Light at the End of the Tunnel
December 2008

by Ron Steinman

NOTE: In 1953 when the French were fighting the Viet Minh in Indochina, the then-commander of the French forces, General Henri Navarre, predicted his army would soon be victorious. In an admittedly free translation of a message to the French people that at the same time put the Viet Minh on notice, the general said, "There is a light at the end of the tunnel," meaning the war would soon end and the French would win. As we now know, he was wrong. The French lost. The Viet Minh was victorious. In late 1967, with Americans starting to question the war in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, the military commander in Vietnam, was touring America to help garner more support for the war. In one of his stops he said he saw, "the light at the end of the tunnel." General Westmoreland did not know that the Tet Offensive would start in January 1968, putting a lie to his words. Who knew, too, that the war would not end for another seven years?

With all the optimism that now surrounds the war in Iraq, what the military refers to as "success" because of the recent surge, why have we not heard that old saw about Vietnam: "the light at the end of the tunnel"? Perhaps the generals are smarter today. There is no talk about an end to the war. There is no talk about light in a dark world. The fact that much of the country is quiet is relative. However, Iraq by all accounts is in a fragile state. No predictions here. It is better this way. I never heard the war in Vietnam described as being fragile. I heard it described as a mistake and a failure, but never fragile. It was a war waiting for an end, whenever that might be.

Because of General Westmoreland's statement, the always innovative press corps in Saigon created a yearly party beginning at the end of 1968 called "The Light at the End of the Tunnel Party." It was a very good party, and because of its apt name, there were a few journalists – there always are -- that perversely wanted that never-ending war to continue because the party was the best that it could be. Some may say the party never existed, that it was a figment of a strong imagination. Let me be clear that no matter what anyone may say, each of us celebrated the end of the year in our own way. If we were in Vietnam today fighting a war, we would be approaching that time of year when preparations for the party would be under way. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. As far as I know in Iraq there are no parties that resemble what we had in Vietnam. Just as well.

Working journalists I knew in Saigon looked forward to the party, or better, what was really a series of parties that took place at year's end, usually in private villas in different parts of the city. Going to one meant you went to all. I was not sure then, and now, this many years later, am still not sure who went to which party, and who I saw where. With a strict curfew, it was not possible to visit more than one shindig. If you were a Westerner, you could stay all night, something many of us did, and return to where you lived early the next morning when the curfew ended.

Usually a Vietnamese rock band provided the music. The group was gone before curfew because jail beckoned if they were caught breaking that rule. Sometimes the music came from a cassette recorder plugged into a cheap speaker system. No curfew to worry about there.

Scratch any journalist. Scratch any military information officer. Scratch any American diplomat. Scratch any foreign military attaché or diplomat. Scratch any big-time contractor. All these and more would on occasion be at one or more of these parties. The food was good. The drinks flowed. You often had a choice of hash fudge made with Swiss chocolate. Obviously the soup was rich in more ways than one. Or hash soup made from a thick base of canned tomatoes, condensed milk, carrots and celery, a bit of garlic, some cilantro and heavily infused with chunks of crab. A delight. A treat. A surprise if you had no clue what you were eating.

Not to belabor a point, Vietnam was a different war with different rules, different parameters, and different attitudes. Covering the war was dangerous, but in some ways not as dangerous as it is to cover Iraq. Covering any war is dangerous. I will not compare or contrast how the coverage differed. The country, the climate, attitudes toward the war at home, the draft and lack of it – meaning who the soldiers are and where they come from – all play into the public's awareness of the current battleground, usually far from the village square – read neighborhood – where a person lives, loves and hopefully dies in peace.

Going to these yearly parties was one small part of how we covered the Vietnam War. What we covered and how we presented it to our audience in America had nothing to do with the war's direction and thus its outcome, despite the fact that many of our detractors believed we, the press, were determining the outcome of the war, a war that grew more divisive in the country and in the States.

But we did have those yearly parties. The next day, as we wandered home to our billets, our hooches, our apartments and hotel rooms, our heads bursting from too much booze and the lingering taste of other illicit things, our need to continue covering the war was foremost in our minds. We had bureaus to run, stories to report, bills to pay, home offices we had to sometimes obey, placate and more often than not, annoy.

So, where is a party similar to "The Light at the End of the Tunnel" that we need for perspective, for relief, and for a meeting of minds, as difficult as that may have seemed? Where is the party that sees people from almost all walks of the war come together for a brief moment to put aside hostility, hatred, and distrust? Where is the outlet in Iraq for the press, government officials, contractors and anyone else who had anything to do with the war to let his and her hair down, if only for a moment, before each person gets back to work dissecting the horror of war and all it brings, including obscene profits? I am assuming it doesn't exist. I cannot say that is good or bad. It just is. America is a different place. Cliché or not, the world has changed and not for the better. Despite the seriousness of the war in Vietnam, we made the opportunity to let ourselves really go that one night a year, if only briefly. Sometimes it was more than enough to get us through the next weeks and months, all which threatened to be worse than the previous ones. And, to no one's surprise, they always were. Or, and this is as likely as any other theory, there are simply not enough journalists in Iraq to make the necessary quorum the party needs to make it work.

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. And, to all, a good night.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's