People are starting to forget the Vietnam War. They shouldn’t. Last week I read two news items that rattled me. One came courtesy of Sarah Wetzel, fellow graduate of the Bennington MFA program, who cited an article, http://bit.ly/1xL7NRV, about newly released records showing that Nixon, while running for president in 1968, managed to get word to the South Vietnamese ambassador persuading him to pull out of the Paris Peace talks—a treasonable offense. As a result, to quote from Sarah’s Thursday Facebook entry:
“My Dad and many of my parent’s friends were in Vietnam post 1968, post Nixon’s and Kissinger’s treason. Those that returned were damaged beyond repair. I’m just sickened anew.
“In the four years between the sabotage and what Kissinger termed “peace at hand” just prior to the 1972 election, more than 20,000 US troops died in Vietnam. More than 100,000 were wounded. More than a million Vietnamese were killed. But in 1973, Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.”
On Friday the New York Times ran a story (http://nyti.ms/1p7zcIu)about the Pentagon’s plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War—at a cost of $15 million taxpayer dollars so far—and about their already up-and-running and already controversial website (http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/) designed to accompany it. Prominent antiwar-era activists and historians, led by Tom Hayden, are petitioning to have a say in both the content of the site and in the commemoration itself. Their position is that the Pentagon, which drew us inexorably, and many believe deceitfully, into the war that tore our society apart, should not now be allowed to be the official historians of their own folly.
Currently the one part of the site that could be considered history is the so-called Interactive Timeline, which attempts to present a chronology of events involving the USA and Vietnam from1945 through 1975. The timeline is styled as a book, with twelve clickable, dated headlines per double page. When you click on a headline, a new page opens with a brief explanation. For example: “March 1, 1971. Weather Underground Bombs U.S. Capitol Building” opens to “A bomb explodes in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., causing an estimated $300,000 in damage but hurting no one. A Communist terrorist group led by William C. Ayers calling itself the ‘Weather Underground’ claims credit for the bombing, which they have carried out in protest of the ongoing U.S.-supported Laos invasion.”
These snippets of history lack proportion, context and clarity. Although they are touted as “historically accurate materials” meant to be used for educational purposes, the arbitrary nature of both the (few) antiwar events reported and the battle initiatives described make them useless as either information or disinformation.
Furthermore, these bits are interspersed among much more extensive descriptions of individual acts of valor. Of the twelve items per page, sometimes as many as ten or eleven are devoted to citations for individuals’ medals of honor. Although the website would be a perfect place to recognize medal winners by printing their photos and dramatic accounts of their heroic behavior, mixing personal stories into a timeline of the overall unfolding of the war does a disservice to both the soldiers and to history.
The man overseeing both the site and the anniversary commemoration, Lt. Gen. Claude M. Kicklighter, told the Times that “there is no attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War.” Which those of us who’ve been around since the days of daily Pentagon doublespeak on the progress of the war can translate. He means: “We are making every attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War.”
The timeline has only one entry for the month I spent in Vietnam:
“February 8, 1971. SOUTH VIETNAMESE SUFFER MAJOR LOSSES IN LAOS. The South Vietnamese launch Operation LAM SON 719, along Highway 9 in Laos. Although they are supported by U.S. Army helicopters and logistical elements, American advisers and others on the ground are not permitted to enter Laos. The intent is to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The South Vietnamese suffer major troop losses. Accompanying the mission, Larry Burrows, a long time photographer of the war for LIFE magazine, dies when his helicopter is shot down in Laos.”
When I first read this last Friday, it didn’t register. LAM SON 719, what was that? I started to move on, then flipped back. Larry Burrows–of course. My heart started to pound. This had everything to do with me, and Joe, and where we were that day.
