Photography in the Vietnam War ( #CampNaNoWriMo 6-11)

For days 6 to 11 of CampNaNoWriMo I didn't do any extra writing until day 11 where I added words to my essay for my Photography Class. Of those, I added 567 words, but I've included the entire essay here for you to read. essay-edits


How has photography changed society's view on the Vietnam War?

“The argument is always made against the actual showing of photographs showing real life, that it would bother the relatives, and it's quite true. My position is that I want to bother the relatives because I think war is really appalling business and I think it's everybody's business to know how appalling it is.”

- Paul Fussel, Jr., American Cultural and Literary Historian, author and University Professor

Before we can understand how photography changed society's view on the Vietnam War—it is first important to understand when photography did not. What really allowed photography to impact society and the world's view of the Vietnam War was a matter of censorship. The defining characteristic of such a controversial war was that there were virtually no restrictions on photography during that time. All majorly documented wars: World War I and World War II were highly censored.

During World War I it is estimated that nearly ten million people died and yet not a single newspaper or magazine was allowed to run a photograph of the dead. No image of a dead soldier was ever delivered to the American doorstep in a newspaper or magazine.

Then came the Vietnam War and there were no restrictions. The American public was finally able to see the casualties of war that was waged on their behalf.

A turning point in society's view of the Vietnam War came in 1969 when TIME Magazine ran a controversial issue that focused only on the faces of the deceased American soldiers. They filled an entire issue with just the soldiers who had died in one week's time: 242 young faces. Until that point, it's quite possible that most Americans had no real idea what was happening in Vietnam. They had no real understanding of the violence that was happening across the world until the photographs made it real for them.

I believe that photography changed society's view on the Vietnam War in two ways: it made the world very much aware of the brutality of the war—which, perhaps, played a role in it's eventual grinding halt--but it also reminded us of the humanity found within. Photographers in Vietnam, given the freedom to make photographs of whatever situations they found themselves in: had a choice. To show the brutality or to show the humanity. And depending on which photographs you saw, it's likely your perception changed for better or for worse.

Mass media corporations like TIME Magazine were still, at the end of the day, a business. Why risk losing business by running photographs that showed the relaxed, happy military lives of soldiers when they could run the stories of their deaths instead? What headline is going to sell more magazines: “The Faces of the American Dead” or “Vietnamese Children happy to see American Soldiers”? While the faces of the dead may have awakened the American public to the casualties of war: it was the soldier photographers that reminded us that both sides—American and Vietnamese—were still human.

From what I've read of the Vietnam War—the change started from within. It started with the soldiers themselves. The people back in the United States slept peacefully in their beds for the first few years of the Vietnam War. Video came across the television screens, a picture or two would appear in the newspaper. They were Americans, damn it, if their country went to war—it must be for a good reason. World War I and World War II were justified to stop acts of evil, right? Just who were these Viet Cong anyways? Why did their children run around naked like animals? Americans wondered as they ate their breakfast, smoked their cigarettes and signed paperwork to ship their underage children off to war. At least the pay was decent. Combat pay was better.

Meanwhile their sons, husbands, daughters, wives, children were stumbling into a war they didn’t understand and would not return from.

It wasn't until the soldiers themselves began to understand the horrors of war—and the beauty of life—that a real change began to happen. Photography was right alongside those soldiers, both American and Vietnamese, to photograph a war half-way around the world.

A photograph can tell an entire story without a single word. The written word has a way of accentuating the details, like pairing the right wine with your fancy steak. They complement each other. Therefore, I'd like to pair some of my father's photographs with a selection of quotes from other soldiers from the Vietnam War. The photographs and the stories are connected only by experience. They are both separate, having never met, and yet they are the same experience because they are altruistically human.

Choosing a photographer to help explain these changes was a natural choice: my father was a soldier in the United States Army. I'm unsure of his actual military branch or ranking, a fact that shames me to admit. All I have of him now are my memories and a box of 35mm slides to tell his story.

My father, Jack Brumley, was born in 1948 in Chicago, Illinois. Back then, you had two choices: be drafted and be put wherever they threw you or enlist and have a chance to pick the target on your back. My father was too young to join; he lied about his age and joined anyway. He knew if he enlisted he'd have a better chance of survival, and he did survive. He became a Mail Carrier and made photographs on the side.

