David Greenway's photograph of Marines under fire at Con Thien was published on the cover of Time magazine on October 6, 1967.
They were burning brush, as they always do in the dry season, when my plane came in over the Vietnamese coast at dusk. Descending into Saigon, I could see fires burning below me, and in my naïveté I thought I was seeing the ravages of war.
I had never been to Asia before, never been in a war zone. I was as green as could be, about to become a war correspondent in Time magazine's Saigon bureau with my nose pressed against the glass. And when I landed into the chaos of Ton Son Nhut airport on that hot, sticky night in March 1967, there were flares, illumination rounds, lighting up the night sky, I knew not why. I thought, perhaps, the airport was coming under an attack.
Eight years later, on another hot and sticky spring night, I would lie in bed in that same hotel with the sound of incoming rockets landing in the city. And when my helicopter rose from the American embassy at dusk on the war's last day the airport really was under attack, and the fires I saw burning on the ground really were the ravages of war.
But that March, 50 years ago this month, the mood of Americans officials was all upbeat, get-on-the team optimism. We were winning. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara famously said that "every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning the war."
From Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in his elegant white suits to Gen. William Westmoreland in his starched and immaculately creased uniforms, the word was that even the most hardened doubters would become believers before the year was out.
Two years earlier President Lyndon B. Johnson had escalated the war, replacing mere advisers with main force fighting units, with more American troops and equipment pouring into the country every day.
The Communists responded in kind: 1967 saw the war changing from Viet Cong "punji" stakes of sharpened bamboo and booby traps to North Vietnamese infantry battalions backed by heavy Russian artillery firing from across the Demilitarized Zone, one of the war's more ironic oxymorons. A.R.V.N., the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, would still go on fighting, but it was America's soldiers that would now be taking the lead, easing our Vietnamese allies to the side. It was America's war now.
It would be my job to make some sense of all of this, and I spent the next several months crisscrossing the country, in the rice fields of the Mekong River delta, with the well-equipped American Army in the forested hills of the Central Highlands and with the Marine Corps in the northern reaches of South Vietnam. I rode in Jeeps, trucks, four-engined transport planes and countless helicopters in and out of fire fights, often riding in with ammunition resupply and out with the American dead zipped in their body bags.
But mostly I traveled on foot with the soldiers, getting to know officers and enlisted men. I saw how elusive the enemy could be, how devastating our fire power, and how McNamara's quantitative measurements were an illusion. The military called these operations "search and destroy" missions, but it became clear to me that although we could destroy, we could not win. With every village burned we were making more enemies, and despite our frequent bombing north of the DMZ there was no evidence that the other side was going to quit.
In Saigon I went to the famous "five o'clock follies" in which American officials briefed the press on the progress of the war - so many enemy weapons captured, so many enemies killed: "the body count." The briefings bore less and less resemblance to what my colleagues and I were seeing in the field, the burned out villages, the civilians caught in cross fires, the napalm strikes, and how impossible it was going to be to win the proverbial "hearts and minds" with the blundering, damaging colossus of military action, always the bluntest of tools. I saw how the body count got inflated as it was passed up the chain of command. I saw how corruption was eating at the entrails of the successive South Vietnamese governments we were installing.
I had come to Saigon thinking that we needed to make a stand against Russian and Chinese Communism as we had done in Korea. But in time I became less and less sure. I began to see that for the Vietnamese the long struggle against the French, and now the Americans, had blended into one, and that the ant colonial struggle was more important than Communism or anti-Communism.
Of course, Americans didn't see themselves as colonialists, but from the Vietnamese perspective it was hard to tell the difference. Our Vietnamese allies could never shake the charge that they were lackeys of a foreign power, while our enemy, albeit equally dependent on foreigners for their arms and ammunition, were better able to cloak themselves in the heady smoke of nationalism.
For the farmers in the countryside it was as Graham Greene had put it in his classic novel of Vietnam, "The Quiet American" - a book we reporters all had in our back pockets. "They want enough rice," he wrote. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
My father had known French Indochina in the 1920s and '30s, and I wrote to him often in 1967. "The northeast monsoon came early this year, and by September it was raining almost every day in the northern provinces. I cannot tell you how miserable conditions became up here," I wrote, "especially in the Marine outposts near the DMZ such as Gio Linh and Con Thien. It became impossible to stay dry.
The mud got so thick that it would cake on our boots and clothes in heavy layers." I wrote of the growing distrust of the Vietnamese in their government as their social fabric disintegrated. I didn't tell him about the bullets that seemed to snap in the air as they went by, or of the quick, deadly struggles when enemies met in the darkness, or of the dead turning wax-faced in the rain.
There were battles for nameless, numbered hills, 881, 875, numbered for their height in meters. The North Vietnamese tactic was to move onto a hill, fortify it to withstand heavy booming and shelling, and then draw us up the hills in pointless battles in which Americans would be killed in ever greater numbers. The Vietnamese would always lose more men than we did, but they knew we were fighting on their home turf, and they knew that we would be the ones to tire first and go home, just as had the French.
We would always take the hills no matter the cost, and we could say were winning because we never lost any of these battles of attrition. It was, as Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches," his classic tale of the war, a "face off between one god who would hold the coonskin to the wall while we nailed it up," paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson's description of our war aims, and another whose "detachment would see the blood run out of 10 generations if that was how long it took for the wheel to go around."
The writer is a former reporter and editor at The Boston Globe