The Vietnam War was photographed like no war before it or since, and its uncensored reality had profound consequences.
Just outside Saigon in June 1967, the sky above Bien Hoa air base is a swarm of helicopters rising, landing and darting off in different directions. Landing pads are awash in blinding dust and deafening noise as Associated Press photographer Henri Huet wends his way to a Huey headed for a destination some 50 miles from the city in War Zone D. Huet just got a tip that an American and South Vietnamese patrol, ambushed and under attack by the Viet Cong, is in desperate need of supplies and medical assistance. His sources also told him which choppers are headed to the battle site to deliver materiel and ferry the wounded and dead back to Saigon.
Huet reaches the right helicopter, and in English accented by his Vietnamese and French heritage, he shouts his request to the pilot: Can he get a ride to the battle? With cameras strung around his neck, bag hanging from his shoulder, his name inscribed on his military-style jacket, Huet looks the part of a photographer. He needs no introduction. No special orders, releases or OKs are required. Just a “Yeah, come aboard!” from the chopper pilot. Anyone with a press pass can hitch a ride, whether he shoots for a small-town newspaper or sends his pictures by wire worldwide.
With the pilot’s thumbs up, Huet climbs aboard, settling in beside boxes of ammunition, medical supplies and rations. He’s off to a battle, his second this week. In about an hour he will be at a base camp, and then into the jungle and the middle of the action.
Like other photographers who visit and revisit outposts, he’ll be known by his first name and likely be welcomed by the soldiers. He will share their dangers and tell their stories. On this particular foray, he will be with the troops for several days and make pictures of medics under fire struggling to save the wounded. He’ll hop on another chopper back to Saigon and rush his exposed film to the AP bureau. Editors there will select the best shots and transmit them through AP control desks to publication desks worldwide, where they will then find their way into newspapers, magazines, and onto television. In a matter of hours Huet’s pictures will reach millions of people, providing a window on the war, whether it bodes well or ill for the “good guys.” With no organized military censorship in place, only the judgment of editors and the limits of space will control publication of his pictures.
War holds a compelling attraction for photographers, whether in the fields of Gallipoli or the sands of Iraq, but no war was more photographed than Vietnam. A legion of photographers such as Huet enjoyed unfettered access to the fighting up close, hailing choppers and joining patrols through jungles, on plains and in mountains on operations to flush out the enemy, often for days on end. Their pictures captured the war unlike any other conflict, before or since. They furnished the world with raw firsthand accounts of war’s costs—the deadliness of ambushes, the messiness of medics patching the wounded, the sadness of body bags awaiting transport back to base—and played an unprecedented role in informing the populace and shaping public opinion.
War photography always raises questions of censorship by the government and self-censorship by photographers and editors, and the Vietnam War was no exception. Censorship of photography had been an official policy during World War II and Korea, when pictures of slain Allied soldiers were suppressed, along with pictures containing information that could aid the enemy. The U.S. censorship authority set up the guidelines, and a staff of censors approved or disapproved copy and photos. Unit commanders even censored outgoing mail. Some photos of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor leaked out and were printed, but the official Navy photographs were not released for months. The first photo of dead American soldiers, published in Life magazine in September 1943, had been taken on Buna Beach in the South Pacific seven months earlier. Life’s publication was government approved, and war coverage entered a period of relaxed censorship as Washington wanted to reinvigorate a population that was growing complacent about the war—and that was buying fewer War Bonds, the primary way of financing the war. Pictures of slain and wounded soldiers began to appear in publications and in newsreels.
The “no censorship” decision for Vietnam was made early in the conflict when the U.S. military faced a series of logistical and legal problems. Besides the fact that there was no war declared, which presented its own issues, censorship would have necessitated a staff of multi-lingual censors, and it would have required taking control of communications in a sovereign nation. In the face of these hurdles, and in the context of a friendly media-military relationship left over from World War II and Korea, officials decided against censorship and in fact sought to assist media coverage with helicopter access and other aid.
Without censorship during the Vietnam War, delivery of war coverage to media outlets around the world accelerated, heightening the impact of timely war coverage. Raw, firsthand accounts of the war became color and black-and-white images that filled magazine pages and flashed on television sets. This did not mean there was no pressure on the media from government sources, however. When pictures belied military reports and exposed the war’s dreadful costs, officials criticized the stories and often complained to media chieftains, sometimes seeking to remove certain journalists whose reports irked high-ranking authority. Those calls usually produced few results, however, and censorship was never instituted.
For photographers who experienced shooting World War II or the Korean War, Vietnam was a very different battle- field. Sometimes they would be gone for days in the jungle and emerge with great pictures, but just as often they re- turned frustrated by a fruitless search for a war that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. Gone was the identifiable front line of former wars, the “stand and fight” encounters and the huge complements of men and equipment that moved across sweeping landscapes. Thanks in large part to the helicopter, which transformed war reporting, photographers could arrange their own transport to battlegrounds with only a moment’s notice.