I should never have been in Vietnam in the first place. But I’d fallen in love with the right guy at the right time. I was working for Simon and Schuster in 1970 when Joe McGinniss’s book The Selling of the President became a bestseller. We were living together by the time his old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, asked Joe if he would return to Vietnam to write about the winding down of the war that Nixon had promised. Joe said only if he could bring Nancy as his photographer. After much grousing, they agreed. I then had to learn how to take photos. Thirty years ago cameras didn’t automatically select the shutter speed, f-stop and focus, nor did most advance and rewind film by themselves, let alone offer a depth-of-field setting. A single-lens reflex camera was a daunting piece of equipment. Fortunately I was too young to realize it was impossible to become a photographer in ten weeks.
What follows is an excerpt from My Brilliant Careers, my memoir-in-progress, recounting my brief Vietnam experience.
I struggled to wake from the deep sleep of exhaustion when the shout came again: “Jesus Christ, incoming!” The screen door slammed and I leapt out of bed. Joe was no longer beside me in the Quonset hut. I heard a loud whine, gradually descending in pitch, a pause—then a ground-shaking BOOM. I instinctively rolled under the cot, scrunching myself into a ball. A few beats later Joe charged back into the room. “Nancy, get the hell out of there!”
As I crawled out, he grabbed my arm and dragged me at a dead run for few dozen yards to an earth-covered bunker, where five or six men huddled in the dark. I squeezed in. The floor was slimy. “Oh-oh,” the guy next to me said. “Are you barefoot?”
“Yes,” I said, panting. “Why?”
“There’re poisonous snakes. Next time, wear shoes.”
Next time? I shuddered and began standing gingerly on one foot, then the other, thinking of my dry, snake-free spot under the bed and waiting for the sickening whine and boom of the next mortar shell. As the fog of sleep lifted, I noticed how dank and warm the air felt, and how very quiet it was. Except for the occasional mutter or rustle of clothing, the men didn’t speak. Even the insects had fallen silent. The world seemed to be holding its breath, listening.
Through the bunker’s narrow opening I could see a few lights twinkling on the medical ship in Danang Harbor, an incongruously cheery sight. The army press officer had pointed out the ship to us that afternoon after he’d picked us up at the air base. We’d arrived in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, from Hawaii two days before, on January 22, 1971, Joe with a suitcase full of reporter’s notebooks and me with a shiny brown leather camera case heavy with equipment. The first thing I noticed when we walked down the steps from the plane was the air. It was so hot and thick with humidity that I wondered how anyone could think, much less function. Yet Ton Son Nhut airport, entirely run by the American military, was a welter of activity. We were met by a soldier from the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) press office, who helped us throw our luggage in the back of an open jeep. The second thing that hit me, once we left the tarmac, was the smell—a sweet, rotting, jungly smell. The city was one sensory jolt after another–beautiful and crumbling, teeming with people, steaming with heat, stinking of diesel exhaust and excrement and the food being cooked in pots on practically every corner, buzzing and honking with noise twenty-four hours a day.
Our room at the Continental Hotel featured mosquito netting around a vast lumpy bed, a tiny woman in white with betel-nut-stained teeth who slept on a mat in the hall outside our door, and cockroaches as big as turtles scuttling across the mildewed tiles of the bathroom. That first evening I was so exhausted from travel and stunned by strangeness that when I took a shower I couldn’t muster either the energy to feel repulsed by the cockroaches or the courage to smash them with my shoe.
We had planned to take some time to get acclimated before setting out for the countryside. But the day we got there, President Nixon announced the Laotian Intervention, a new American-run offensive near the demilitarized zone with North Vietnam. “Damn, this war isn’t winding down; it’s heating up,” Joe said when we settled on the hotel terrace with our first glass of wine. “We’ve got to go north.” He had a gleam in his eye I hadn’t seen before. Since we’d left New Jersey he’d been radiating an energy that trumped his innate shyness, that had him starting up conversations with not just other war correspondents around us but with the receptionist, our waiter, the sidewalk food vendors, and anyone else who looked like they knew about life in Vietnam. For the first time since we’d been together, he was a reporter on the job again. I felt exhilarated just to follow in his wake—at least for the time being.
