With muddy boots, reporter comes clean


Reflecting on the Vietnam War, New York Times correspondent Malcolm W. Browne can take a certain satisfaction that he was first in, last out.

He arrived with the Associated Press in 1961, when U.S. troops served as advisers to President Ngo Dinh Diem's repressive regime. All appeared quiet in Saigon, except for the peaceful demonstrations of Buddhist monks.

After several tours of duty, Mr. Browne departed the final time in April 1975 in a retreating U.S. military helicopter, as Saigon fell under enemy bombardment.

Between the extremes, he witnessed -- and survived -- more mayhem than almost any other Vietnam correspondent.

Among his credits: Mr. Browne lived through three aircraft crashes, innumerable sorties into the thick of fighting and an ambush only a few days before the Vietnam War's end.

"It was one of the closest shaves I'd ever had," he writes in this personal reminiscence.

Many colleagues and close friends fared worse. Several were killed in action. A fellow Times correspondent, James Markham, whom Mr. Browne assisted in the war's final days, later took his own life.

Mr. Browne, with the Times' David Halberstam and United Press International's Neil Sheehan, formed a cadre of the most widely read, most influential and, in some quarters, most reviled Vietnam War correspondents.

Admirers handed Pulitzer Prizes to each for their Vietnam war coverage. Detractors, including embarrassed U.S. military officers and political iconoclasts, held the press triumvirate responsible for U.S. losses in the war.

In retrospect, it's clear why: They exposed the many contradictions of U.S. policy in Vietnam. They gave the lie to Kennedy administration representations that the military served a mere advisory role and the Johnson administration's claim that the war was being won.

These correspondents identified the intractability of the conflict, which pitted Hanoi's superior will against Saigon's superior armaments. After a long march, the superior motivation was certain to win.

Mr. Browne's muddy boots -- cited in the book's title -- are self-revealing of a working journalist who has been stationed in Afghanistan, Argentina, Cuba, Pakistan and Southeastern Asia.

"In Viet Nam," he writes, "it was said that there were two kinds of observers: those who heard about the war from others and those with muddy boots. I preferred the latter category."

The red socks are a sartorial preference dating to his military service in the Korean War.

While serving in Korea, Mr. Browne became a journalist by chance.

"On my second or third day in camp," he writes, "I wandered into a hooch with a sign that said 'PIO' for

Public Information Office, in which a half-dozen soldiers were producing a mimeographed weekly newspaper for the regiment. . . ."

One of the military journalists, observing that a reporting position had just opened, said: "If you go out with an armored recon unit, you'll spend your whole tour eating dust and seeing nothing but the DMZ. Join us, and you'll see the world."

Browne, until then a laboratory chemist in civilian life, writes, "It took me less than a minute to decide."

He first established a larger reputation for himself in 1963. His Associated Press photographs of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation at a crowded rally near Saigon presented a new face to the conflict. It also signaled heightened tensions and foreshadowed the increased U.S. buildup.

Mr. Browne and Mr. Halberstam shared a Pulitzer Prize that year for their Vietnam War coverage. In the years since, Mr. Halberstam has expanded his scope to best-selling books about Japanese automobiles and popular culture.

By comparison, Mr. Browne remains in the newspapering trenches, where his writing and reach are never quite so extraordinary as the remarkable circumstances he witnesses.

Yet his luck and durability remain intact. During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Mr. Browne, by then 61, was the oldest war correspondent on duty.

"A survivor by instinct, I've learned how to walk safely through minefields of both the literal and figurative kind," he writes in the introduction to these memoirs, which he terms "the bequest of a poor man to his beloved heirs."


Title: "Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter's Life"

Author: Malcolm W. Browne

Publisher: Times Books

Length, price: 366 pages, $23

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