Images From A War Zone: Military Photographers and The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War, or the Second Indochina War, has been argued to be a watershed in United States history – it was the first war lost by the United States. The first official US combat troops arrived in Vietnam in 1965, but the roots of the conflict can be found many decades prior. The Vietnam War is difficult to delimit to a singular time or space. As well as its history stretching back to French colonialism, its geography also encompasses insurgencies fought in Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnam War has also been argued to have been both a civil and interstate conflict, involving a variety of actors over time. Nonetheless, the most intense period was marked to be the military intervention of the United States and allied forces in the period from 1965 to 1975.

In the 19th century, France colonised Southeast Asia and created what was known as French Indochina, which was composed of the Vietnamese regions of Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin, as well as Laos and Cambodia. The French imposed a series of land reforms that converted large swathes of Vietnam into rubber plantations. French rubber production in Vietnam was extremely profitable – but for the ill-paid Vietnamese workers labouring in harsh conditions on plantations, it was a different story. As has been argued, particularly in the southern colony of Cochinchina, this state of affairs produced a landless proletariat class dependent on a small, foreign-backed elite. The exploitation of workers was not limited to rubber, and extended to coffee and rice plantations, as well as mining operations. This, coupled with decades of military conquest, disenfranchisement, and economic policies that severely disadvantaged peasants, plunged them into debt, and forced them to pay onerous taxes – contributed to Vietnamese discontent. Japan’s invasion of Vietnam during World War II and France’s consequent capitulation fanned the flames of the growing nationalist cause.

One of the longest wars in US history, second only to the War on Terror, the Vietnam War was part of a wider campaign of US proxy wars, black ops, and direct military conflicts engaged in during the Cold War. Over 6 million tons of bombs and other ordnance were dropped in the former Indochina region at a weight four times greater than in Germany during WWII. Notoriously, one of the most controversial elements of the Vietnam War was the use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange, which contains the toxic compound dioxin.  The US military’s defoliation program aimed to strip the forests of life and remove enemy cover. Around 72 million litres of herbicide were dropped during the war, including 42 million litres of Agent Orange. The dispersion of Agent Orange over a vast area of central and south Vietnam poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies, and allowed toxic chemicals to enter the food chain. US soldiers, oblivious of the dangers, sometimes showered in the empty 55-gallon drums, used them to store food, or re-purposed them as barbeque pits. Residual dioxin in the earth continues to thwart the normal growth of crops and trees, and continues to poison the food chain. Vietnam’s natural defences were also weakened – nearly 50% of the country’s mangroves, which protect shorelines from typhoons and tsunamis – were destroyed. The destruction of Vietnamese forests also damaged the natural habitat of rare species such as tigers, elephants, bears and leopards, in many cases irreversibly.

Agent Orange was not the only chemical weapon used during the war – another was napalm, which, when it fell on people, caused severe burns, asphyxiation, and often death. An iconic image of the monstrous effects of napalm is Nick Ut’s photo of 9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, fleeing from a napalm bombing.

Many veterans of the war, moreover, also did not escape unscathed. It is estimated that around 30 out of every 100 (or 30%) of Vietnam Veterans have had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in their lifetime.

Shooting Vietnam

An incredible book has just been published on the Vietnam War – Shooting Vietnam: The War by Its Military Photographers, by Dan Brookes and Bob Hillerby. In spite of my background in, amongst other things, military history, I do not profess to be an expert on the Vietnam War by any means – but this book has allowed me to gain an invaluable insight into the complexities and brutalities of the war.

The book contains images taken by combat cameramen of the US Army and US Marines, rather than civilian photographers. As the book describes,

‘[…] behind the scenes, and unheralded for their camera work, were hundreds of military photographers, just doing what was expected of them as part of their day-to-day job description. Unlike their famous civilian counterparts, many had to endure a year-long assignment that constantly placed them in harm’s way. Sometimes it meant dropping the camera and picking up an M-16 or grenade launcher, or manning an M-60 machine gun, or helping to carry the wounded to a medevac dust-off chopper.’

From 1962 to 1975, military photographers took millions of photographs in Vietnam, with the official mission being to document the war. As the authors argue, the images encompassed everyday activities in and out of combat, the battles with a mostly ‘unseen enemy’, booby traps, helicopter evacuations of the wounded and dead, and ‘anything and everything that went on in the war.’ There was a lack of overall censorship of the war’s coverage, and the images that came out of the war were instrumental in ending it.

Some of the images are shocking, some brutal, some heart-breaking. The last two photographs are of the My Lai massacre that took place on March 16, 1968. Accompanying them are the original captions or text.

‘When I got to Vietnam, I was 22 years old. I’d never seen a dead body before. Within a couple of weeks, this jeep came by loaded up with dead VC. The driver had turned around because one of the bodies had fallen out near where I was standing. That was my introduction to death and destruction.’
 ‘A Huey flown by Major Bruce Crandall delivers infantrymen of the 1st Cav to LZ X-Ray. Crandall and his wingman, Major Ed Freeman, evacuated some seventy wounded soldiers flying for sixteen straight hours after MedEvac units refused to enter the “hot” LZ. He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. Ia Drang was also the first major battle between US forces and the North Vietnamese Army, and was the first real test of the 1st Cavalry’s new mission as an “airmobile” force. This concept used helicopters for the quick insertion of combat troops, close air fire support, medical evacuation and resupply.’
 ‘Sp4 Ransom Cyr, a 221st Signal Company photographer, pulls fellow 221st photographer Sp5 Charles K. Pollard to safety during the May 1968 attack. Cyr was later killed by enemy fire. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. The 221st had merged with the 69th’s photo operations in mid-1967.’ (Photo by 101st Division Information Office)
‘A soldier of Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, Americal Division, comforts his dying buddy.’ (Photo taken by Specialist 4th Class Bob Hodierne).

‘Seconds after this photograph was taken, all these Vietnamese civilians were dead, killed by American soldiers of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, in an area […] known as […] My Lai […] on March 16, 1968.’
‘Haeberle [Army combat photographer Ronald L. Haeberle] photographed this scene as he left the village. He would later state, “A small child came out…like he was kneeling to find his mother, and some GI just finished him.” Estimates of the total number of dead Vietnamese in My Lai ran from 347 to 567.’