AC: I would get up usually about five or so, stop by a little bakery and pick up a danish, then head to the station and pull some records and get ready to go on the air. I’d go on the air at 6, and be off the air by 9. I wrote copy and did production for the rest of the day. In the afternoons, and during my spare time—this was true as it was in the movie—I did teach English during my off duty time. I did not teach my class how to swear or use New York street slang. And I was not teaching English because I was trying to meet this pretty Vietnamese girl…at least not one in particular. But for most GIs, it was difficult to know the average Vietnamese. About the only people you can get to know are bar girls and such. But the Vietnamese, like most cultures, have a respect for teachers. So I figured by teaching I could break through some of that reticence; to get to know some of the everyday, ordinary Vietnamese people, and it worked out very well.
JCR: How important did the American command in Vietnam regard the broadcast operations as being?
AC: We were there for the morale factor. Almost all of our listeners were men in their mid to late 20s, and very few had been out of the United States before. Many had not been outside of their own hometowns. The military came along, and quite literally picked them up, dropped them halfway around the world, and dumped them in a totally alien environment. Not surprisingly, culture shock would set in. It was our job to be an antidote to homesickness. And the way to do that was to sound as much as possible like a stateside radio station. So that’s what I tried to do.
JCR: What were your perceptions of the war while all this was going on?
AC: When I left, we were winning. The thing that very few people realize is that we never lost a single significant military battle in all the time that we were there in Vietnam, including the Tet Offensive. And yet it was portrayed in totally different terms. Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and said that we were losing, which was a complete fabrication. And yet, once he started on that, everyone else fell in line and started portraying it the same way. There is a book called Big Story by Peter Braestrup, which is a case study of the ’68 Tet Offensive and points out that the Vietnam War was, among other things, the first war we fought in the age of the jet transport. It used to be a reporter would have to take a long ocean voyage to get to a place like Vietnam, so he would stay there for months and years even, developing a full understanding of the culture, of the politics, of the background. And then when he wrote his stories he could put them in that context. With Vietnam, you could fly in, file a few stories, and fly out again. It is like the old fable of the blind men and the elephant. One felt its leg and said it was like a tree. Another felt its tail and thought it was like a rope, while yet another felt its side and said it was like a wall. All of them were quite correct, but in putting their stories together, you did not really know what an elephant is like. We had the same phenomenon happening in Vietnam because of the reportage of people who did not have the knowledge or the background to put it in the proper context.
JCR: So this poor grounding of the American reporters in Vietnamese history and culture really negatively colored the reportage that we got out of the war?
AC: Yes, it did. We were winning, even when we left Vietnam. We left in 1973, but when we left the Vietnamese were capable of defending themselves. They needed economic and logistical help from us, though, and our Congress cut them off at the knees, which I think is one of the most shameful aspects of our history.
JCR: Back to this very famous movie. The question you get more than any other must be just how realistic is the movie?
AC: Anybody who has been in the military will tell you that if I did half the things in that movie, I’d still be in Leavenworth right now. A lot of Hollywood imagination went into the movie. I was a disk jockey in Vietnam and I did teach English in my spare time. I was not thrown out of Vietnam; I stayed for my full one-year tour and I was honorably discharged, thank you very much. None of the characters in the film are based on real people. They are all stereotypes. But as is true of stereotypes, you can name any character in the film and I can probably think of a half-dozen people who fit the profile during my years in the Air Force.