Beverly Deepe Keever (2013). Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Beverly Keever was a young journalist when US troops started to intervene in the conflict between South and North Vietnam. Keever had a desire to see the world and a fervent interest in East Asian countries and cultures. Thus she decided to visit Vietnam as the conflict began to “heat up.” It was meant to be a short visit, but it ended being a long chapter or several chapters of her life.
Keever reported from Vietnam from 1962 until 1969. When she left the country, she had worked there longer than any other Western journalist before her. Now about 40 years later, she has written her memoirs about that time. The reason for this, she notes, is that in Iraq and in Afghanistan the United States is repeating the same failures and errors which happened in Vietnam.
During the seven years Keever worked in Vietnam, the top level of the South Vietnamese state and army changed eight times. Each change produced several changes and instability in the rest of the country. One “coup” on the top level could lead to the replacement of numerous chiefs in the provinces. The US Ambassador in Saigon was changed five times, but the top US general only three times. Everything else changed, but Keever stayed. Partly because of these kinds of changes, organizations often have no memory, but Keever has. Her archives are rich and detailed. If someone can tell reliably “what it was like” in those years, it is surely Beverly Keever.
The book is well-written. Its text is fluent, vivid and analytical. The general political frame is well drawn, while one has the feeling of being consistently in touch on the grass-roots level. One feels the strange or even bizarre atmosphere of a life in which every moment can be the last, and life is often an interaction of masked figures whose real faces remain unknown. Thus twenty years after leaving Vietnam, Kiever learned that one of her closest friends and colleagues was a hard-core spy. The life of this man, Pham Xuan An (“a spy who loved us”), could be compared to the wildest legends of Second World War espionage and, has already been depicted in at least two biographies. Keever offered asylum to An’s wife and children in United States after North Vietnamese troops seized Saigon in 1975, and she was expecting to meet them all again, which in fact never happened. An died in 2006 as a senior lieutenant general in the North Vietnamese army. Still worth noting is that An’s closest friend during the war was of course a long-time CIA agent.
Keever describes chronologically her life and work beginning with her arrival in Saigon at the beginning of 1962 up until her departure seven years later. She worked first as a freelancer, later as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and still later for the Christian Science Monitor, gaining international recognition and a good reputation for her work, among other things in the form of a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
After arriving in Saigon, Keever witnessed the different phases of the US and South Vietnamese strategy to keep the “communists” out – as well as their failure. The South Vietnamese government first tried to create so called “strategic hamlets.” That meant villages protected and guarded by American and South Vietnamese soldiers and by the residents themselves. This proved to be impossible. Guerrillas were there already, and it was impossible to know who was who. And if they were not, they came either by force or by cunning. It remains unclear to what extent the failure of this strategy was due to military weakness, the nationalist or patriotic “instinct” of the population, the promise of social reform made by the guerillas or by their cruel physical terror. In any case, the peasants were caught in the crossfire. In the daytime American or South Vietnamese troops came with their guns, in the night guerillas were everywhere with their guns and knives.
After futile efforts to provide shelter and security for the villages, a more radical step was taken. Old villages were destroyed, and villagers were forced to leave their homes and to move to new areas and new villages. After that the guerilla movement was to be faced and destroyed in the evacuated areas. But the guerillas were too clever to fall into this trap. They withdrew, and if they didn’t and met their end on the battlefield, the guerillas and North Vietnam were always able to recruit new cadres to an astonishing extent, which meant an inconceivable loss of human life. As such, this strategy of burning and destroying villages may have been one fateful factor in recruiting new guerillas.
The final step was the escalation of the war in North Vietnam and in surrounding countries in order to destroy the moral backbone of the North Vietnamese people and government and to destroy the routes along which guerillas could infiltrate South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese were however like the Russians in Stalingrad: it was impossible to break their will. It also proved that there are limits even for a superpower beyond which it can’t go when its own media machinery, as well as the rest of the world is observing. According to Keever, journalists were very free to move around and to report on their observations. This freedom of journalists was greatest in Vietnam. In Iraq it was already considerably reduced.
There is almost a scoop in the book still for today. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson was ready to start peace negotiations. Richard Nixon, who was elected president later in 1968, was conniving with both the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese governments, causing the South Vietnamese president to reject Johnson’s peace initiative. Keever, who had developed a good network of sources, had a scent of this connivance and reported on it just before the presidential elections. However, the Christian Science Monitor couldn’t confirm Keever’s information with other sources. Thus the Monitor lacked the courage to publish Keever’s report. The question remains: what if her story had been published? Would Richard Nixon still have been elected president of the United States? And would the war in Vietnam have ended earlier if Nixon had failed in his campaign?
Keever witnessed and eye-witnessed all the phases mentioned above, as well as several skirmishes and battles. The most violent was probably the siege of the Khe Sanh airbase, whose name may still be remembered today, even in Europe. Battles are so vividly depicted that it is almost a drawback of the book. It is almost possible to read the book as an exiting narration concerning the last war against native American Indian tribes, renamed “communists” and “Viet Cong.” However, the brutality of the events and the fact that Keever tries to also find the viewpoint of those “tribes” may help avoid this.
There are some interesting details in this book which were worth of mentioning. One of them was the allusion to colonial wars mentioned above. Americans tried to find names for their heavy artillery taken from the history of its Indian wars (“Tomahawk” for example). Could it really be that they didn’t notice their own role in the light of this metaphor? Or were the 1960’s still too early for that?
Another interesting aspect in this book is the fate of the “Montaignards” (“hill people”). They were tribes among whom Americans found some support in the middle of the guerilla-controlled areas. What do we know about them now?
Keever also mentions some things which are not always very well-remembered. One of them is the use of cruel terror by the guerilla movement, along with its promise of social reform. Another aspect is the use of children to spy on adults in Vietcong-controlled areas. This almost always happens in radical left-wing revolutions.
A last word in the text is given to An, a friend, colleague – and spy. In an interview, he was asked if he regretted anything. He was responsible for the end of so many lives anyway. “No,” said An, “no regrets. I had to do it. This peace that I fought for may be crippling this country, but the war was killing it. As much as I love the United States it had no right here. The Americans had to be driven out from Vietnam one way or another.” Since then US troops have again already been in places where they haven’t a right to go with similar kinds of results. Hasn’t anyone learned anything and what there is to be learned? Keever’s message may be that pure military interference produces only catastrophes for each party to a conflict. There must be some social point of view guiding actions rather than military force. Some kind of positive program is needed. This is so easy to say, but much more difficult to accomplish in rapidly changing situations where many different actors are pursuing their (supposed) interests. However if this message can be communicated by books, then Keever’s is an excellent attempt.