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.
The young man who found Vietnam endlessly stimulating but never satisfying — a theme park for the thrill junkie he used to be — has learned over time that “satisfaction doesn't lie in that direction. It lies instead in learning to take pleasure in the everyday events of life.
“I spent my thirties filling in the spaces I'd skipped earlier in my life,” Leslie says. “I learned how to have a domestic life, and I accepted the idea of not having my stories on the front page of the morning news-paper.”
One dimension of Leslie's story is archetypal: in youth a hormonal lust for sensation, the cruder the better; then, with the seasoning brought by age, a greater valuing of stability in an unstable world. But it is singular, too, not merely because he lived so much of his life during a few compressed years of his young adulthood, but because the particulars of Vietnam evoked aspects of his own “arid and joyless childhood” that had lain undigested inside him for years. [page]
“The book tries to portray what it was like to be a journalist in a war,” Leslie says of The Mark. “Most reporting leaves the journalist out. I wanted to give a fuller account by adding a human dimension. I think there's a validity to reporting that comes from searching out what's deepest in yourself.”
For Leslie, what lay deepest was a childhood crisis. At age four he contracted polio and nearly died. The episode left in its aftermath a limp, a brace, a series of casts — and a deep etching of vulnerability, helplessness, separation from his parents. Eventually the braces and casts fell away, the limp faded and Leslie even regained the ability to run (slowly). But just around the corner from consciousness lingered the memory of being “a hostage in an embattled country of disease.”
The Mark's distinction is its smooth blending of reportage, personal testament and ruthless self-scrutiny. It reflects the premise that the reporter matters — his past, his emotional and intellectual susceptibilities; who, finally, he is and might become. It suggests that a reporter cannot fully understand the story he is covering — and so cannot make his readers understand — unless he fully understands himself.
Even so, there is a detached quality to The Mark that separates it from earlier works it otherwise resembles, such as Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977). That book, which grew from Herr's experiences as Vietnam correspondent for Esquire magazine, overflows with the frenzied poetry of its author's attempt to capture in the net of language those impressions and sensations he has experienced most rawly but knows will elude his effort: what it was like to be there; the prospect of violence that might explode like lightning in the heavy air at any time; the stifling, exotic tropicality of the place; the fear, too painful to talk about freely, that all the wretchedness was in vain.
Dispatches quivers with immediacy. It catches the bright flickerings of American purpose on the edge of extinction, before the meaning of that extinction had quite set in. A desperation suffuses the book, a sense that the only goal worth pursuing is escape. People are not going AWOL in Dispatches, but everyone has an eye on the door.
“You mean you guys volunteer to come over here?” [one young Marine asked Michael Herr.] “Oh man, you got to be kidding me. You asked to come here?”
“How long do you have to stay?” he asked.
“As long as we want.”
“Wish I could stay as long as I want,” the Marine called Love Child said. “I'd been home las' March.”
“When did you get here?” I asked.
If Dispatches had a coda it would be The Mark. Leslie's memoir stands at the far end of that cycle in American history — failure, exhaustion, self-recrimination, withdrawal, then a slow reawakening — just beginning in Dispatches. The Mark may lack Dispatches' passionate urgency, but it has the shapely chill of perspective. It is divided from its subject matter and from Dispatches by the end of the Cold War, the engine that drove American intervention in Indochina in the first place
.We know now, as Leslie says, that “America lost the battle but won the war” — that America's failure in Vietnam turned out not to affect the balance of superpower politics; that the Vietnam War was a policy misstep and a military disaster without strategic significance. Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Johnson administration, discloses in his new memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, that as early as 1967 a CIA memo to President Johnson discounted the effects on American geopolitical standing of an “unfavorable outcome” in Vietnam.
If hindsight teaches that the Vietnam War was unnecessary, it suggests too that the war holds redemptive meaning. Vietnam taught us the unpleasant but necessary lesson that even America has her limits. It showed us the danger of fighting political wars, or other countries' civil wars, or wars without clear and attainable military objectives — lessons put to good use in the unpleasant but necessary Persian Gulf War of 1991. It reminded us that we cannot successfully prosecute a war without substantial public support.
The most lasting result of the Vietnam War is that most likely there will never be another one. Let that be the legacy and the blessing of our 58,000 dead — those who died in service of a policy that was foolishly and perhaps arrogantly overextended, but not evil. History has vindicated the West's struggle against totalitarian communism even as it illuminates the errors in judgment of American policymakers about what was happening in Vietnam and what could or should be done about it
Leslie had been in SAigon more than a year when, guided by an anonymous telephone tip (the anonymity adding “a frisson of titillation”), he found in a nearby hospital a group of men who had spent years as political prisoners of the South Vietnamese government in the infamous “tiger cages” on Con Son Island.
“None of the men could walk,” Leslie writes. “They'd all worn shackles in prison for periods ranging from five to 10 years, and as a result their leg muscles were atrophied, virtually nonexistent …. Yet far from being consumed by anger, these men … spoke of their solidarity, their mutual love, as if their rice bowls contained lotuses instead of fly-covered fish paste, as if the prison floor were a half-inch thick in rose petals instead of lime.” [page]
Nearly 20 years would pass before Leslie would understand that his real mission in Vietnam had been to speak not only for those men but for himself and for “all voiceless victims in extreme circumstances [by] giving expression to their suffering, making the connection that had been thwarted when I was in the hospital …. I saw the tiger cage prisoners' atrophied legs, and realized with a start that they resembled my polio-ridden leg, and I saw the men's smiling faces, and I understood that they knew the answer to the question I'd been asking all my life ….
“[T]hey were the first free men I'd ever met.” The Mark is published by Four Walls Eight Windows.