Ex-Marine Bill Broyles Jr. Befriends His Enemy in Vietnam
09/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
The parade of solemn, even teary visitors past Washington's Vietnam Memorial one day in November 1982 included a 6'2" Texan in a pin-striped suit. William Broyles Jr. was then editor-in-chief of Newsweek, a busy man with little time to linger. Yet, as he peered at his reflection in the black marble and silently read the honor roll, he was overwhelmed by emotion. "The whole thing came back in a rush," says Broyles, 41, who had last seen Vietnam as a Marine first lieutenant in 1970. "I remembered the first dead man I saw, the helicopters, the fear, the laughter, the smells and the faces of all those young guys I was with. I had wanted to put the war behind me, but that slab with all the names was like a magnet pulling me back. I wondered, 'Why did these people die, and why did I live?' It started me thinking that I needed to know more about the war."
In September 1984, after leaving Newsweek, Broyles began a month-long exploration of Vietnam. In Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95), he writes emotionally of old battlefields now overgrown and of conversations with former members of the Viet Cong. Says Broyles: "I wanted to humanize the people I had been fighting against, to think of them as more than 'the enemy.' I wanted to look at them and have them look at me and see if that would help close the circle of the war. I wanted to reach across the battlefield and shake the hand of the man who tried to kill me, and whom I tried to kill."
Broyles had for months led a platoon in the area of Hill 10 near Da Nang. Through an extraordinary coincidence, he learned that a guide assigned to him, Tran Hien, was a former commander charged with attacking Hill 10 while Broyles was there. The two men stomped through the red dirt and coolly discussed battle strategy.
Later, he met a woman whose husband Broyles's platoon may have killed in 1969 during an ambush. He asked the widowed mother of four how she felt about the years of battle and she answered, "The war is over now. We have much to do. Life goes on." Says Broyles of the Vietnamese he met: "They believed they were fighting for a great goal, one worth dying for. Instead of working in the paddy, they were riding on the wind of history. They called each other brother, and they meant it to mean more than blood."
Despite his better understanding of the Vietnamese people, Broyles has little regard for their postwar government. "My sympathies are not with the regime—theirs is a repugnant political state. I'm not glad they won." Surprisingly, instead of finding himself hated as a representative of the country that had bombed Vietnamese homes, he found himself admired. He writes, "Hanoi appeared to be regimented, puritan, alien, the Marxist triumph of idea over matter. And it was. But something else was struggling to emerge from the tight cocoon of ideology and self-denial. It was something modern, something Western. And it was something I, as an American, stood for."
Broyles could have avoided the Vietnam experience altogether. The son of an engineer and great-grandson of a Texas newspaper publisher, he grew up in a small town outside Houston and graduated from Rice University in 1966. As a Marshall scholar at Oxford, Broyles earned a masters degree in philosophy, politics and economics. Then, ambivalent about fighting in a war he felt was wrong, he enrolled in the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding the draft. Yet something nagged at Broyles. He had watched the BBC as Americans died in the streets of Hue during the Tet offensive. "Those boys were like the friends I had grown up with," he writes. "They were fighting a war while my friends from college and I went on with our lives." Broyles began to feel that he was shirking his duty. He says, "I realized that it was more wrong for me to avoid the draft and let somebody else go fight in my place than it was for me to go."
Broyles resigned from the Peace Corps during his training period and on Oct. 31, 1968 enlisted in the Marines. Told by a recruiting officer that with his education he would probably be stationed in Washington, he was sanguine about his future. But after officers' training at Quantico, Va. Broyles was told to report to the First Marine Division, Da Nang. "I thought, 'Whoa, wait a minute. What catch was that? 21 or 22?' "
At Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, Calif. before leaving for Da Nang, he suddenly panicked. He called a taxi to take him to the Los Angeles airport, where he planned to catch a plane home. In the cab, he stripped off his uniform and wrote a letter to his as-yet-unborn children, explaining why he would not go to war. At the airport Broyles called his wife, Alessandra Lippucci, whom he had met at Oxford, telling her of his decision. She told him to stay put and then had a friend call Broyles and persuade him that this act would ruin his life. Broyles protested, "Yeah, but I could die." The friend responded, "Low probability."
In Vietnam Broyles says he was always careful. After 12 months he returned unscathed and co-founded, with Mike Levy, a magazine called Texas Monthly. Broyles was editor for eight years and helped make Texas Monthly one of the fastest growing magazines in the nation. Then, in 1982, Katherine Graham hired him to edit Newsweek, where, he says, he felt distanced from the writing and reporting he loves. "The job and I just didn't mesh," says Broyles. "It's real difficult for an outsider to come into a place like that."
Deciding to move back to Houston from New York, Broyles and second wife Sybil Newman, whom he married in 1973, settled into a two-story home with their children, David, now 8, and Susannah, 4. There, he writes a column for U.S. News and World Report, plus free-lance pieces for Esquire and Texas Monthly. With Brothers in Arms behind him. he says he has learned some lessons about an ill-conceived war. "It taught us that although we are a great country, there are limits as to what we can do. We have to pick our battles carefully."