Caption: The North Vietnamese Army had just surged across the Demilitarized Zone, launching the NVA’s 1972 Easter Offensive, and was temporarily halted by South Vietnamese troops at a river bisecting the town of Dong Ha. Along with Nick Proffitt, Newsweek’s garrulous bureau chief, and David Elliott, the bravest scholar I ever knew, I had walked into Dong Ha. In the photograph, the river is to my right, just down the street; I could hear the fighting but not see it. This was my first day anywhere close to combat, and I felt more fearful than at any time in the next two years of covering the war. Photo by David Elliott.
In the course of my career, I have come full circle. The first story of mine that seemed to resonate was a column I wrote for my college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. It was a humorous piece about prematurely growing bald, which I was painfully in the process of doing. It drew so much attention that it almost seemed to redeem my impending depilated state. I got immediately hooked on journalism, and eventually became a Yale Daily News weekly columnist.
My first full-time journalism job, at age 24, was as a war correspondent in Saigon for the Los Angeles Times. A year later, I became the first American journalist to enter and return from Viet Cong territory in South Vietnam. That story marked the beginning of a long run of exclusive stories I wrote from Vietnam. For them, I earned an expulsion from South Vietnam, engineered by the South Vietnamese government. My astonishing year was 1975, when I covered the collapse of the Lon Nol government in Cambodia (and left Phnom Penh in an evacuation helicopter three days before the Khmer Rouge took control of the city); the Pathet Lao’s toppling of the coalition government in Laos; Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s conviction on election malpractice charges and her subsequent declaration of a political emergency leading to the arrests of a hundred thousand people and suspension of civil liberties including freedom of the press (and, after three months, my expulsion from India); and the death of Francisco Franco and its aftermath in Spain.
It was enough. After covering Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s death from Hong Kong in 1976, I resigned from the Times a year later and began the long process of transforming myself from journalist to writer. I spent years writing and rewriting The Mark: A War Correspondent’s Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia (published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1994). I wrote for nearly every major magazine in the United States: Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Wired, Salon, a couple of dozen others. I wrote personal essays, investigative pieces, analytical and narrative reportage, humor.
As time went on, I devoted more and more attention to water scarcity, a facet of the ever-deepening planetary environmental crisis. In 2000, I did a cover story for Harper’s Magazine, “Running Dry: What Happens When the World No Longer Has Enough Freshwater?“, one of the earliest warnings of water woes to come. In reporting the story, I discovered that at the core of most arguments over water are dams, those modern pyramids, generators of extravagantly apportioned electricity, water storage, and environmental and social disasters. I spent nearly four years writing the book that resulted, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2005). It portrayed three quite different commissioners of the World Commission on Dams– an anti-dam activist in India, an anthropologist in southern Africa, and a river basin administrator in Australia– as they went about their dam-related activities.
After that, I wrote many more environmental stories, personal essays, and an e-book called A Deluge of Consequences about a stunning high-altitude project in Bhutan to counter the threat of lethal flooding caused by melting glaciers. And then, nearly half a century after I began writing for the Yale Daily News, I once more became a columnist, writing on environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages. Not just because my professional career started at the Times, it felt like I’d come home.
-Jacques Leslie, 2022