Born Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1945 Served in Vietnam, Air Force, 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Phu Cat Air Base, Binh Dinh Province, Central Highlands, aerial reconnaissance film-lab technician, 1968-69
As they were for millions of Americans, images of Vietnam were a significant part of my life for several years before I went there. I watched along with my family as the nightly news showed story after story of the war, American GIs, in or out of action, and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, along with related statistics. The newspapers, weekly news-magazines, and other purveyors of images were all involved in this effort to show us that war in a land so far away from us. It was an effort not without purpose, for to support the war it was necessary to see it in a certain way: to see how destructive war can be, how terrible is the unleashed strength of a military superpower, how we could identify with American GIs, and how without substance or context were the Vietnamese. It is that last point that struck me so forcefully when I got there in late 1968, about eight months after the Tet offensive, which began the change in the war that led to its conclusion.
Having been trained as a photographer by the Air Force, by the time I went to Vietnam, twenty-three years old and with more than two years of service already completed, I was capable of forming my own images. What I found there, from my first day in country, was a sharp contrast to what I had previously been exposed to: not that war wasn't terrible, because signs of the war's destruction were all around. And the American GI's experience was, after all, now my own. It was the Vietnamese who surprised me. I saw people doing things that everybody does, or at least tries to do—kids selling cold orange soda and Coca-Cola at the roadside, kids chasing chickens, farmers knee-deep in lush green fields tending their rice, women washing and hanging out laundry, and old people doing very little. These were the images we had not previously seen.
It was not, as I had expected, the war for which I was most unprepared. For that I had, in some fashion, been trained. My older brother had spent thirteen months in I Corps in 1967 and come home wounded. Two cousins had gone and come back. There were friends, guys I was stationed with, acquaintances, schoolmates, and others who had gone, and some of them had not come back. There were lots of images to go with that reality.
The other reality, the one that lacked images, was the reality of Vietnam—the country, the place. That reality included the shoreline of the South China Sea, the cordillera of the Central Highlands, where I was stationed, and between the highlands and the sea the rice paddies, rich green in the rainy season and tawny brown when it was dry. The people in this reality were not just soldiers, VC and ARVN, but schoolchildren, farmers, merchants, and the countless others who worked at the bases, providing services, both legitimate and illegitimate, to the United States military. That was the reality to which I had to supply my own images.
I was not a combat soldier as my brother had been. Those guys had a different existence, for which I had a profound respect, but which I had few illusions of trying to depict in photographs. Not only was combat not my own experience, but it was an experience that was being extensively documented.
My photographs, then, are from my environment at the time and show something about Vietnam as a country and the Vietnamese as people. I did not ignore that other reality, that world of GIs and what we were doing there, but I wanted to show it from a different perspective. There was so much to reveal about where we were, what we were doing, who we were doing it with and to and for that the endeavor became a serious avocation for me. As any veteran can tell you, whether in war or nearly war or peace, military life contains stretches of time that are devoted to being ready and standing down after something happens, or just after being ready. I used the time I had to photograph as much as I could.
I tried to present Vietnam as a place where people lived, worked, went to school, and struggled with their lives, in spite of the war. People seem surprised by this and by how the American military presence looked in that context. I wanted to take pictures of little children looking like children; I wanted the landscape to be shown for its beauty: the tropical sunsets were spectacular and with the monsoon came every shade of green, from rice stalks to the grass on the hills; and on some days the Central Highlands rose up through the low cloud cover like a panorama in a Chinese screen painting. The military airplanes were beautiful but terrible, and noisier than can be imagined. Their grace and fluidity were aspects of their capacity for destruction. The resources devoted to the airplanes were overwhelming and the relationship of these machines to the surrounding environment of the water buffalo in rice fields and fishing boats trailing nets was absurd. So there were two stories to be told.
I have found that most of us picture soldiers overseas in terms of what they leave at home and what they are doing without. To see a war from the perspective of the land where the war is—the perspective of its people—is an experience not to be underestimated.
My pictures are artifacts of the war. They were shot, processed, printed, and mounted in Vietnam. They owe their existence to Vietnam.