Browne's mad memo to the future - Daniel Silliman

He was writing a memo to the future.

Sitting in a little room in a Saigon office, the Vietnam war correspondent was writing an explanation to those who would come after him, to write about the war. He was trying to tell them what he had learned, what he had done wrong, and what they should do.

Malcolm W. Browne, an AP correspondent, is famous for shooting a photograph of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation. He won a Pulitzer prize for the iconic image, showing an intersection and old car and a gas can just sitting there and the monk, Thich Quang Duc, on fire. But the iconic image that captured my attention, reading "Once Upon a Distant War," William Prochnaus' book about young correspondents in early Vietnam, was Browne writing that memo.

He pecked it out on a Remington typewriter, in a little office soaked in jungle humidity, with a severed and withered hand hanging on the wall. He wrote, "Vietnam is dangerous, confusing and frustrating."

Maybe it's standard to write this sort of memo. I don't know. I suspect, though, that it was something he took upon himself, a way of helping the next guy could take the learning curve a little more smoothly. A way of saying what he wished someone had said to him. And I suspect that all of that was really just a way of trying to explaining everything.

In psychoanalysis, they call this the "Big Other." We all have a Big Other in mind and we talk to the Big Other all the time, explaining, narrating and justifying ourselves. If you're a child, then your mother is the Big Other, but when you grow up, it could be your dead relative, your love, your God, your therapist, or Conan O'Brien in that ongoing TV interview you imagine every morning in the shower.

The problem with the Big Other, according to the people who thought up the theory of the Big Other, is that it's a fiction, because there is no huge, judging and accepting other like that. It's a function of human pathology, not a reality, and so we always find ourselves finding out that the Big Other's a fake -- our mothers don't have eyes in the backs of their heads, our Gods don't stop the holocaust, our therapists charge us a lot and don't have any answers.

But even if they're fictions, they're functional fictions. For whatever reason, humans need a Big Other to talk to. If it's pathological, it's one of those pathologies that make us human as opposed to something healthier, like a math equation.

Browne was writing a memo to the future. That was who he was talking to when he was trying to explain himself, justify himself, and narrate things. The very starkness of the image made me think, at first, of a mad man, malarial and dehydrated. He had a dead hand and a message to the future, and he always wore red socks and clearly, there's something sick here.

I did that once, though. When I was leaving the newspaper at the community college I attended, after working as editor for a year, I started listing things to do when I was gone and leaving long e-mailed instructions.

"Remember," I would write, "that the faculty union elections are coming up and they're going to be controversial." "Remember," I would say, "to do a story on the physics professor because he's having an anniversary and be sure to ask about the novel manuscript he has in his drawer." "Remember," I would say, and a younger editor finally stopped me and she said, "You don't believe we can do this without you, do you?"

But I did. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered leaving lists and advice at all. And I think that's true about Browne's mad memo to the future. It's pathological, but it's hopeful.

When he confessed, to himself and the typewriter and to the hand, that, "There is a sinister fascination about the country into the grips of which most foreigners fall ... I am no exception," he was also holding out hope that future journalists might do better. He was saying, to the Big Other, that he had failed and was freely confessing his failure, because he believed things could be better, the next guys could learn, they could understand, they could find their way through the Mad Hatter labyrinth.

If he was crazy, he was crazy with hope. And that's a pathology I'm OK with.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.