Gloria Emerson – An Appreciation
Emerson’s real subject -- you could say it was the constant companion of her life -- was the human cost of war. Writing her obituary in The Independent in 2004, Nicholas Cull noted that “while her male colleagues were swept up in the hardware and strategy, she paid attention to the suffering of ordinary soldiers and civilians.”
“A corporeal in the marines who fought on hill 547 in Laos on the night of March 22 said that many of his friends had killed themselves because they were wounded. No American helicopters could extract them because of heavy antiaircraft fire.”
“The papers and the radio in Saigon kept on saying there was a Laos victory, I have learned now, but what a joke,” Corporeal Ti said. “We ran out like wounded dogs.”
“The most heartbreaking thing, he continued, “Was that we left behind our wounded friends. They lay there, crying, knowing the B-52 bombs would fall on them. They asked buddies to shoot them but none of us could bring himself to do that. So the wounded cried out for grenades, first one man, then another, then more.” (“Laos: March 1971”, The New York Times, March 28, 1971)
While at The New York Times, she exposed the false “body counts” and other lies of America’s military top brass. In a 2003 documentary, she recalled, “I could not abide the high U.S. military officials. I saw them as very dangerous, treacherous people who would lie at the drop of a hat. And they weren’t so crazy to see me either. They didn’t like women floating around. They were collaborators in the fraud, the military. They gave the false body counts -- although they may not have wanted to -- they told the lies, they were not independent agents. There were one or two officers who might have been marvelous, but it was not my good luck to know them.” Emerson was one of the first to report the widespread use of hard drugs by the GIs, once going out of the Times’ Saigon office and returning 10 minutes later with a bag of heroin, just to show how available it was, even to a middle-aged foreign woman.
Gloria Emerson was born in New York City in 1929 to wealthy aristocrats who, she said, lost all their money. “I didn’t go to college”, she later explained, “I ran away from a wretched alcoholic home and went to work on a hotel giveaway magazine.” When she later applied for a job at The New York Times, she “correctly felt that my life depended on it.” Working in Paris and London, she was initially relegated to what was then referred to as “the women’s page” and though she didn’t love writing about fashion (the “hats and hemlines” beat, as she called it), she bided her time doing good work until she finally convinced the paper to send her to Saigon, a city she had visited in 1956. Once established in Saigon, she stood out among her colleagues: not only was she six feet tall, she was over forty, older than most of the other reporters. “I pretty much stayed away from the press corps. I don’t drink Jack Daniel’s and I didn’t take dope or stronger stuff, so I stayed by myself, a little island. I needed more sleep. I had to get up and get helicopters at five in the morning.”
In Vietnam she was greatly aided by Nguyen Ngoc Luong, her interpreter and friend. Later, in 1975, when she was uneasily resettling into American life and with gallows humor telling a friend that she’d “need a lobotomy” to forget all she’d seen in Vietnam, Luong wrote to her: “There is an acute lack of forgetfulness in you about Vietnam”. That simple statement was the gentle entreaty she needed to start her masterwork, “Winners and Losers”, which explored, with devastating acuity, the effects of the war on ordinary people. She spent years working on it, traveling all over the United States interviewing veterans and their families, anti-war activists, hawk and dove politicians, and “as many Vietnamese” as she could. She was aghast that Americans were ready to forget Vietnam, and with spare, restrained prose, she recorded the stories which formed a collective cri de coeur against forgetting. She wrote of Saigon’s secret tiger cages and the American construction companies hired to build the isolation cells that replaced them. She wrote about rough homecomings and lost veterans saddled with problems very few people wanted to hear and whom even fewer were capable of assisting. She told her readers about the music and poetry of Trinh Cong Son and the beautiful singing voice and mesmerizing stage presence of Khan Ly. She urged us to read “The Tale of Kieu” to counter what she termed America’s appalling ignorance of Vietnamese culture. She saw a lot of other people who had also been in Vietnam, and like her, couldn’t forget what they saw. At one point in “Winners and Losers” she described the wedding of an American man and a Vietnamese woman “who read a poem at their wedding that the guests had never heard. It was written by a soldier in the National Liberation Front whose fiancée, also a guerrilla, had been killed in the south”:
“Once I loved my country because of the birds and butterflies Because there were days of escaping from school. But now I love my country because in each handful of soil You are there, beloved.”
Emerson was a fierce critic of “distance killings” and wrote: “Americans cannot perceive - even the most decent among us -- the suffering caused by the United States air war in Indochina and how huge are the graveyards we have created there. To a reporter recently returned from Vietnam it often seems that too much of our fury and fear is reserved for busing, abortion, mugging, and liberation of some kind.... As Anthony Lewis once wrote, our military technology is so advanced that we kill at a distance and insulate our consciences by the remoteness of the killing.”
Although she later criticized it as “too huge and somewhat messy”, “Winners and Losers” won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1978.
Gloria Emerson had enormous sympathy for all soldiers and until her death, she was a constant presence in the lives of her many Vietnamese and American veteran friends. The Pentagon’s current policy of “embedding” journalists with American troops in Iraq makes it almost impossible for writers to experience war in the ways that correspondents like Emerson did. Shortly before her death at the age of 75 in 2004, Emerson told friends, not surprisingly, that she was sickened by the Iraq war and outraged that Americans were, for the most part, slow to comprehend its horrific folly. By then, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and, fully aware that the disease would render her helpless and unable to write, she chose to end her life, just as her friend, the writer Martha Gellhorn, had done six years earlier.
Emerson was married briefly -twice- and had no children. What she did have, however, was a large devoted group of friends, among them Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, a month before her death in 1994, wrote Emerson a note that said, “I think you are even more incredible than anyone in the street thinks I am.” But most of her friends, with the exception of Onassis and Gellhorn, weren’t glamorous or famous. She stayed close to the Vietnamese and American friends she knew in Vietnam, and was, according to John Balaban, “a moral conscience, whether or not we wanted it. She was always trying to get us to shape up, do better.” He continued, “She had a Swiftian rage for those who direct the battlefields from great distances, and she had an Ernest Hemingway respect for proper names and what they represent: a human life, with its hopes and aspirations, a family, a community, a village, a living culture, the ‘collateral damage; of warfare.”
A few years before her death, she told a reporter from the Washington Post, “I didn’t write to be famous; I wrote to keep a record.” As her friend Wayne Karlin commented after her death, “She was a tuning fork to the pain of the world, and her writing was the reverberation of that metal inside her.”