Drawn to the Flame
The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia
by Jacques Leslie
Four Walls Eight Windows New York, NY 1995
Among the many memoirs written by the journalists who covered Indochina in the Sixties and Seventies, Jacques Leslie's memoir stands apart. Written twenty years after he left Cambodia, Leslie's book is a window: On the other side of the glass, in the darkness, we can dimly see Vietnam and Cambodia. When we refocus our gaze, however, we see the author's reflection in the windowpane.
Other memoirs tell us about the world on the other side of the glass. Leslie's book tells us about the reflection.
What draws reporters to conflict? The desire to experience war was a sign of having The Mark:
"Having the mark meant being addicted to Vietnam, being used to intrigue and pumping adrenaline and layer after layer of lie, truth, lie, truth, until the two were indistinguishable; the mark was the perverse and frightened expression of our love. People with the mark shared a yearning they suspected Vietnam of being able to satifsy, and while they hated the war (for wars are meant to be hated), they loved it even more, and hated themselves for loving it."
Why take such risks? Leslie does not pretend to answer those questions in general. He answers them only for himself. It's tempting, however, to believe that his answers apply to war correspondents everywhere.
Leslie arrived in Vietnam in 1972 as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and quickly found his view of the war at odds with that of his bosses. His bureau chief, George McArthur, seemed eager to accept American assessments of progress without question. Leslie, meanwhile, was unconvinced, and his skepticism deepened the longer he stayed in Vietnam.
Robert Gibson, the Times' foreign editor, continually prodded Leslie to be "objective." In Leslie's view, however, Gibson's idea of "objectivity" was embodied by the hawkish McArthur. "I thought objectivity was impossible -- a refuge for the meek, who'd rather omit what was least tangible, which is surely where the truth lies," Leslie writes. "My standard of good journalism was honesty, which meant facing the truth, following it down its own path, not sculpting an idealized image of it, all clean and sparkling with bogus ideology. I knew no objective journalists, but I knew some honest ones."
Leslie wrote several stories that displeased the South Vietnamese government. Immediately after the 1973 ceasefire agreement, Leslie ventured into Vietcong-held territory, emerging with a report that indicated that the rebels held a firm grip on a great deal of territory, often within sight of the main roads. A subsequent story about corruption was the last straw: in July 1973, the Saigon regime expelled him from the country.
His next assignment was Phnom Penh. Leslie paints a detailed portrait of the foreign correspondents in a country on the verge of collapse. Sydney Schanberg, Denis Cameron, Elizabeth Becker, Al Rockoff, Anthony Paul, and others cope with the decay through different means... and, one suspects, with varying degrees of success.
For Leslie, the excitement he had felt in Vietnam was gone, replaced with fear and tension. He soon left Cambodia, only to return in 1975, in the final weeks before the fall of the Lon Nol regime. As the Americans withdraw from the country, the remaining journalists must make a choice: go, or stay.
The end comes swiftly, and as it arrives, we wait for some sort of resolution, or a dramatic denouement.
The dramatic conclusion never comes, and for a moment, after closing the book, we feel as though its questions have been left unanswered. Only later do we realize that the answers we were revealed to us long before the story ended.
One suspects that, as he looks back on a long-past chapter of his life, Leslie feels the same way.