
LAMB: But you had a meeting with him. Where was the meeting? What were the circumstances? And it's--it's one of those scenes between--where you have the dividing line between the media and the military.
Mr. LAURENCE: The colonel and the information officer and some others came to meet us at Tan Son Nhut Airport to ask us to change the wording of the script.
LAMB: This is in Saigon.
Mr. LAURENCE: Correct. And we had prepared the film and were all ready to go with the rebellion story, to ship it to--to the States and have it edited, and they wanted us to tone it down, to--to--to call it a--a temporary refusal. And I used the word `rebellion'--`brief rebellion,' and that was the best that I could do. But I had to call it as we saw it and as it was captured on film. And I know—looking back on it now, I probably would have done it--I--I would have changed it. If--if I knew then what I know today, if I was as experienced today, I--I might have changed--changed the wording.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LAURENCE: Just because it--it might have made it easier for us to finish the story, and tha--and that's one of the points in the—in the book. If you can get along well enough with the military to be trusted and still trust your own conscience to report fairly and accurately and without personal bias, you can get along. I mean, there are reporters in Afghanistan today who are covering the military, and they've come from Washington and they've come from the Pentagon and they have won their trust.
LAMB: But you can't go very far, though.
Mr. LAURENCE: Well, what I know is that if--if they don't know you and know that you're trustworthy, they're not going to let you get close to them.
LAMB: There's some more video from this documentary—1970 documentary, "Charlie Company," and it's about--it's the statements about being anti-war. How far do you think you could get with this today?
Mr. LAURENCE: I'm not sure.
LAMB: Let's look--let's look at it, and it's only about 40 seconds, and we'll, again, ask you about it. (Excerpt from "World of Charlie Company," CBS News, 7/14/70)
LAMB: What was the impact of that?
Mr. LAURENCE: I don't--I don't know, again. People were surprised to see that there were soldiers in Vietnam who felt that strongly anti-war. Again, he was a draftee. He didn't want to be there. His analysis of why America was fighting in Vietnam was, perhaps, different from the rest of the soldiers. I don't think you'd find a soldier like that in the American Army today in Afghanistan.

At the point that that interview was done, the United States had been fighting for five years in Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese were still coming at us, and--and so it was possible to have an anti-war position as a draftee in the Army. But I'm sure that--that--that the people in the Pentagon were not happy to see that, as a representation of some of the ideas by soldiers in--in Vietnam.
LAMB: Characterize the way you felt at age 25 when you started in Vietnam, in 1965, about the whole Vietnam--American Vietnam effort.
Mr. LAURENCE: I was convinced it was the right place to be. I was convinced it was a worthy cause. I believed in the military and the superiority of American fighting power, air power, firepower. I believed that it was the right--the right thing to do. I believed, probably, the same way that young correspondents felt at the beginning of World War II when they went to Europe or...
LAMB: Fast forward to page 531 in your book: `Trying to stop the war was a burning issue with me.' What happened?
Mr. LAURENCE: Based on my experiences in Vietnam, I came to the conclusion that, first of all, the war could not be won; secondly, that what we were doing to the Vietnamese was wrong and cruel; third, that the Vietnamese would be better off under any kind of political system--democratic, Communist, didn't matter--that wasn't killing them. And I felt a kind of moral obligation, based on what I had learned, to do whatever I could to help to try to stop the war, and the only way that I could do that was as a correspondent for CBS. And so we went back the third time in 1970 to make this documentary, to show people what it was costing us, as a nation, to keep our boys over there.
LAMB: The next page, there's an incident in a bar--The Slate Bar in New York City, where Jed Duvall, who was a CBS correspondent about to go to Vietnam, overheard you say some of these things. And what happened then?
Mr. LAURENCE: He objected. He argued that it was wrong to bring your personal attitudes, political attitudes or humane attitudes—I think it was less political than it was our sense of humanity--to a story that we were going to cover. And I argued with him that, in this case, it was an exception. I would agree with Jed that on 99.9 percent of all the stories that we American journalists cover, we should try to keep our personal biases out of it. But after five years of--of Vietnam and knowing the history and the little bit of the culture and what had happened and what we were doing, I felt that the more that I could do by reporting--if--if you go back and look at those reports, you'll see that they're not biased. They're just showing a very detailed look of what the troops felt and--and less of when I felt.
LAMB: Some quotes: `"You can't do it, Jack," another CBS correspondent said at The Slate. Jed Duvall was scheduled to leave soon on his first tour in Saigon. He had been standing at the bar listening to the conversation between Gould'—Stanhope Gould--`Kay'--Keith Kay, your photographer, `and me. "You can't go over there and try and stop the war. It isn't right. You can't cover the war if you're trying to subvert it."' Now how did--did you write that down right then?
Mr. LAURENCE: I took notes at the time.
LAMB: Right there on the spot?
Mr. LAURENCE: No. Of course not, no.
LAMB: What did you do? Go back home and take notes...
Mr. LAURENCE: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and write it down? And how often did you do this during this period?
Mr. LAURENCE: Oh, I was keeping a journal. I--when there were significant conversations--I'm sorry. The--the Duvall conversation was n--is a reconstruction. I beg your pardon, and--and I'm correcting myself now. That was a reconstruction after the fact. And as you'll see in the book, it's not in full quotation marks; it's in single quotations mark. And at the very beginning of the book, I explain. Where I knew a conversation took place, I have tried to reconstruct it as faithful--faithfully to the truth as I can, but using what I recall having taken place, and I put those in single quotes. I don't have a record of that conversation with--with Jed Duvall, but those people who were there, who I asked about it, did remember it: Stanhope and Clevinger and others.
LAMB: We asked Jed Duvall--we asked him to come in and sit in your chair there a couple days ago and asked him about this particular conversation, not--not to prove that he didn't say it, but just to get his version of what he thinks of it today. And we'll--this whole interview runs on Book TV later, but for the moment, here's a couple of minutes of what he had to say about this book and that—that moment.