So two days later we’d finagled our way by military plane from Saigon to Danang, a northern coastal city within earshot of the war. Now I was standing in a dark bunker shifting from foot to foot. Joe stood by me and pointed to the left of the harbor. “They say the shelling is coming from those hills.” Trembling slightly, I trained my eye on that patch of blackness, willing it to stay black.
“Don’t worry too much,” said a voice behind us. “I don’t think the Viet Cong really want to target the Western press corps. They’re just keeping us on our toes.” Sure enough, no more mortar shells fell near the compound. After twenty minutes or so we all climbed out of the bunker. “Welcome to South Vietnam,” one of our bunker mates muttered by way of goodnight.
When we got back to our Quonset hut, I climbed into Joe’s bed. Even though the night air was sultry, I was shivering. Joe wrapped himself around me and rubbed my back. “That was scary,” I mumbled into his shoulder.
“I should have warned you–but it took me by surprise. Once you’ve heard the whistle of incoming mortar shells, you never forget. You start running for the bunker before you even wake up.” Back in 1968 when he was covering the war for the Inquirer, Joe had spent time uncomfortably near the front lines, and some of the men he’d grown close to were killed during the Tet offensive the week after he left. But that afternoon when the press officer had pointed out the bunker during our tour of the compound, nothing in his tone had implied that we’d be using it that night.
“We’ll be fine,” he said soothingly.
“You’re just saying that because you got me over here—“I tickled his ribs—“and because you’re the guy.”
“Okay, okay.” He pressed against me. “But here we are and I think we’ll be okay, as long as we’re careful. Those other poor bastards in the bunker with us are now lying alone on their thin mattresses. And we’ve got each other.” Being entwined with my true love did impart a powerful sense of protection, however illusory. We fell asleep almost at once.
The next morning in the mess hall the guy who’d warned me about the snakes came over after breakfast. He was a cocky-looking but obviously seasoned photographer whom I’d seen strutting about the place draped with cameras the day before. “I made you as the girlfriend right away,” he said. “It’s the way you carry your cameras; they’re too new-looking for you to be a real photographer.”
I blushed; after all, I was the girlfriend. “I may be new at this, but I’ve got to take real photos for Joe’s stories.” I said. “So, can you spare some expertise? Just how should I carry them?”
He put aside his swagger and spent fifteen minutes showing me how to keep the cameras safe and close to my body, loaded and ready for action, how to protect my lenses, how to bracket my shots in the field, and the fastest way to load film. Just in time, too. Joe came back from a meeting with the press officer. He’d changed into army fatigues and gave me a set to wear. We were joining a convoy of army trucks headed north to supply the new attack in Khe Sahn. I was about to shoot my first assignment.
During those three weeks in Vietnam I had constant on-the-job training and I got a little better every time we went out. We traveled the length and breadth of the country by plane, both jet and prop, commercial, military and “Air America” (that is to say, CIA); by helicopter, both chinook and huey; and for shorter distances by boat, truck, jeep, and the notoriously terrifying three-wheeled Vietnamese taxi. Dizzyingly busy, constantly anxious and excited, alternately furious and horrified by what I was seeing, I felt I was truly living at last. Joe had eighteen columns to write; he wanted to go everywhere; to find as many different angles on the war and its effects as he could, and to illustrate them with compelling characters and colorful quotes. Any accompanying photographs would be nice, but he regarded them as secondary. This spurred me to try for images that would feel as necessary as the words.
I still have the negatives and contact sheets of the thousands of photos I took, which the AP office in Saigon kindly developed for me. They are ordered in sequence, beginning with my ride north from Danang in the cab of a supply truck. The city was a major staging area for the U.S. army and at the edge of town on our way north we passed a vast army-generated garbage dump. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of women and children were sifting through the forty-foot-high mounds. Vendors by the side of the road laid out squares of cloth displaying items from toothbrushes to T-shirts, all no doubt retrieved from the dump. We passed huts with cardboard box siding and roofs patched with flattened pieces of aluminum; one was ingeniously constructed of nothing but coke cans.