I have boxes of 35mm slides that my father took while he was in Vietnam. His earliest images of Vietnam were from 1966, so he was somewhere around 18 years old by the time he started making photographs. The images he captured were mostly the lives of young American soldiers just trying to deal with the realities of active military life in a war they didn't understand. Some of them may have, sure. And most of them didn't return home.

My father was one soldier who tried to do his part to capture the more humanistic side of the war. He could have chosen to photograph the body bags, the bloodied limbs or the fleeing children. But that wasn't who he was—and it wasn't all that the war was. He focused on the life that remained around him: the soldier's base life, the Vietnamese people and the beauty of Vietnam. His photographs captured scenes of soldiers in flimsy paper party hats with dozens of beer cans in the background. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Miller High Life. Poker chips and playing cards across the table. A monkey on a chain (true story), Playboy Bunnies (also true) and smiling children.

photo2b Photographer: Jack Brumley. Title unknown. January 1967. Kodachrome transparency, slide# 14

Meanwhile, their friends, family members, neighbors—were being dropped back down to base in pieces in body bags. The photographs tell two different stories: survival of the body and survival of the mind. The soldiers were trying to stay alive as much as they were trying to stay sane. Some found it in the bottom of beer cans, others found it through a camera lense. Some found that balance through the love of their Vietnamese companions.

Jonathan Polansky was one such soldier who fell in love in a time when there was no love. Polansky was a Rifleman in the 101st Airborne Division, I Corps. He recalls the story, along with thirty three other Vietnam Veterans, in a collection called “Everything We Had,” written by Al Santoli. Polansky was stationed in a village called Lang Co, charged with guarding a bridge against the Viet Cong. There, he met and fell in love with a Vietnamese woman. They had plans to leave for America together, to start a new life.

Polansky and another soldier spent time in the village teaching Vietnamese children to speak limited English. The townspeople loved the soldiers; they'd invite Polansky home for dinner and giggling conversations in broken English. He fell in love with the village as much as he did the people there. The war felt like it was in another world. There was no war in Lang Co.

While the American soldiers were in Lang Co, the Viet Cong never bothered to village. Polansky's unit was deployed to another village for three months. When Polansky returned: the village of Lang Co was decimated by Viet Cong soldiers. Polansky recounts going back to the school where he taught and breaking down in tears. Can you see a picture in your mind of a young 20-something man, covered in soot and crying his eyes out? Maybe falling to his knees, vomiting his stomach out from disgust, knowing he'll never have the answers that he needs? That he honestly, genuinely, needs?

Let's explore the power of photography and how it changes your perspective when paired with words:

"The thing I remember most about Vietnam is the kids. I think almost everybody liked the kids. I never saw kids that smiled so much. It didn't matter if they were up to their chin in shit, they just kept on smiling. We did a lot of work in schools. We'd go into schools and teach them how to brush their teeth. We'd go out to the camps and the kids would always come around. Or we'd go out into a village and find a wild pineapple and start slicing it up. All of a sudden you have five or six kids sitting on your knees, all eating pineapple and... We kind of really hoped a lot for the kids." David Ross, Medic, 1st Infantry Division, served December 1965 to July 1967.


Photographer: Jack Brumley. Title unknown. Date unknown. Anscochrome slide

Photography changed society's view on the Vietnam War by showing people both sides of the truth: the faces of 242 dead and the faces of the people who would go on to survive the war like Jack Brumley and Jonathan Polansky. Although many, if not all, of the people captured in my dad's photographs are ghosts now (including the photographer himself)—their memories will live on to remind us that there is light even in the darkest of times. Vietnamese children will continue to smile; American soldiers will continue to serve and photographers will continue to capture the truth whenever possible. Without photographers like Jack Brumley: how else would we know there are two sides to the story? You don't have to be brave to make a photograph that changes people's minds: you just have to make it.

Work Cited Santoli, Al, Polasnky, Jonathan and Ross, David. Everything We Had. Pages 59-61, page 48. New York: Random House, Inc. 1985. Print. Date of access 28 March 2016.

“American Photography: A Century of Images.” PBS. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 1999. Date of access 25 March 2016.

"The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week's Toll," Life. 27 June 1969. Date of access 9 April 2016.