Mr. JED DUVALL (Journalist): I have no--no memory at all of the conversation. I've heard about this because a c--a year and a half or so ago we had a reunion, and Jack told us at the reunion--told me that, you know, `We had this conversation. This is what you said. This is what I said,' and so on, and, `I'm going to put that in the book.' I didn't remember it then. Now that I've read what--the pages you showed me, I don't remember it now. I'm very happy with it. I stand by it completely. I--I like th--the recounting of this event because I'm saying to him--or he has me saying to him, `You've got to be objective,' and he's saying, `No, I want to go over there with this whole notion of stopping the war.'

Well, reporters just don't do that. I'll ki--I'll bet you he agrees with that now. But, anyway, we had this--he--what he reports as an argument. I do not remember the conversation at all. I'm happy with it. Wouldn't do--wouldn't disagree with any of it.

Th--I don't think there's this divide of, you know, half the men and women who are correspondents in television news today or then walking around saying, `I'll give my opinions on something,' and the other half saying, `I'm not going to give my opinions.' I don't think there is such a thing. I think opinionated people get knocked aside in our business very early.

One reporter, one correspondent, in Vietnam stands out like Secretariat coming home in the Derby in '73, 31 le--just ahead of anyone, and that's John Laurence. Everybody agrees. I like John Laurence, but even if I didn't like him, I would have to agree with you and of the people who--anyone who might not like him would agree he was, by far and away, the outstanding correspondent in Vietnam. But I don't agree with you that there's a bunch walking around saying, `I will give my opinion.' Those people just don't last in our business. They just don't last.
LAMB: Anything you want to agree or disagree with?
Mr. LAURENCE: I'd like to thank Jed for the kind words and agree, definitely, with his position. If you are the subject of a news story that is done on television, and you see what's done with your interview and the facts, there is a tendency to disagree with the way it's been presented. And I think it's essentially because you know so much more about your subject than the interviewer or reporter or producer, who has put it together, does. You understand all of the subtleties and intricacies, and so you're able to recognize the little, tiny errors of judgment and nuance.

And--and those are simply the--the journalist's best effort made permanent on the tape, on the film, on the--on the broadcast. And it's really easy to get irritated with someone for not getting it right. It happened to me recently, and I had to say to myself, `No, that was his best effort to get the story right. I'm going to accept that,' even though I found a dozen mistakes in--in what had been written. `I'm--I'm just going to acempt--accept the fact that nobody's perfect.'
LAMB: How important is this book to you?
Mr. LAURENCE: I think it's my life's work.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LAURENCE: I believe that a good journalist tries to help make a difference in the world. The very best journalists want to keep the American public as well informed as possible, even if it--it means risking their lives or losing their relationships or their sleep or their comfort or their health, which has happened in many cases. You--you go to Ethiopia, to the ends of the Earth, to take pictures and do interviews and gather facts about people who are living through a famine and starving because you hope that people who see this back home will give 20 bucks to CARE or volunteer to join an organization that goes over there to help, and what I've tried to do with this book is similar to that.

If you read the book all the way through, one chapter at a time, something happens. The people who have read the book, friends of mine, and some of my military friends say that it has--like a--like a Greek tragedy, and it is constructed as a tragedy, like--like a play, although it's not a play. It--it has all of the elements of, you know, an Aristotelian tragedy--you know, the--What are they?—ethos and--and catharsis and reversal and all--you know, there are a whole bunch of them: discovery, plot, magnitude and, at the end, evaluation, what the Greeks called dianoye.