Also gone were the cumbersome 4×5 Speed Graphics that were the workhorse cameras of the earlier wars. Vietnam was the first war in which photographers universally used 35mm cameras. The 35mm’s versatility gave photographers much more freedom of movement and, just as important, allowed pictures to be made closer to the action. Interchangeable lenses offered wide shots or close-ups, the kinds of pictures in variety and volume virtually impossible to make with the 4×5. So while pictures of frozen battle scenes or snow-covered GIs huddled together against bitter winter winds in Europe and Korea were compelling in their day, the more intimate, closeup photographs from the killing fields of Vietnam stand apart.
For more than a decade, Vietnam War photos demanded and filled a significant part of the daily American news diet. In the early 1960s, pictures revealed Vietnamese in training or in battles watched over by American advisers. As the number and role of U.S. combat troops expanded, the photographs—and thus the war— became more “American” in the public’s perception. An enormous volume of often fierce, personal combat pictures from Vietnam showing bloodied American soldiers appeared in print.
As the war wore on and the numbers of American dead soared, and public support waned, the military came to regret its decision to open up coverage in Vietnam. Young men facing the draft could see themselves in the photographs. Their unvarnished presentation brought the war home to readers and television viewers with an impact of unprecedented force.
Freedom from censors and freedom of movement on the battlefield gave photographers extraordinary opportunities for powerful pictures. Too often photos and stories from the battle grounds contradicted official versions provided in the daily war briefing for correspondents in Saigon, and a naturally skeptical media could convey the disparities through the camera’s lens. Mutual suspicion followed: Government and military leaders challenged the media’s loyalty, while the media distrusted the official descriptions of the course of the war.
Also, as the photographs recorded sights of war seldom seen by the public, they fueled the peace movement. The antiwar camp used photos and media reports to motivate street demonstrators, and masses of Americans sitting on the fence about Vietnam could be moved into the antiwar camp. Conservative groups contended that much of the home front troubles arose from media coverage. The belief still persists that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front and that the media played a huge role in inspiring the public outcry to end the war at whatever the cost. The pictures of the final chaotic days before Saigon’s fall plunged those opinions in a kind of historic deep freeze. American society polarized, and these sentiments only solidified in the years after Vietnam, especially on the questions of how the war was “lost” and how the media should cover subsequent wars. The Vietnam War ended in the late spring of 1975, but the stories and the graphic photo coverage left behind stinging memories for the military.
When new wars arose, those memories helped shape military handling of the media, which was, for all practical purposes, excluded from the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. Vigorous complaints raised by the press resulted in promises to improve the policy, but in the subsequent Panama action in 1989 the media was again denied meaningful access.
In the more serious Desert Storm conflict in 1991, severe restrictions on coverage in Saudi Arabia and Iraq were imposed by the military, which argued that restrictions were necessary to ease the handling of more than 1,000 journalists and to protect them in the war zone. Assistance in coverage consisted of military escorts that guided media pools to selected venues of the war. The “minders” kept photographers a safe distance from battle sites and chilled responses to reporters questions. Members of the media were threatened with cancellation of visas and press credentials if they attempted to avoid the guided tours, and United States and Saudi forces arrested reporters who went off on their own. Several “unescorted” media forays did get lost and were rescued by U.S. military. One television group was captured by Iraqis and held for weeks. Nonetheless, the media contended that the heavy restrictions on their movement impeded their reporting and photography.
The nature of the Gulf War—largely conducted by airstrikes—offered limited opportunity for the kind of compelling human photography that marked the Vietnam coverage. Pictures of the airstrikes on Baghdad, however, were another story, as Western photographers roamed the city without Iraqi government interference and, on some occasions, with official guides directing photographers to bomb sites. The pictures, reminiscent of regrettable Vietnam images of civilians killed or wounded by U.S. airstrikes, led U.S. officials to charge that Saddam Hussein encouraged civilians to seek shelter in buildings he knew were military targets. War hawks who contended that the media was being manipulated by Iraq and could not be trusted found a receptive audience in the country at large.
With the launching of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the concept of embedding media with specific units of American troops was set in place. To be embedded, photographers and reporters have to commit to stay with a specific unit during the course of their agreement. Photo coverage is therefore severely limited, but at the same time the media benefits from the protection of the military.
While photographers are not specifically refused movement on their own as during Desert Storm, un- escorted travel is virtually impossible nowadays. Reporters or photographers in Iraq and Afghanistan unfortunately have become targets for kidnapping or assassination. The shift from combat to murder as a leading cause of death had its roots in Vietnam.
