Zippo raids, burning villages, and Morley Safer-----another side of the story! By Jim Griffiths

The year is 2001 and CBS News is still unabashedly proud of Morley Safer’s report from Vietnam in 1965. A CBS webpage of today has this to say of the report. "One of reporting’s finest hours was Safer’s 1965 piece from Vietnam, in which Safer, on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, showed U.S. Marines burning the village of Cam Ne. The pivotal broadcast was one of the negative reports that helped change America’s view of the war and changed war reporting forever.

Pictures like these had a great impact on the American public. However there is another side to this story. Brent Moll writes this version of the events at Cam Ne:

"On August 3, 1965, a reinforced marine rifle company was sent on a search and destroy operation against a complex of six hamlets named Cam Ne 4, south-southwest of the Danang air base. It was from this direction that on July 1, 1965, a NLF demolition squad had penetrated the base, destroying several aircraft , killing one airman and wounding three marines. The area around Cam Ne 4 had long been controlled and occupied by the NLF, and spread throughout the villages were trenches, fighting holes, tactical caves and tunnels. Almost impenetrable thorny hedgerows around the villages and hamlets were often mined and booby-trapped.

On July 12 another marine company had made a sweep through Cam Ne and three marines had been killed and four wounded in action in which heavy fire had been encountered from both men and women. The instructions for Company D for their operation in the same area on August 3rd  were to destroy the enemy and his position and fortifications.

Approaching the village , the third platoon on the right flank drew sustained sniper and automatic weapons fire. After a short time, the NLF, estimated at about 30, withdrew, but progress in penetrating the hamlet , checking civilians and huts, and in searching for booby traps and mines was nevertheless slow. Some houses were burned as a result of being hit by infantry weapons in reply to enemy fire. Others, after the villagers had been called together –outside- the dwellings, were set afire or blown up in order to ensure that the firing positions and tunnels around the houses would not again become military installations. In one of the huts, fired upon when the NLF had taken cover in it, was a dead Vietnamese boy of about 10 years of age. Several other civilians were wounded and so were four marines.

The search and destroy operation that is described here was typical of many such actions that took place throughout the war. When the NLF converted villages into fortified places and fighting ensued, civilians inevitably suffered and property was destroyed.

However, what marked this particular operation was the fact that parts of it were filmed by a CBS television newscrew, and on August 5th, American viewers of the CBS Evening News were exposed to the spectacle of American’s using their Zippos to set fire to thatched huts in a Vietnamese village. The commentary by Morley Safer did not make reference to the action in Cam Ne 4 in July, in which several marines had been killed and wounded, nor did Safer make mention of the existence of vast numbers of trenches, mines, booby traps and the hostile fire emanating from the village.

Where the marine unit’s after-action report spoke of 51 structures and 38 trenches, tunnels and prepared NLF combat positions destroyed, Safer reported the burning of from 120 to 150 houses and the leveling of a village. The impression Safer left the audience was of senseless and wanton destruction of ancestral homes and the marines’ disregard for innocent civilian life."

If not enough damage was done by Safer’s original story viewed by millions on the original broadcast by CBS news in 1965, it is continuing to be done by the report being placed in the set of videotapes in the series The Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite which was produced in 1986. No new information was added in the series but why would it be? After all CBS is still exuberantly proud of the original report.

This incident brings up the question of collateral damage during the Vietnam War. This damage would be the death and destruction accidentally caused by military conflict. It is instructive to ascertain the primary cause of collateral damage in the Vietnam War. Guerrillas hide among the population. It was the communist side that hid among the population and brought the death and destruction to the populace by doing so. Even in North Vietnam they put their air defenses in the midst of the population believing that it would be less prone to attack. It could be argued that few contestants in war ever tried to painstakingly avoid collateral damage to the degree that the United States did in the Vietnam War.

[1] CBS, Morley Safer Bios

[1] Brent Moll in, Soc.History.War.Vietnam Newsgroup, Archive Log #95-026,