In Vietnam, the question of whether the United States should be there was answered on a visceral level simply by looking around: everything American looked wrong. On our descent into the country a few days earlier I’d been startled by the sight of one after another red and yellow circle dotting the vast green sea of jungle canopy. Those, Joe said, were B-52 bomb craters. Here on the outskirts of Danang the destruction was smaller scale, but closer up the pollution seemed more revolting.
My driver on the convoy from Danang was an army corporal from South Carolina with biceps like Virginia hams. A genial enough fellow, he had no political opinions, was incurious about me, and talked about home in a sentimental, almost rote fashion. He seemed distracted; in retrospect, probably stoned. I would come to find that most of the grunts I met—many of them younger than me and I was only twenty-two—had a limited affect, ranging from mildly amused through bored to pissed off. They were happy to pose for pictures that might show up in their hometown paper, but no American woman, no matter how young and pretty, could hold their attention for long. A bestselling author didn’t interest them either. In fact, no one who wasn’t going to help get them out of there felt very important. Their psychic energy was focused entirely on staying alive. Their bland façades concealed a constant scanning vigilance; the exhausting tension of knowing that at any moment something terrible might fly at them from anywhere– a sniper, a land mine, a mortar shell from a clear blue sky.
Other than that night in the press compound, which was pretty tame by war standards, I hadn’t yet experienced real danger, so the risks I took on our trip–like getting out of the truck during lunch break to capture the mists wreathing the ridgetop at Hai Van pass, in the very hills (I learned after my corporal yanked me back into the cab) where the mortar shelling had come from hours before, to walking along the edge of a road in the Mekong Delta at dusk to photograph a girl on a water buffalo—I took out of naïveté, a false sense of security.
Over the course of a week, we made our way north, often by hitch-hiking. I photographed dead bodies by the side of the road, a grinning toddler propped against a building, both of his legs missing above the knee, tuberculosis patients in a Quaker-run hospital lying two to a bed. Looking through my viewfinder, I focused on nothing except framing the best shot, capturing the telling moment. Only later, before sleep, would I revisit the scenes and truly see my subjects. Then the dismay, disgust, and sadness would wash over me. Alone in the dark I would finally feel the horror of those two young bodies (the first dead bodies I’d ever seen), riddled with bullets and still stiff with rigor mortis, and shock at the ARVN soldiers who stood guard over them, two other young men who could have been their doubles, passive and stone-faced in their sunglasses.
On the way north we spent two days in the central highlands with a Marine company led by a fanatical lieutenant. When we arrived a group was just returning from patrol. They’d had a skirmish, killed a North Vietnamese Army soldier and returned with two prisoners. They posed, grinning, with their booty–a Soviet flag with hammer and sickle and a large pencil portrait of Ho Chi Minh. At the evening meal the lieutenant, whose eyes shone with a disturbing zeal as he bragged about his platoon’s kills, suggested that Joe come on reconnaissance patrol the next day to see how it was done. That night we lay with our cots pushed together in the small tent they given us, whispering.
“God, I don’t want to do this,” Joe said. I was trying to massage the knots out of his sweaty shoulders as he talked about the time he’d gone on recon during his last trip to Vietnam, of the sniper fire and the relentless fear he’d felt. “And besides, this guy seems actually crazy.”
“Then don’t go.”
He shrugged me off and sat up. “There is no way I can write about what these Marines are experiencing without feeling it myself.” I wheedled and pleaded. But however much he longed to agree with me, he couldn’t. He lay back down and turned away.
“All right, in that case, I’m coming with you.”
In the morning the lieutenant scoffed at me, too. Back then a woman going on patrol was out of the question. So the next afternoon, as scared as I’d ever been, I sat and waited for Joe in a hooch in a friendly ville the Marines were occupying. One of the soldiers on guard duty lay nearby on a hammock, flirting with a giggling young mama-san and playing with her baby. Three hours later the patrol returned. They’d encountered no NVA and fired no shots. Joe was drenched with sweat; he gave me a small smile but his eyes held a wary look, as though he couldn’t quite believe he’d made it back. I understood something new about Joe: he had courage.
