Iconic Photos from The Vietnam War Revisited
2018 will mark the 50 year anniversary of the Tet Offensive, and the beginning of the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War. The NVA and Viet Cong’s co-ordinated attack during Lunar New Year may have resulted in short-term failure, but it put a hefty dent in already weakening public support for the war in the US, the morale of both American and ARVN troops, and confidence in Saigon’s ‘puppet’ government.
In the States, this year, 2017, has seen the release of Ken Burns’ controversial and brilliant documentary The Vietnam War, as well as a vast journalistic project revisiting 1967 in the New York Times.
‘Nam’, and especially the years ’67 and ’68, hold a special, very dark place in the American psyche.
Over here in Vietnam, however, there’s only very rare talk of ‘The American War’. People tend to want to patch up the past and move on, both for personal and political reasons. In the mass media, there’s none of the guts, inglory and guitar rock of movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Even major novels written by Vietnamese about the conflict, like Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, enjoy more renown abroad than at home.
This reticence about the war reveals itself in odd ways. Ho Chi Minh City has the interesting War Remnants Museum, but Hanoi’s counterparts are neglected and dust-devilled, and haphazardly mix exhibits from both the French and American conflicts. Meanwhile, tucked into a network of alleyways behind the little-visited B52 museum lies the wreckage of an actual B52, lodged in a pond surrounded by quiet middle class residences. You could easily walk past it thinking the lichen-covered wheel strut and fuselage were the result of neighbourhood fly-tipping.
Likewise, the sites of some of the war’s most iconic photographs merit barely a small plaque, even in central Ho Chi Minh City.
We visited the spots where legendary photojournalists Malcolm Browne, Eddie Adams and Hubert Van Es took era-defining pictures, and captured the scene as it appears today.
Malcolm Browne – Self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức (1963)
Malcolm Browne – AP (June 1963)
John F Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world.” The photograph proved a turning point in the demise of the US-backed Diệm government in Saigon, eventually bringing American troops to Vietnam.
Đức set fire to himself in protest against religious discrimination and persecution, writing in a letter prior to the act, ‘Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally.’ (1)
David Halberstam, a journalist accompanying Browne, described the event graphically: ‘Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.’ (2)
Browne, for his part, remained phlegmatic: ‘I was thinking only about the fact it was a self-illuminated subject that required an exposure of about, oh say, f10 or whatever it was, I don’t really remember. I was using a cheap Japanese camera, by the name of Petri. I was very familiar with it, but I wanted to make sure that I not only got the settings right on the camera each time and focused it properly, but that also I was reloading fast enough to keep up with the action. I took about ten rolls of film because I was shooting constantly.’ (3)
Browne won the World Press Photo of the Year award and the Pulitzer Prize for his picture.
Colm Pierce – Vietnam in Focus (April 2017)
Today, the spot is an even busier junction, a few blocks from what is now called the ‘Re-Unification Palace’. Scooters whizz to and fro over the exact place where Đức sat down in a lotus position and applied a match to his gasoline-drenched body. White-uniformed schoolkids cycle past on their way home, craning their necks to see what the funny foreigners are photographing in the middle of the street. On one corner stands a sunglasses shop; on the other a pharmacy; plenty of other shops on this main road, named ‘Cách mạng tháng Tám’ (August Revolution’) testify to the contemporary power of commerce.
But if you look over your shoulder, you’ll meet the gaze of a statue of Đức engulfed in flames. A place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese Buddhists, the sculpture and small park mark a tribute to Đức’s historic self-sacrifice.
With thanks to:
Header Photo: AP
(1) Tiểu sử Bồ tát Thích Quảng Đức, https://quangduc.com/p4608a6669/7/tieu-su-bo-tat-thich-quang-duc, viewed 21/11/2017
(2) Halberstam, David (1965), The Making of a Quagmire, New York: Random House
(3) Witty, Patrick, ‘Malcolm Browne, The Story Behind the Burning Monk’, Time Magazine, http://time.com/3791176/malcolm-browne-the-story-behind-the-burning-monk/, viewed 21/11/2017
Stay focused for the next in our series of iconic Vietnam War photos today, by Eddie Adams.
Images of War Photography Tour
Follow in the footsteps of war photographers!
30th January – 9th February 2018
Domestic Transport, Accommodation, Food and non-alcoholic drinks, Professional Photography Workshop, All entry fees, All cost related to special activities, All guide fees
Hue Imperial Citadel
Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave Trek
West Ho Chi Minh Trail by Jeep
Khe Sanh Military Base
Danang China Beach
Hoi An Ancient Town
Cu Chi Tunnels Me Kong Delta