Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina, edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page, Random House, New York, 1997, $65.
In April 1965, a series of stunning photographs by Larry Burrows, a British photographer, appeared in LIFE magazine. Recording just one mission in the life of Marine Lance Cpl. James C. Farley, the photographs are eerily evocative of America’s changing posture through the course of the Vietnam War. In the first frame, crew chief Farley, carrying an M-60, is striding to his helicopter at the Da Nang Air Base. Grinning boyishly, he radiates confidence, even enthusiasm–there is no job that he cannot handle. In subsequent photographs, however, the rescue mission of a downed pilot goes breathtakingly awry. In frame two, as the chopper approaches the LZ, Farley is firing the M-60, but in frame three, his weapon is jammed and Farley is shouting to his gunner over the bodies of two seriously wounded comrades, one of whom is a dying pilot. In the final frame, Farley is back at the base, sobbing. It is a gut-twisting sequence.
“It was a very sad moment…when our crew chief broke down [and] cried,” Burrows remembered four years later. “So often I wonder whether it is my right to capitalize…on the grief of others. But then I justify [it]…by feeling that I can contribute a little to the understanding of what others are going through.” Burrows (who, while under heavy .30-caliber machine-gun fire, helped Farley rescue the downed pilot) was himself killed when a helicopter he was fly-ing in over Laos in 1971 was shot down. And 135 other photographers from many nations died or disappeared while covering the fighting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Requiem, which consists of the images they recorded, is a memorial to them.
Readers will have complex reactions to these blunt visuals, some of which the photographers captured on film only moments before their own deaths–images of “whiskey-voiced and brave” Dickey Chappelle, who, having stepped on a mine, lies in a pool of her own blood (“It was bound to happen,” she said as she lay dying); the silhouetted body of an American soldier dangling from an evacuation helicopter; the youthfulness of blue-eyed, ruggedly handsome Robert J. Ellison, a Marine killed at Khe Sanh.
In another photograph, Marines inside the citadel at Hue are fighting beneath ruined timbers that, having assumed the unmistakable shape of a cross, create an arresting juxtaposition. The image brings to mind poet Wilfred Owen’s line about combat soldiers finding themselves “where God seems not to care.” In a photograph of Bu Dop, on the Cambodian border, NVA and VC troops move like spirits across a devastated landscape–jagged trunks of blasted bamboo, oddly suggestive of the barbed wire and trenches of the Western Front of World War I, appear to extend in grim lines from the foreground to the smoke-enshrouded horizon. The image serves as a reminder that the horrors of war never change; “curtained with fire,” they simply materialize in different places.
Many of these places were recorded by VC and NVA cameramen and women, and by the South Vietnamese. The Communists failed to document their own atrocities, but the South Vietnamese did, and Requiem includes photographs of the torture of a woman and an execution of a VC prisoner by ARVN soldiers. One has to conclude that, like the Hanoi-trained combat artists whose work was used primarily to bolster the morale of troops, Communist photographers (72 of whom were killed) were compelled to fill North Vietnam’s need for official propaganda. In contrast, South Vietnamese photographers recorded the facts.
Among the most disturbing facts are those associated with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Near Phnom Penh in 1974, Sou Vichith, a Cambodian who died in the killing fields, photographed three adolescent prisoners of grinning Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Moments after he snapped the shot, the guerrillas stripped, violated and murdered them. In the eyes of these children is monumental numbness and terror–they know what is about to happen to them–but we, who also knew what was happening to millions of others just like them, did nothing to help them at that time. That photo stands out from the countless other visual records we have seen of the genocide in Cambodia. It reveals our complicity.
It also reminds us of the way the media brought the war in Vietnam into our living rooms. During a street fight in Saigon, Roger Norum, a United Press International radio correspondent, witnessed the killing of a colleague (Charlie Eggleston) by a VC sniper. “Oh no! No! Charlie has been shot! Oh my God, blood is streaming out of his nose and mouth. He’s got it right in his head!” This kind of on-the-pulse, “in your face” text (in this particular case, Norum’s live tape-recording of the incident was broadcast the very day Eggleston was killed) leaves the reader with a troublingly intimate understanding of what it cost to participate in the events these men and women documented.