If you read the book through, you'll find yourself, like the narrator, going through all those steps, not in the order I just outlined them, but you--you--you go through a process of--of seeing that this was a vast landscape in Vietnam and that--and that the stakes were so very, very great; that--that people were being killed. Greek tragedy always has suffering and death involved in it. And there is a story which has a beginning, a middle and an end--a plot, as there needed to be. And then the character changes; the--the reversal that's necessary happens, and out of that comes the discovery that something is wrong or something has caused this. There's causality, as in--as in tragedy, all tragedy. And--and by the end of the book, it's my hope that, particularly, veterans of the war or people who lost friends in the war will see through what I write in Act 5--or Part 5--that all of this has a reason; that all of what happened in Vietnam has meaning for us today. That may not have been apparent before. I--I don't proclaim to have, you know, a cure for PTSD, but I did have to resolve my own. And it--it was of difficult, but in the writing of the book, I think it's happened. And so it's my life's work, Brian, because I hope it may be helpful to others.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments, you talk about Professor Brian Crosley's writers' group, who listened regularly to these pages over eight years and made many fine suggestions. Where is he? What was the writers' group? And how did you relate to them?
Mr. LAURENCE: It--it started as a course at the University of Surrey in England, which I joined. I was just starting work on "The Cat," book, and I didn't know how to write for the printed page. I—I genuinely couldn't write anything longer than a--a short article or--or a letter. I could write for television; I could make a documentary. I could write to scenes and to pictures, but I had never written entirely for the printed page. And I needed to learn, so I—I joined this course. And every week I got to read two or three pages to Crosley and the rest of the group, and they reacted to it in many ways, but, especially, they gave me the confidence--one week at a time--to--to keep going, 'cause I--I--I wanted to--there were times, truly, when I--I wanted to just give up. It was too painful.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LAURENCE: Because I had to relive each experience, and some of the experiences are--are--are--are--are violent. I lost friends in the war, very good friends, very good people. Thi--this will sound very--very odd, but it's true. At one point, when I was writing about the death of--of my friend Sam, I was...
LAMB: Sam Casten?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yeah--I was crying a--a little bit, as I had when--when I heard of his death, and--and--and--and the thought occurred to me, `It's time to stop, it's time to give up, it's time to go back to television.' And it was a--it was a very--very private, very sensitive moment in my--in my workplace. And--and I heard these voices behind me. I couldn't see them, but I h--heard these voices, and they had English accents. They said, `Keep going, Jack. Don't stop.' And it was Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen.
LAMB: And who were they?
Mr. LAURENCE: They were soldiers in World War I. And it--it only happened once, and it was only for a--a minute or two, and--and I thought I was dreaming. But--but, you know, the imagination does all kinds of things, and I'm sure it was nothing more than that.
LAMB: Throughout your entire book, there's constant references to alcohol, a lot of it personal. A problem?
Mr. LAURENCE: I think that a lot of us in Vietnam and other wars self-medicated by drinking alcohol or taking tranquilizers. I was addicted to all kinds of--of--of drugs, but alcohol in particular. At the end of the day, after a--a job of work, I drank, and I had a large capacity for--for drinking. I could, you know, drink much more than most people do. But I was not a normal drinker. You know, I couldn't just have two and--and quit. And--and, increasingly, as my life went on, it became more and more of a problem, and I covered more and more wars. I mean, the October 73 War in Israel, I was getting drunk every night.

David Green and I were going to the front every day, and I was starting to buy a bottle on the way back from the front to the television studio and--and having several drinks in the car before we even went to work--screened the film and wrote the script and—and started to cut it. And then after it was broadcast--or fed from Hertz Lea, we'd--you know, we'd go to a bar and have a burger and--and—and drink until 12 or 1:00 and get up at 5--and--and do it all over the next day. And--and it can--it--it had a--a serious effect on--on—on my physical health and my psyche and my ability to--to work and on my relationships.
LAMB: How do you deal with it now?
Mr. LAURENCE: I don't drink.
LAMB: How long has that been going on?
Mr. LAURENCE: About 10 years.
LAMB: Ha--have you ever come close again?
Mr. LAURENCE: Once, on an airplane, after a relationship had just ended. It was from Los Angeles to London. I was--I was just wondering whether I was going to--whether I was going to start with a beer or with a whiskey, as the trolley was coming down with the—with the drink on it. And I--I said a little prayer. You know, I wasn't big on prayer in--in those days, although you'll see in Vietnam, something happens when you pray. I'm--I wasn't a religious person, but I was saying all those prayers I learned at the Jesuit school in Fairfield during the war when I was in danger, as I'm sure a lot of the troops did as well.

But in this case, on the airplane, I said a little prayer and instantly remembered that I packed a little food in my--in my bag to take aboard. So I--I--I ate that bagel before the drinks trolley, and it--of course, it changed the blood sugar in my system, so that I didn't crave the drink. And I got through that, but th--that was the one time when I really, really had a craving.
LAMB: We're out--about out of time. Are you happy with this book?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yes.
LAMB: Would you do anything different if you had to do it again?
Mr. LAURENCE: Yes. I--I wouldn't drive my publisher and the people at Public Affairs quite so crazy by editing it as much as I did, to the very last minute.
LAMB: What makes you think you wouldn't?
Mr. LAURENCE: That's a good point. Thank you.
LAMB: This is what the cover of the book looks like. It's called "The Cat From Hue." And as we close with John Laurence, here's some more from the documentary on Charlie Company that played first in 1970 on CBS. (Excerpt from "World of Charlie Company," CBS News, 7/14/70)


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