I would see that courage again. By the first week in February we’d made our way north to the burgeoning Army camp outside Quang Tri, where massive preparations for the Laos campaign were underway. I slept with a group of Army nurses, who were brisk and cheerful in the lull before an onslaught of expected casualties. The next day dawned chilly with a lowering sky. The Army was flying members of the press corps up to Khe Sahn, an abandoned airstrip just south of the demilitarized zone that was being repaired to use for this new initiative. Joe and I tried to get on the Huey with a number of press people, including the famous Henri Huet, an AP photographer Joe was particularly fond of. We’d had dinner with him the night before in the giant mess tent. But there was only one seat, so we had to wait for the next chopper.
Khe Sahn that day was about as desolate a spot as you could imagine. It had been the site of two infamous bloody battles in the recent past, one French and one American, and seemed an inauspicious place to launch yet another battle against the North Vietnamese. I took a lot of pictures of this ugliness—a battered metal runway in the foreground, with one thick iron strip curled up from the blast of a long-ago mortar shell; beyond that, earth-moving machines building a new dirt runway, and as a backdrop, mist-shrouded hills dotted with helicopters lifting off and landing. Nothing good could happen in such a place.
We made it back in Quang Tri that night. But the helicopter carrying Henri Huet, Larry Burrows of UPI, and nine other journalists and photographers never returned. At breakfast in the mess tent the next morning word raced through the camp: the South Vietnamese pilot had lost his way in the mist, strayed over a portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and been shot down. Many people there knew the lost men better than we did, and a terrible pall settled over the tables around us. Joe and I gripped each other’s hands tightly, heartsick. We also knew that if there had been one more seat on that chopper, we would have gone down, too.
That was pure luck. What took courage was another helicopter ride we hitched, returning from the Montagnard village of Ban Me Thuot near the border with Laos and Cambodia. We’d arranged to ride on a small Army chopper. At the last moment a major and his aide showed up at the landing pad. Again only one seat remained, but for some reason I can no longer recall, we had an urgent need to get back to Saigon. “You ride with us, little lady,” the major said, patting the spot next to him. “Your big friend can sit next to the door gunner. All right, sport?” he asked Joe.
“Sure thing,” said Joe jauntily. The copilot handed him a helmet. He gave me an unsmiling nod and climbed next to the gunner, who sat belted to a narrow bench behind a machine gun in a little niche on the helicopter’s side. There was just room for Joe to squeeze in next to him.
I knew Joe had acrophobia. He couldn’t even stand on a stepladder to change a light bulb without feeling like he was going to fall to his death. I also knew, because the major shouted it in my ear over the roar of the helicopter’s lift-off, that we were going to do what was known as “contour flying,” staying relatively low and following the contours of the hills to make us a harder target for the enemy to hit. It made for a ride with a lot of bumps and rolls. I couldn’t see Joe but I could imagine the hell he was going through. Every so often during the ride I would hear a burst of machine-gun fire. Were we shooting or being shot at—or both?
Forty minutes later we reached our base. Joe climbed down. He looked pale but shook hands all around, clapped the gunner on the back and thanked him for keeping him safe. No one could say if snipers had actually fired at us, and now that we were back in one piece, the question no longer interested them. After everyone had walked off to the waiting jeeps, Joe disappeared around the side of the hangar and threw up. It took him a day in our room at the Continental to recover. But he had done it, and done it in style.
Watching Joe do his stuff as a journalist was another revelation. When he was interviewing someone, the guy I knew disappeared. He didn’t just turn on the charm. As naturally as a chameleon turns green on a leaf and brown on a branch, Joe would subtly change to become whomever his subject would feel most comfortable with. At first I thought it was an affectation, the way he would drop his g’s and get aw-shucks-y with a Southern good ole boy, or stand ramrod straight and snap off the “Yes, sir’s” with the crazy Marine lieutenant. But I soon realized that he was unconsciously mirroring the interviewee. This would relax them into letting down their guard, allowing Joe to intrude into sensitive areas without ever seeming intrusive.
