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Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

Until the road I took became the road I knew, the journey I envisioned wound through the world just as any Western traveler might map his way across the seas to see all the popular sights. Upon escaping a circumscribed, middle-class California existence, I would set off to destinations mostly familiar to me in all but the details. I would look across the bend in the horizon and anticipate fulfilling the usual expectations: taking in the picture-book vistas, the rich human tapestry, a symphony of strange tongues. I would come back one day with a fine stock of tales to tell from visits to many lands.

Thank God I missed that tour bus. My road, as it consumed the years and the miles, turned inward upon the traveler in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and became the longest journey of all covering the shortest spatial distance of all. Somewhere inside the brain where incoming signals are processed, the chemistry shifted and everything changed. A new awareness took root and grew, but slowly.

Hal Wood was a sports writer in the news agency bureau in San Francisco where I worked as a sometime reporter and rewrite man, but I was mostly a flunky known as a wire filer. My job was to take long rolls of Teletype paper on which news stories were written and reshuffle the content for transfer to other long roles of Teletype paper. Drinking helped.

Finally, one day my request for an overseas assignment came through, and Hal had advice for me. He’d shuttled between the golf courses and the traveling press hotels in countless countries, so he knew the world. He said I was making a mistake. I should never have asked for a foreign assignment because where I was going was Asia and Asia was poor, filthy, and diseased. People were shifty. Your wallet was never safe.

Before I left town, Thackrey, Nolan, Sakamoto and I drank at the Fourth Estate on company time and laughed at Hal’s verdict on treacherous Asians. But I knew otherwise only in the abstract. The real journey, soon begun, led me to new surroundings and a million new visions from new encounters, some risky, but somehow the wallet stayed inviolate. In a few short decades, I moved across terrain driven either by the story before my eyes or the one lying just past the next border checkpoint. Or just change for its own sake, “one place made bearable by the prospect of departure for another,” in V.S. Naipaul’s description of the traveler’s restlessness.

The reach toward new places tested the boundaries of the known world. When a labor action on my part and that of a co-conspirator to wring better pay in Tokyo for United Press International reporters, teletype operators and pourers of tea failed with a dull thud, I relished the punishment. My bosses sent me to distant Pakistan, notorious for its lack of either creature comforts or events worth reporting. The company kept a foreign correspondent in Karachi on some thin business ruse.

However, news broke out there and elsewhere on the Subcontinent and for me creature comforts aplenty eventually came to pass. After I left Pakistan, I married and started a family and for the first time after a long time I was eating at home. By then I had spent two and a half years based in Karachi and from there had struck out to all of West Pakistan, to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), to India, and to Afghanistan. I had seen and reported on riots, a dictator’s rigged election, and America’s loss of face and prestige in the Subcontinent, compounded often by sheer goofiness.

As vice president, Lyndon Johnson on a visit to Karachi in 1962 promised to show what America was all about by sending the randomly selected camel driver Bashir Ahmed a new American-made pickup truck. After it arrived the prop stunt promptly backfired. Ahmed was resented among the camel-driving brethren and Karachi had a good laugh, all at U.S.A. expense.

Reporting on 1965’s edition of the wars between India and Pakistan, I managed to take cover in a roadside ditch when an Indian jet fighter (American made) strafed the Jeep I was in (American made) as I came from the scene of a recent tank battle (American made weapons, both sides). Another time I was nearly mobbed by angry anti-American demonstrators on a station platform in Karachi only to get rescued by Pakistan’s most prominent anti-American of all at the time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an intelligent man who served one military dictator as foreign minister, only to be hanged years later by another.

Bhutto calmed the crowd that day with the announcement that this American was a friend. Actually, I was his friend in the limited sense we had shared a cognac at his seaside home. Reporters who believe their high-flown sources can become real friends delude themselves. The connection is not one of friendship; it’s a mutually self-serving condition lubricated by second-rate liquor.  As asked by the wife of the Singapore foreign minister upon catching him pouring his best scotch for a pair of visiting journalists, “Why from that bottle, for them?”

To the war in Indochina came journalists and pretenders in the thousands. “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested often,” wrote Chris Hedges, a war correspondent for the New York Times. Most who came to see the war never got within hearing distance.  But for others, as Hedges cautioned, the attraction is only fulfilled where the danger is greatest. My friend the photographer Koichi Sawada went to Vietnam on his own dime to shoot war pictures for his cheap UPI bosses, and came out bearing every prominent world and national photo prize possible. Home safe in Hong Kong, he became restless and headed south again. The risks outweigh the rewards every time, as they must if you are “in thrall to chaos,” as Joyce Carol Oates said of perilous attractions.

Sawada died in 1970 presenting his press credentials to his Khmer Rouge executioner on a night time run he surely knew he shouldn’t have made.  You never traveled war zone roads at night. He and I had talked about it just weeks before as we went about Cambodia looking for the CIA’s fingerprints on the coup that had just toppled Prince Norodom Sihanook’s war-neutral government.

I looked into the maw of a similar fate one afternoon shadows fell on a Mekong River bank several miles from Phnom Penh. Correspondents had gone there to check out reports of guerrilla activity. The evidence was everywhere. Villagers were taking down from their walls photos of the once highly revered Prince Sihanook. A local police post stood deserted. After my hired driver disappeared and left me on the riverbank, the AP man wanted to leave me there. Wire service competition rarely reached the point where death was too good for the bastard chasing the same story, but it could come close.

The correspondent from the Chicago Daily News, Keyes Beach, shared the vehicle and its hire cost with the AP man. Conservative patriot that he was, Keyes declared he would not leave a fellow American alone and exposed in Communist guerilla country, and into the vehicle I clambered.

