As American television crews struggle to stay safe while reporting the news from Iraq, veterans of other war zones say this conflict is the most dangerous ever for journalists. Few know the perils of war reporting better than CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer. A 42-year CBS veteran, Safer spent several years covering the Vietnam War and established the network’s Saigon bureau. After two of his colleagues were killed and a third critically injured in a May 30 attack in Iraq, Safer spoke to B&C’s Allison Romano about the dangers of being a war correspondent, how he delivered the news from Vietnam and why Iraq is much more treacherous for journalists.
How does your experience reporting in the Vietnam War compare to what the news media face in Iraq?
You just can’t compare these two in terms of how you covered it and the perils of coverage. In Vietnam, journalists were generally killed in battle, and there are no battles in this war. They are all street crimes.
In Vietnam, with rare exceptions, the cities were safe places. You could go anywhere in Saigon or Danang or Ben Wah or any of the towns feeling quite secure. There were some dodgy moments, but nothing like Iraq.
Did you feel secure because you were a journalist? Were the media not considered a target there?
It wasn’t because we were journalists; it was the nature of Vietnam. As a civilian walking around in back streets of Cho Long, you obviously stood out like a sore thumb, but I never felt in particular danger. There were dodgy parts of town, but certainly not this kind of random violence.
I don’t think the journalists are being targeted in Iraq; I think they are just victims of random violence that targets everyone from American troops to journalists to civilians having lunch in a cafe. It is that random violence that makes it uncoverable.
In Vietnam, were you able to move freely and report the stories you wanted?
That is the major difference. In Vietnam, there was no place we couldn’t go and get there with the assistance of the U.S. military. You’d go out to the airport and find a helicopter going where you were going and jump on it.
The military ran a regular airline. There were scheduled flights that went to all the major cities in Vietnam and even some quite small towns. It was like taking a shuttle to Washington. All you had to produce was your Defense Department documentation.
What kind of precautions did you have to take?
When you’re in a military operation, you are taking the same risk as the troops, as the people in Baghdad are. But the idea of body armor? I had a flak jacket, but I don’t think I ever wore it. I certainly never wore a helmet. It was too much in that heat. You felt a certain security being with the troops. Even though the enemy wasn’t exposed and there weren’t set battles, they were conventional compared to what is going on these days in Iraq.
Vietnam was by any definition a guerilla war, but it is the difference between guerilla war and what amounts to street crime on a massive scale in Iraq. There was the occasional car bomb in Vietnam in a city, but it was always a target they were after, like a political target. Certainly, journalists were not targets.
Your working conditions must have been difficult in other regards. What was it like trying to get the story in Vietnam?
It wasn’t easy. On military operations, you travel by foot. There was no such thing as a Humvee. It required a lot of physical stamina, particularly in that climate, and carrying a lot of camera equipment and film, plus water and food. You weren’t out for hours; you were out for days, even weeks.
Mercifully, there were no producers, just a cameraman, soundman and the correspondent.
You didn’t have to stay with the platoon you started with, but generally you did. There were no rules, no censorship. The only censorship was an understanding that you did not report casualties until next of kin were notified, or operations or troop movements until contact had been made.
Of course, the physical business of getting a story back was much different. There were no satellite phones. There were no satellites. You’d have the best story in the world and it could take four days to get it out, rather than four minutes like today.
Of course, there were dangers. There were booby traps, landmines, snipers and all that. But these are the conventional dangers that you know you are getting into. The kind of thing our guys walked into the other day—it is random violence.
While you were in Vietnam, did you feel that the American public was getting a clear view of what was happening in that war?
The story was there every night of the week, unlike Iraq. That is partly because it is so difficult to cover and also because the nature of newscasts has changed.
Unless something horrendous has happened now, it barely makes the evening news. There is no sense of there being a war on in this country.
This is a war in many ways that is designed for the country, for the civilians, to have no sense of the war going on. Everything from blacking out the return of coffins to there being no draft so no middle-class kids are fighting.
There is this massive difference both in what reporters can cover and what the country feels about the war—in a very acute way, almost nothing.