We had dinner one night with a very Kennedy-esque consul at his beautiful home in the Mekong Delta and Joe became so much the perfect Bostonian that the man bent over backwards to help us, escorted us around the province, and practically wept when we had to leave. At these times Joe seemed unaware of my presence; in fact, when I piped up with my own opinions, he would sometimes cut me off. I sulked; it took me a while to understand that when he was transforming himself, he didn’t want to be distracted, reminded of his Joe-ness. Some journalists–David Halberstam comes to mind—could be just as effective while inhabiting their outsized personas. Over the years I’ve seen a few other writers and photographers subsume their egos and transform themselves when pursuing a story. I don’t think it’s an acquired skill so much as an innate talent.
I got to experience my own version of self-escape near the end of our stay, when we traveled to the resort city of Dalat, in the cool and beautiful central highlands. A century ago the French plantation owners vacationed there, allowing in only those Vietnamese who were their servants. Now the Vietnamese occupied its graceful, balconied homes and American military personnel were banned. We stayed with a foreign service officer whose house was lovely in the French colonial style, but also a little close to the sniper-ridden hills; all the bedroom windows were taped with X’s so glass wouldn’t spray sleeping visitors when the bullets hit.
In the morning, a Saturday, our host took us to see to the city’s huge open-air market, and it was there that I discovered the thrill—the liberation—of complete absorption in photographing. For at least an hour I roamed that marketplace, intent on gorgeous displays of food and people, freed from self-consciousness. I took some of my all-time favorite pictures that day. One, pleasing for its geometry as well as its subject, captures a cook, face obscured by her hat, stirring dough with chopsticks, a tall stack of crispbreads threatening to topple beside her. Another is of two old women in conical hats taking a lunch break. They’re sitting behind a large array of spotted, overripe bananas, holding their rice bowls and chopsticks. Behind them all is in shadow, but filtered light captures the lines of the bananas, hats, chopsticks. The scene feels timeless, peaceful, even happy.
What triumph I felt back in Saigon when I turned in my film canisters and my AP friend emerged from the darkroom to say I’d taken some really great shots in Dalat. “Well, that’s wonderful,” Joe said, “but I’m not planning to write anything about the marketplace, you know.” I did know that, of course; maybe that helped explain why those were my best pictures. I’d taken them solely because the scene had inspired me, not at anyone else’s direction.
After leaving Vietnam, exhausted, we flew to the island of Penang, off the coast of Malaysia, where Joe would finish writing his eighteen or so columns and we could unwind a little. Here I learned two essential differences between writers and photographers. Oh, the relief! To be done and able to roam the beach and explore the town while the writer slaved over his paragraphs. This was pure, giddy pleasure, and I never unpacked my cameras during our stay. But then, the regret—all those photographs I didn’t take, of the street corner lepers in their wretchedness and self-possession; the saffron-robed monks in the squares; of the tiny, micro-skirted whores with their beehive hairdos flirting with huge, sunburned GI’s outside grimy bars; of the luckier girls of Saigon’s wealthier classes, who whiled away afternoons in outdoor cafes eating gelato, ethereally beautiful with their long black hair and flowing pastel ao dais. These were the images that haunted me; why hadn’t I photographed them? I could never retake the shots I’d passed up, whereas a writer can always reanimate a scene, from a memory even decades old. I wonder if every halfway serious photographer lives with such regrets, the albums we flip through in our heads after every trip, filled with those great photographs we should have taken, the ones that got away.
In the many years since that trip, I’ve come to understand the Vietnam War and it effects much more profoundly. And that is thanks to the many amazing books I’ve read by the people who truly lived the war—novels, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, history, and amalgams of all of the above like the inimitable The Things They Carried.
But this blog is far too long already. Next time I’ll write about the great Vietnam War literature out there, still fresh, still worth reading on its own merit and worth reading as cautionary tale. I can’t help but suspect that so many of this generation’s dirty, ugly little wars were enabled and shaped by our generation’s dreadful, endless disaster of a war.
The Vietnam War must never be forgotten and for God’s sake, we can’t let the bastards rewrite its history!