Vietnam Album, by Christopher Burns, with photos by 25th Infantry Division Information Office photographers, The Seashell Press, 2011, e-book available at Amazon.com
It would be safe to say that throughout the decade in which some 2.9 million Americans served in Vietnam, several million pictures were taken, by photo-journalists, Signal Corps, Army combat photographers assigned to units and grunts themselves. While private and public archives are chock full of Vietnam pictures and collections, and stock photo agencies can deliver a range of fine photos, the fact is that time, mishandling, mislabeling and fading knowledge of events now approaching 50 years distant have winnowed what actually makes it into print. Thus, book and magazine publishers are often dipping from the same well time and again, and certain images come to represent certain battles or campaigns as the next researcher begins (and often ends) by consulting previously published images. So it is always refreshing to find a resource or venue, be it an exhibit, a book, collection or website, where obscure or never-before-published Vietnam War photos find the light of day.
Christopher Burns’ Vietnam Album, available on Kindle Fire and other e-book readers, is just such an example of a treasure trove of photography—good photography—of the Vietnam War still waiting to be unearthed. And, as Burns’ e-book clearly demonstrates, there was a ton of outstanding, quality photos of actual missions and combat situations being made by soldier/photographers who were working for their battalion, regiment or infantry organs. While the best combat photojournalists saw plenty of action (and too frequently were wounded or killed in the process), they couldn’t be everywhere—especially not on the thousands of patrols and missions that unexpectedly resulted in significant and consequential action.
As Burns attests, however, the soldier/ photographers working for him when he was command information officer of the 25th Infantry Division in 1969-70 “lived in the field, recorded the war as they saw it, and sent back stories and pictures for publication.” Many went into the 25th ID’s newspaper, Tropic Lightning News, which reported, much like a small-town newspaper, on events important and trivial. As with any publication, only a fraction of the images taken by his photographers could be used.
As Burns tells it, he’d set aside the best pictures, including color slides that were rarely published, with the idea they could be used for other 25th ID projects. Fortunately, as the end of his tour neared, Burns decided to sort through his cache and, trading a refrigerator for the favor, have duplicates made that he could take home with him.
Back in the world, Burns did what we all do, he stuck the old photos in a shoe box in the closet—and soon forgot all about them. Meanwhile, as the American involvement in Vietnam ended, organizations like Burns’ in the 25th ID were either ordered to trash all their files (pictures included) or simply succumbed to that natural tendency to toss what you can when moving all your worldly belongings. However it happened, we know large quantities of images of the war were simply burned, gone forever.
So what Burns has done, a gift really, is publish Vietnam Album and make it available for just $9.95; and free for former combat correspondents for the 25th ID, (email to firstname.lastname@example.org). And this is not just a picture book, although that’s what Burns had initially intended. He has cleverly interlaced quotes, snippets from oral histories and previously published firsthand accounts that pair perfectly with the gritty, feel-it-in-your-gut images shot by Burns’ guys, such as Bob Williams and Karl Karlgaard.
Burns’ book about 25th Division operations, 1969: Vietnam, was named the best publication in the Army in 1969. After Vietnam, Burns was a media executive at the Washington Post, and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, executive editor of United Press International and a media consultant.
We can only hope that this model of publishing, primarily motivated by a desire to simply get great photography of this nature out there, inspires others to do likewise. As Burns writes: “The experience of war, like few other moments in a man’s life, cries out to be recorded. Grim or glorious, the message must go back that this is the way the days and lives were spent, and this was the outcome. A nation deaf to such reports will fight forever over nothing.”
A note to readers: You don’t necessarily need an e-book reader to read e-books. You can download a Kindle application for free from Amazon and use it on your computer.