Yet many of those of us who did ask these questions still felt the compulsion to see the war--the wars--for ourselves. In the summer of 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, when a spirit of triumphalism still infused the "war on terror," there was a sense that if you didn't go, you didn't know. And so a number of writers on the left (Naomi Klein, Charles Glass, Mark Danner, myself) also went to war, in part to ward off the power of "authenticity" wielded by pro-war reporters. (There were, of course, left-leaning correspondents in the region, notably Patrick Cockburn, who has been in Iraq as long as anyone.)
The launching of another war, and the return of the war-zone intellectual, had imbued war reporting with an apparently universal allure. During the onset of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, Chris Hedges's book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning played some part in launching this fascination with the War Correspondent, despite Hedges's disgust for war. Traveling from metropolitan comfort to the dangerous periphery to "bear witness," the War Correspondent was the flâneur in hell. I too was swept up in that moment--by both the fascination and the desire for political legitimacy--and went to Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was in these places that I started to read Fall.
As I subsequently learned, it is not simply knowledge that is gained in a war zone but experience, and it can be quite nasty. The typically male lust to watch war is not always so noble as the "truth-telling witness" metaphor would suggest. Nor is the flâneur in hell simply in it for the adrenaline. The ugly fact is that for many Western reporters watching war often involves a somewhat sadistic thrill. Even as one sympathizes with the civilians who are killed and maimed and trapped in the war zone, one also tends to identify with the killers, rapists and arsonists--they are very frequently one's hosts, or at least one's most sought-after sources and protectors.
This ugly Stockholm syndrome logic operates even outside the embedding process, where your protectors are also men with guns. And the quiet identification with the soldiers rather than civilians becomes a mental crutch or tool that allows the war reporter to keep going, to override the fear and instinct to flee, to cling to the illusion of invulnerability. If you identify constantly with the victims, you could easily lose your nerve and grow totally sickened by the spectacle of fear and humiliation and waste.
I think of this dynamic when I see the photographs of Fall smiling from inside a helicopter, or read his accounts of how NLF fighters, pounded by US air power, were forced to leave their wounded in the field. Perhaps this wrinkle of identification helps explain Fall's sympathy for the old French imperial overlords and the Americans who followed them. In more ways than one, his safety and sanity depended on the empire. But that identification was, for Fall, never complete, if it ever really existed. As the US effort in Vietnam began to falter, Fall became increasingly pessimistic about US tactics. By 1964, more than a decade before the fall of Saigon, he concluded that the United States was losing.
By the end of his life Fall had become solidly antiwar. His students at Howard no doubt had something to do with this. Black soldiers were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam, and amid the civil rights movement and Africa's decolonization, educated young black people were, among their fellow Americans, the least likely to be seduced by imperialism. Fall also started hanging out with left-liberals like Marcus Raskin, who founded the Institute for Policy Studies, the great muckraker I.F. Stone and Sam Dorsey, a black radical professor at Howard. He was also starting to appear on television, magazines clamored for his work and his opinions were sought by ever more powerful people.
Back in Vietnam in 1965, Fall traveled with the king of US military advisers, John Paul Vann. He and Vann raced down South Vietnamese dirt roads armed to the teeth. Vann--a former US Army colonel who had been driven out of the military (but not the war) because of his proclivity for underage girls--would also later die in Vietnam commanding South Vietnamese troops. By this time Fall was suffering from serious health problems; his remaining kidney was failing badly. Despite operations and powerful medication, his condition worsened, and his long-term survival was in question. Under this cloud, or driven by it, Fall set off for his last trip to Vietnam--that place, that war, that he called a "bad love affair."
On December 8, 1966, Fall returned to Vietnam for a two-month trip. His third daughter had just been born, and he had just turned 40. This time he got too close to the flame. On one last patrol with US Marines in February 1967, he triggered a landmine and was killed. He left his wife and three young daughters.