As near as I can place it, my knowing and coming to understand Sawada sometime in the 1960s began opening the door to insights I hadn’t known possible into the lives of strangers around me in this foreign setting I’d chosen. Did not true understanding of one another flower only among members of the tribe?

Sawada had such insights but seldom mentioned them because they didn’t seem credible but which could serve him well in his work. There were reporters based in Saigon, as then called, who spent the war looking for battles never found. They always guessed wrong about which helicopter-borne missions to tag along on. Sawada never missed a battle because he wasn’t guessing. He said the war moved across the country in detectable waves like the Mekong winds rippling the jungle’s upper canopy, and that one could anticipate where they would go next.

Where Sawada got such notions I sometimes asked but the answers took the form of Zen aphorisms that he assumed gave me sufficient explanations. So I pretended I understood. Sawada connected with people instantly. I watched him talk his way past security guards refusing to allow arriving journalists to head into town after arriving at the at Phnom Penh airport in 1970, the year of his death, even though the guard knew who he was. They let me through only because I lied and said, without any basis in possibility, that I was a bookkeeper. While he was in Vietnam, Sawada’s photography won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1965 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. He gave away all his prize money to the Vietnamese mother he photographed with her four children, all neck deep in rising flood waters, as they fled the fighting.

My aim upon learning of his death—it happened weeks after I left Cambodia—was to try to see people as Sawada saw them, strictly on an even footing, whether he had something to gain or not.  That was not a common trait among journalists from rich countries writing about the fates of nameless Asians in the grip of war and famine. Death in a bad war made the best copy, and it was often told in no more human terms than in body counts.

So it was that I began trying to escape the cynicism, to explore the possibilities of connecting as a fellow human being with the less fortunate among those who made news and those I encountered who did not. Where would it start?  How about Phnom Penh, 1970?  The coup brought to power a stupid general who began his leadership by inexplicably launching a pogrom against persons of Vietnamese ancestry. Poor residents, Vietnamese-related or not, huddled in their hovels, among them parents without resources who whored out their daughters to customers invited inside. The word went around poolside at the Hotel Phnom: “She may have been 15, but she had the body of a 9-year-old.” Everybody laughed.

I too smiled, thinking maybe it was just a joke. Later I hoped it was just a joke. And the girls’ destitute families, what to make of them, what must they think of all of us? All I could do was hope they would put these times out of mind while cowering from new horrors brought about by Pol Pot’s country-wide killing spree a few short years later.

Or what of the petit hookers with heart-shaped faces along Pat Pong Road in Bangkok, a street of whore bars and massage parlors amidst which some genius had opened a UPI bureau. Many a time I sat before a typewriter and over the blaring stripper music wrote of war, Asian politics and American foreign policy—and thought nothing of the lives of our flesh-hustling neighbors.

But I think of them now, in the spring of 2010. As I write this, Thailand’s rural poor are rising against the corrupt military elites who have long ruled the country for their own enrichment. The business decision to maximize the take has always included the white slaving of the impoverished female rural population. I like to think that among the rioters braving the army guns in 2010 are this generation’s defenders of the long lost girls on Pat Pong Road.

I admired two people in politics, both assassinated. Harvey Milk actually practiced true compassion for San Franciscans of every sexual persuasion during his short career serving as the country’s first openly gay elected official. He was shot to death, as was the Mayor, by a deeply disturbed former colleague on the city’s Board of Supervisors. I lived and worked as a journalist in the city before and after Milk’s demise.  Later, as I tried to report street disturbances occasioned by the short prison sentence given to Milk’s killer, San Francisco police officers clubbed me to the sidewalk and broke three ribs. I never had a scratch during all those years in Asia.

The only other figure in public life that I never held in suspicion of the inevitable sellout was Benigno Aquino, the prominent Philippine opposition leader shot and killed by Ferdinand Marcos’s soldiers as he tried to reenter his country from the United States in August, 1984. I was on the plane returning Aquino to his homeland and, all but watching the bullets fly, witnessed his assassination. Marcos’s men followed me through Manila’s streets and threatened a Filipino colleague with criminal libel for helping me report later events. While I was in the Philippines, phone calls were made to my wife in San Francisco threatening me with death for the book that my friend Fred Poole and I were writing to expose the Marcos regime and Aquino’s assassination.

So it’s not as if I find in all God’s children the milk of human kindness. Any journalist so naïve should turn in his Rolex. We like it when the academics refer to our bearing witness to violent upheavals as the first draft of history. But travels through Asia as a foreign correspondent did mean also that a phenomenon more profound than the headlines became uppermost as the journey progressed. I learned, as it never occurred to me before I left the United States, that you can look into the eyes of practically anyone swept up in war, natural disasters or political victimhood and see yourself looking back at you.

There are no hierarchies built on wealth, power or the right connections that matter. The Bangladeshi peasant washed out of his home, his village leveled by a cyclone, gets the same status in my eyes as myself, whether I am face to face with him to cover the news or imagine him in my absence as the next storm surges out of the Bay of Bengal. Sawada lived in the belief that all were the same even if artificially separated by rank. So people no one else listened to told him secrets that only pass between friends, and the secrets pushed him forward to some measure of fame.

I am no Sawada and have no such secrets. Compassion is the wrong label for my story of consciousness raised in the heat of the turmoil that I witnessed in Asia. I, a mere observer, seldom lifted a finger for anyone being ground under by their own private holocaust. But something did happen inside that part of the orb where the brain processes experience that I could never have foreseen. Call it understanding.

Max Vanzi is a former foreign correspondent for UPI, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. He is the co-author of Revolution in The Philippines.

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1 comment

1 j gardneret { 08.31.11 at 4:53 pm }

A remarkable reflection that is tender and intimate at the same time his sweeping gaze spans decades, wars, continents, cultures, politics and nations…. the expansive external view in a delicate dance with the inner and personal….