Maybe the prospect of television inundation in Vietnam was not a pleasant one to anticipate, but many of the reports already aired by the networks to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the war's end have had unmistakable introspective value. Some have been this side of brilliant, like Bob Simon's piece on Tuesday's "CBS Evening News" about the young girl in the napalm photograph now grown up, and how her dreams of being a doctor were shattered by the injuries she sustained.
Simon said her smile could fill a room. It filled the screen as well, an image of hopefulness one will strive to remember.
Nothing on tonight's CBS News special, a bit too poetically titled "Honor, Duty and a War Called Vietnam," is quite as eloquent as that, but since the report, at 10 on Channel 9, is anchored by Walter Cronkite, it has an automatic imprimatur of importance. Cronkite took us through the war as he took us through so many other national and international events, both exalting and cataclysmic. His career was capsulized Monday night on NBC's generally splendid "Television Hall of Fame" special, on which Cronkite's mother made a particularly felicitous appearance.
Watching those clips of Cronkite witnessing the first human steps on the moon, or confirming President Kennedy's death, a viewer had to be reminded of the enormous place he occupies in the collective consciousness.
On "Honor," Cronkite visits Vietnam, talks with victims and survivors of the war, and spends time with Rep. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the very cell where McCain was held after being shot down by the Viet Cong. McCain spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. Now he walks on the streets of Vietnam and is greeted like a friendly tourist. He recalls of his time in captivity, "Unfortunately, not all of us can emulate John Wayne."
Cronkite also talks with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), another celebrated vet; with a man who received a dishonorable discharge for the way he cooperated with the enemy in its propaganda broadcasts; with Vietnamese prime minister, and former aide to Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong; and with a retired Army colonel who stands before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and weeps as he contemplates "all those names . . . all those dead . . . good soldiers, good soldiers."
Naturally the war is refought by some of those interviewed. Among the most trenchant and most bitter is retired Marine lieutenant colonel William R. Corson, who declares in remarks he expects "will probably end up on the cutting room floor," but didn't, that a war can be won if the tactics are wrong or if the strategy is wrong "but you can't win when both are fouled up." Later he says, on the subject of lessons learned, "We still haven't learned anything. Beirut? We really showed 'em, boy." Of those responsible for military policy he says, "Some of them should be taken out and shot."
And Lewis B. Puller Jr., formerly a first lieutenant in the Marines, says, "The in-vogue thing now that you hear everybody say is, 'Well, we've learned that you never get into a war that . . . you're not prepared to go all-out and support.' Well . . . we should have learned that 300 years ago. That's not a lesson in my mind. That's a catch-line that gets applause, but that's not a lesson."
Cronkite throughout is resolute, authoritative and thorough. The report, written and produced by Brian T. Ellis, really reaches its moment of highest impact, however, in the closing moments, when Cronkite stops talking and the camera returns to the memorial. Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon" is heard on the sound track. All the analysis and reconsiderations in the world may not speak as clearly to the painful memory of Vietnam as do the names on that memorial and the sight of people venturing forth to touch them.