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The Vietnam War, for all its lush horrors, was more addictive than any drug. In those most susceptible, it produced exhilaration and despair in equal and unbearable measure. As Jacques Leslie describes these lost souls in his new memoir The Mark: "[W]hile they hated the war (for wars are meant to be hated), they loved it even more, and they hated themselves for loving it."
Leslie was one of them. He was 24, just a few years out of Yale, where he "began writing for the [Yale] Daily News, and quickly realized I'd found my life's work." Suicide gave Leslie his big break. A young man hired by the Los Angeles Times to cover Vietnam shot himself to death rather than go, and Leslie, hearing the story through a friend, sent off his clips. He landed in Saigon on New Year's Day 1972.
Leslie saw himself as being "on a mission ... to make a nation grateful for newspapers, for I was going to explain why the war was evil." Instead he discovered "the mark" inside himself: the obsession with war, the sensuousness and rapture of it, the ragged freedoms -- mainly sex and drugs -- that lay in the interstices of a society shredded by 30 years of combat.
"I wanted to feel the adrenalin pulse through me as I watched the war, I wanted to come back to my villa at night and smoke a joint, I wanted my name on the front page day after day," he writes. "I wanted the world to stay exactly as it was. I would oppose the war forever into the brilliant, bloody future."
He became an "intensity freak" who, despite ever stronger doses of intensity, could not be sated. "[I]n the most intense place in the world, I took drugs to feel more intensely," Leslie writes. "My idea was to pile sensation on top of sensation, hoping that the next one -- the orgasm on top of the marijuana on top of the B-52 strike I'd seen that day -- would end my longing, but in the end a voice always whispered, 'You're still not satisfied.' "
Although Leslie began as "the greenest reporter who ever set foot in Vietnam," one with almost no reporting experience, the mark drew him ever outward. His first story described Saigon street life, but soon he was on an American aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf interviewing pilots who confessed to doubts about their role in the war and about the war generally.
Not long after that, while covering a battle near An Loc, Leslie was wounded by shrapnel that found its inglorious way to his buttocks (leading some of his friends to caution him, "Keep your ass down!"). And, in an expedition that culminated his year of living dangerously, he set off with a French colleague to find some Viet Cong and interview them -- a feat he managed in a village in the Mekong Delta, not far from Saigon.
That story helped win Leslie a Pulitzer nomination, but even then he "heard a familiar voice saying, I'm not satisfied." (He didn't win the Pulitzer, either, so it will remain forever unknown whether that would have satisfied him.)
Leslie's later reports from Vietnam exposed financial chicanery and war profiteering by South Vietnamese military leaders. These stories attracted more attention in Vietnam than they did in the U.S. They led to a visa showdown with South Vietnamese officialdom in the person of Bui Bao Truc, a spewer of dignified nonsense who resembled nothing if not a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel.
Beneath Truc's officious posturing lay a real unhappiness about Leslie's muckraking that resulted in his being expelled from Vietnam. But it did not matter, because what Leslie wanted was "more war," and with his posting to Cambodia in the summer of 1973 that's what he got. He was there on and off through the spring of 1975, when the Khmer Rouge's siege of Phnom Penh, the capital, was so tight that the reporters "could eat [their] breakfasts, check all four fronts by car, and be back at the hotel before lunch."
The city fell in April, 20 years ago last week -- the samemonth that the last Americans fled Saigon, clustering anxiously on the roof of the U.S. Embassy to board the Marine helicopters that would take them away. It was the end of the American adventure in Indochina, and of Leslie's. He covered other stories abroad -- Franco's death, Mao's death, among others -- but "[e]ach crisis held my attention less than the preceding one, for none of them measured up to the war." At last he "ran out of momentum, like a ball rolled uphill," and in 1977 he resigned from the Times.
Today, Jacques Leslie lives in Mill Valley with his wife and family. He has "a house with a big back yard." He has two adult stepchildren and an eight-year-old daughter, Sarah. He is a contributing editor of Wired and writes the occasional profile (including one of Herb Caen) for Sunday newsmagazines and journalism reviews. And he has spent 12 years and seven drafts producing The Mark, a memoir of the war and of the self and of the incendiary reaction of one to the other. The book seems to close a circle of perplexity in Leslie's life.