Initially, the Vietnam War was supported by many Americans. As the war went on, there seemed to be no end in sight. Young American men were being brutally and regularly killed by the “enemies.” Although the volume of young, dead soldiers was striking, there was not a very strong grasp on just how hellish this war was. In a true, Mathew Brady fashion, just shy of 100 years after the first photograph was taken, photographers took to the battlefields to expose the horrors and violence of the war, often risking or sacrificing their own lives in the process. These expository photographs of the war in Vietnam began to circulate in the media, and by the late 1960s, the support for the Vietnam War had decreased drastically.
The year 1968 held the turning point of the Vietnam War, which was in part caused by the surfacing of war photographs. In this year, some of the most influential photographs of the Vietnam War were taken. Don McCullin, a British photojournalist, photographed a U.S. corpsman carrying an injured child away from the firing lines during the Battle of Huế. When interviewed, McCullin stated that his photograph “illustrates humanity, almost saintliness – a man carrying a child away from the sorrow and injuries of war.” This image inspired compassion and support for the war in Americans upon their exposure to it. Similarly, a photograph taken by Philip Jones Griffiths of an American army soldier offering children in rural Vietnam American candy bars. This photo was disseminated to encourage war support, but became a display of the “seductive and corrupting influence of consumerism on the innocent civilians of Vietnam” (Rothman et al. 2017) as the interpretation and memory of photo was partial and unpredictable.
For every one photo of humanity in the war, there were dozens that “help[ed] to illuminate the “demons” of Vietnam” (Rothman et al. 2017). At this point in the war, it had become very difficult to discern civilians from Viet Cong. Gilles Caron, a French photographer, captured an image of tense confrontation between a rigid American soldier, clutching an automatic rifle, facing a Vietnamese woman. The woman stood just outside of the front door of her home, hugging a baby and accompanied by a small, half-naked child. The perspective of the interaction was over the shoulder of the unidentifiable American soldier, allowing the viewer to experience this photograph in a more personal way. The tension and rigidity of both subjects is clearly expressed, highlighting the distrust and uncertainty felt between American soldiers and the South Vietnamese citizens that they were allegedly aiding.
The Vietnam War intensified while leading up to the Tet Offensive. Images continued to emerge in America, displaying exceedingly gruesome scenes. A later photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths showed a young Viet Cong soldier dying, cradled by American soldiers trying to help him drink water from their own canteen. The pitiable Viet Cong soldier’s expression shows nothing but pure anguish. Strapped onto his stomach is a cooking bowl, which had been attached for three days, holding his intestines against his body as he continued to fight. These photos revealed the pure desperation and pity that these young soldiers felt to be able to assist the enemy in this way. Feelings towards the war turned to disgust as many more horrific photos such as this were taken throughout the year, each one more shocking than the last.
Of all of the photographs taken in Vietnam during this year, one photo in particular marked the exact turning point in America’s sentiments towards the war. The photo, titled “Saigon Execution,” was taken by esteemed American photographer Eddie Adams and has been described as the “real underbelly of violence and summary execution” (Ruane 2018). Adams’s infamous photo caught the execution of the Viet Cong’s officer, Nguyen Van Lem, by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese general. Officer Lem’s face contorts as the bullet pierces his skull, a South Vietnamese soldier recoils at the spectacle, and General Loan remains cold and straight-faced, with his eyes fixed on the man he is executing. Each photograph during the war was troubling, however this photo deeply haunted its viewers.
The consequences of the dispersion of this photo were immense. This photograph became the one of the most recognizable images of the Vietnam War. It was polarizing photo was everywhere, and Loan became infamous. In an image, there exists only a single moment caught on film, out of context. In the case of this photo, viewers can only see one man mercilessly killing another, and they remembered it exactly that way. Although it did make pro-war Americans reconsider their stance and helped lead the U.S. to withdrawal from the war, it ruined the life of General Loan. Loan reported that he was treated disrespectfully in the U.S. while being treated for a lost leg at Old Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C. in 1969. Although he fought with the U.S. in Vietnam, he was unwelcome in the country. This moment had an extremely negative effect on his life, and because it was documented in an unchangeable photo, he was unable to escape the repercussions of his wartime actions. Adams believed that he witnessed two deaths in the photo: “the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; [he] killed the general with [his] camera” (Ruane 2018).
The reason that this mode of documentation of the war is so impactful is because a photograph is a way of being able to precisely capture a scene without embellishment to create a tangible, external memory for its viewers to experience. The details of a single moment in a photo can truly be analyzed, picked apart piece by piece, in a way that videos and writing simply cannot offer. In the case of particularly graphic photos, the viewer is forced to absorb it all. They allow their viewer “to stare, to turn from the picture and then return to it” (Kuhn et al. 2006). They are left with an imprint on their mind, similar to a bad taste left in your mouth. The imprint that the photo leaves on them will linger and the image, or only the feelings associated with viewing the image, will resurface whenever the event to which the photos were linked is mentioned (Kuhn et al. 2006). It forced Americans to deal with these feelings and to accept an uncomfortable truth.
For example, Americans had no idea of the horrors and atrocities that the American military committed during the My Lai Massacre until the Ron Haeberle’s photos of the bodies of civilians, primarily women and children, surfaced. What the photos suggested was an undeniable truth: we were not winning the war and innocent people were being harmed. This event had to be documented by photographs. The most powerful way that this shameful event could have been expressed properly and believed was through a series of unfiltered images, shared with the public.
The war was being fought very far from the comfortable homes of Americans. To see these photos forced Americans to come to terms with the very harsh reality of war – bloodied and fearful young men, smoke and fire, bodies, napalmed children. These photographs were almost entirely candid. The camera was able to permanently capture a moment in the midst of this awfulness. These captured moments became material and reproducible. Newscasts on television, magazines, and newspapers – especially those that were anti-war – were the primary distributors of war photographs. Once distributed, the media was able to use photographs were to create a narrative of the war through pictures. This narrative, although favoring the anti-war side, educated Americans about the painful truths of war and often instrumentalized these images in order to manipulate the emotions of the viewer into agreeing with a partial memory that the war was wholly bad. This created almost total opposition of the war.
50 years later, we remember these photos. Most people have seen at least one of the images referenced above, if not all of them. They are easily available in textbooks as well as online on blogs, in museums, and news sources. They are reposted frequently online, typically paired with text that recalls the atrocities of this war and eternally painting a portrait of the cold brutality of the Vietnam War. Today, we forget that there were people who supported the war and that the government did feel that there was a point to all of this madness. It is because of the grisly nature of almost all of the photos taken of the Vietnam War and the ease of accessibility to view these photographs that the war is remembered now as entirely unnecessary, senseless violence, and a seemingly endless sacrifice of young American men.
By Samantha Feinstein