“The primary danger for war correspondents was always combat, until the Vietnam war,” says Richard Pyle, an AP Saigon bureau chief and a correspondent during Desert Storm. While most media casualties in Indochina took place during combat operations, some reporters were targeted and murdered. For example, during the “Mini Tet” fighting in Saigon in May 1968, five Australian and British journalists encountered a Viet Cong unit. First wounded by automatic gunfire, four were then murdered outright by a Viet Cong officer who shot each at close range. Fortunately, one journalist escaped to tell the story. According to Pyle, 76 journalists are counted as killed or missing between 1965 and 1975, overall the highest media casualty toll of any war in the 20th century.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 139 media people were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 alone, 89 of them murdered. The February 2002 videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, along with the general targeting of photographers and writers, sent a clear message and imposes its own kind of restrictive coverage.
The aesthetics of today’s soldiers tend to diminish the visceral impact of photography. Modern American warriors are nearly robotic in appearance, often loaded down with high-tech gear, their eyes shielded behind special goggles. Performing as disciplined volunteer foot soldiers, they contrast with Vietnam’s largely draftee combat troops who often appeared sweat-soaked, bare-chested and bearded, displaying a certain unruliness and human emotion in their photographs. Rare today are the grisly scenes permeated with the dirt, flesh and blood and emotion of battle that so characterized photographs taken in the heat of the Vietnam War.
Modern war overall is more technical, with remote-controlled drones and sophisticated search devices. Confrontation with the enemy is often sudden and brief. Roadside bombs flip over vehicles in a single explosion, but in most cases without follow-up exchanges. And, if there is no embedded photographer with a unit, there is no photo coverage when battles ensue.
After Vietnam, rules were imposed by the U.S. government that restricted media coverage even inside the United States. Photographers were banned from airports when flag-draped coffins returned to the nation during the Gulf War to, according to the government, protect the privacy of the families of the slain soldiers and to keep politics from intruding on the solemn return of the dead. Opponents claimed that the ban was intended to sanitize the war and mute its cost in terms of human life. The media ban lasted for nearly 20 years, lifted only in 2009—with the caveat that the returned soldier’s family must give approval for photographers to be present.
The most recent and most public dustup between photojournalists and the military is illustrative of the long road traveled since Vietnam. Embedded with Marines in Afghanistan, AP journalist Julie Jacobson photographed a Marine severely wounded in a clash with Taliban insurgents in 2009. The picture, in dim light and shot from a distance, was slightly blurred. By any measure it was tame compared to typical Vietnam War combat photos, showing the Marine who had been hit with a grenade being treated by fellow Marines. The Marine later died on the operating table in a field hospital. Thus, under the embed rules, the picture could not be distributed until the Marine’s family was notified. The AP followed the rules and took the extra step of showing Jacobson’s pictures and story to the Marine’s parents—who then asked that the picture not be distributed. The Associated Press held its ground, however, and distributed the story, with the photo. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of trying to stifle distribution of the picture, writing the president of AP to say that he was appalled that the Associated Press would disregard the parent’s wishes. The story and pictures of the Marine patrol were subsequently run by a number of media outlets, but led to a storm of controversy.
The incident reflects a classic clash of two important fundamentals—the public’s right to know versus the individual’s right to privacy. Many concurred with the view that the picture was offensive and violated the privacy of the slain Marine and his family. Others contended that pictures of this sort are essential if an educated democracy is to have sufficient information about the cost of the war. Somewhat surprisingly, many military commentators held that publication of the picture was indeed important, and that Americans should see and know what war is like.
Much has been written about the impact of television’s Vietnam coverage on the American home front. Vietnam was the first “television war,” taking combat into American living rooms as never before. Susan Sontag observes in her book, On Photography, that the still picture, unlike film, has a permanency, and pictures themselves become history. Pyle cites the fleeting nature of video, “It goes in one eye and out the other,” whereas still pictures can be studied and fixed in memory. As dramatic as it was, television footage seldom matched the compelling stills that over and over revealed the brutality of the war in Vietnam.
Two of the war’s most iconic images were captured simultaneously by still photographers and TV cameras. In Eddie Adams’ single frame of a Viet Cong executed in a Saigon street, the pistol is frozen in deadly, silent aim, and the stoic expression of the shooter, the contorted face of the prisoner and the wince of the soldier in the background combine for a dramatic tension with no end. In the film footage, it all happens in an instant and is gone, certainly dramatic and horrific, but fleeting even when repeated. The film lacks permanence. The unforgettable Nick Ut photograph of a naked girl running down a highway after suffering burns from a misdirected South Vietnamese napalm attack remains etched in memory despite the passage of time, while the memory of the film version of that scene has dimmed.
The Vietnam lesson—that the permanent image can inform with devastating effect and can lead to demands for accountability—is not forgotten. It is unlikely that combat photographers—despite the increasing reliance on visual communication—will ever again find themselves with the unfettered access to war that they experienced in Vietnam. Too many considerations militate against that. That is unfortunate, because it serves the nation well to be aware of the facts—be they brutal or joyful—of the world we live in. A successful democracy depends upon access to complete, explicit and unfettered truth, reported honestly and fairly.
Hal Buell, former photo editor for Associated Press in Asia and New York, has written and lectured widely on combat photography.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.