The life and work of Pham Xuan An is instructive. An agent of North Vietnam during that war, he managed to find work for Time magazine and other major publications. He used his press perches to gather information on US and South Vietnamese forces and probably to be an agent of influence. He died of emphysema on Sept 18.
An was in many ways the perfect spy. He led a modest but bourgeois lifestyle. He enjoyed songbirds and gambled on fighting cocks. He loved dogs, especially the big German shepherd that kept him company at the time.
He would sit for hours chain-smoking American cigarettes and trading stories with other South Vietnamese journalists at Givral’s coffee shop in the center of Saigon.
He adopted several humorous titles for himself, such as “General Givral.”
But we now know that he turned to deadly serious work at night, photocopying documents, typing up reports, and hiding film inside grilled pork wrapped in rice paper.
The question of An’s activities then go straight to the heart of how the press operates in war zones now. We all know and remember Eason Jordan’s famous confession concerning how CNN covered for Saddam’s crimes in Iraq, but what’s less remembered is how Tom Brokaw reacted to it: He said Jordan should have kept his mouth shut. The Associated (with terrorists) Press would likely concur: They’re still lobbying for the release of Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi stringer photog who was arrested in the company of a known al Qaeda bomber, in the bomber’s bomb factory, and with bomb residue on his own hands. In fact, AP and other international syndicates seem to employ a whole bunch of Pham Xuan An types in Iraq, Lebanon and all around the world. But don’t call them terrorists or enemy agents of influence, of course. As Reuters’ Steven Jukes is famous for saying:
“We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist.”
Back in Vietnam, An’s career turned on two key events that transformed the war.
Bruce Palling, a former Vietnam War correspondent, writes that An deserves high ranking as a spy because he played a crucial role in two turning points in the war: the battle at Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta in 1963 and the 1968 Tet offensive.
An’s analysis of U.S. counter-insurgency strategy and tactics was apparently perceptive enough to help give the Viet Cong confidence that they could take on major South Vietnamese army units for the first time in the early 1960s.
They did just that in January 1963, outside the Mekong Delta hamlet of Ap Bac, 40 miles southwest of Saigon. Three well-prepared Viet Cong companies battered an entire South Vietnamese army division that was supported by artillery and U.S. advisers and helicopters.
In advance of the Tet offensive, An helped to select targets in Saigon for the Viet Cong, driving agents around Saigon in his old Renault car. The car can now be seen at a military museum in Hanoi.
The Tet offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong but turned into a psychological victory because of its impact on the United States.
Fast forward to Iraq, to press reports of atrocities that turn out to be false, but are always accounted to either American or Iraqi government forces. Fauxtography runs rampant across the Middle East, and nearly always originating with indigenous photogs and/or editors, and always skewed toward painting either the US or the Israelis or our other allies as monsters and occupiers.
There’s some debate as to the extent of Pham Xuan An’s spying during the Vietnam war; he did sour on the Communists and was eventually forced into a re-education camp after he helped them win the war. The question in the current war isn’t whether there is a Pham Xuan An operating in the war zone. The question is just how many of them are there, and whether their employers even care that they’ve hired the enemy’s public affairs officers.