The venerable “CBS Reports” neither breaks new ground nor heals old wounds by returning to Vietnam with the hero of the Persian Gulf War. About the only thing it does do is reconfirm Gen. Schwarzkopf’s strategic mastery of the medium.
Old soldiers never die, they just return to the site of the fighting accompanied by TV cameras.
“Schwarzkopf in Vietnam” is one of those pseudo-events the network news divisions love to contrive solely to cover.
The main question it raises is this: If Norman Schwarzkopf went back to Vietnam without Dan Rather, would he have really gone back at all?
Most of the hour is a straightforward homage to America’s most charismatic and media-savvy military man — a master of spit-and-polished sound bites that stand at attention ready for salute — and his insights into some of the murkiest moments of this nation’s foreign policy.
“War is insanity,” he tells viewers, a perfect post-modern, age-of-therapy update on Sherman’s edgier “War is hell.” He bemoans America’s lack of a clear goal in Vietnam, as if it were a corporate takeover or the marketing of a soft drink, blaming the ineffable loss of the war on bankrupt strategy, not bankrupt policy.
Rather, who can be a contentious and interesting interviewer, simply pays deference as he tries to compare some of his own experience as a war correspondent — he naturally chooses old film of himself with bullets flying behind him — with Schwarzkopf’s, who was then a lieutenant colonel, and his troops’.
There is an odd moment where they each offer their mea culpas on the role of the press in covering the war; compared to Schwarzkopf, Rather comes off as self-conscious and pretentious.
Still, there are some interesting bits, particularly in the way Vietnam’s ability to put the war behind it is contrasted with America’s inability to do the same. And Schwarzkopf offers a lovely and moving anecdote about learning he was to become a father for the first time in the late ’60s as war and weather were raging around him.
Overall, though, there is a falseness to this whole endeavor, perhaps best indicated when Rather and Schwarzkopf climb to the roof of the old American embassy in what was then Saigon.
This, of course, was the sight of some of the most haunting images of the war , during the final helicopter evacuations as North Vietnamese troops took the city. Rather asks Schwarzkopf what he remembers about the images.
Since he was stationed in Alaska at the time, the images the general recalls are, of course, the televised images, a generation removed from the reality.
Schwarzkopf tries valiantly. So does CBS, as it throws up archival footage of a city under siege with plumes of smoke rising in the distance.
It is a fitting metaphor for a medium that too often blows smoke instead of working a little harder to shed light.