The Real War
A Photographic History by the Associated Press
Introduction by Pete Hamill
Published by Abrams
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
I was in the pub with some mates and, I’m not sure how, but we got on to discussing Vietnam War films. It gave me a chance to regail them with stories about the making of Full Metal Jacket which I got from a friend who worked on the production. At this point Rob tells me his daughter is learning about the Vietnam War for history at school and asks me about books. I offer up Michael Herr’s classic Dispatches and the chopper pilot’s saga Chickenhawks. But our problem was the notion that this event could be a school history subject. It happened in our lifetime and it all seems so wrong. But this year sees the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK and although I was just four years old I have memories of the drama being played out on my parents’ rented black and white telly. So the Vietnam War can’t be any less of a history subject, can it?
The books I mentioned are worth reading, but for me the conflict wasn’t a war of words, it was one of imagery. This stunning book of photographs from the archives of Associated Press brings it all back to life.
The photographers of that time have taken on a legendary status. You might have in mind Dennis Hopper’s nutty snapper in Apocalypse Now but in a real sense the war is indelibly linked to the famous name: Don McCullin, Tim Page and even Sean Flynn. They were unleashed on the world by the Vietnam. Robert Capa died there.
In the archive where I work we have a sizable collection of images from the conflict. They are stored in dated boxes – the prints filed in lovely old photo paper boxes from Ilford and Kodak. We don’t get them out much these days because it is generally easier to get digital versions. The vast majority them come from the Associated Press and it is a thrill to see so many gems in this magnificent book. I recently reviewed the IWM’s huge and genius Great War photographic narrative. This book is in every sense comparable in terms of the ambition, the concept and the implementation. It gives you the Vietnam War, the real war, just as the title claims.
We see it all. There are soldiers, self-immolating monks, murdered prisoners, terrified children, despairing politicians, angry students, Charlie and the quick and the dead. Helicopters seem so real you can hear the Valkyrie. We see a slice of those lyrics from that Billy Joel song – “They sent us Playboy, they gave us Bob Hope”. But here is no trivia. This is all about hard news and harder lives.
I was just a lad when the conflict occurred. My only real contact with it comes from witnessing a violent anti-war demo in Berlin when I was ten years old. I drew a picture of it for a school project and was summoned to the headmistress, Miss Pfaff, to be chastised for showing policemen with guns. She wasn’t there, man!
I am a foreigner, it wasn’t Britain’s war (much to the chagrin of Lyndon B Johnson), but the impact of the conflict is still with us. I remember seeing a black Missing In Action flag flying from a pole in Lakewood, New York, and realising how much it affected small communities. I once met a couple of retired fishermen from Maine. They were having a few days to wind down in Hong Kong after going on a search for MIAs in country. Finding the fallen meant a great deal to them. They came out every summer. High school buddies, they had been plucked from their small world and sent to Vietnam where they served as infantrymen. The time they spent there defined their lives. Once out of it they returned to a working life at sea; but here they were, still tied to their war bound up in the principle that the missing would be found.
This wonderful book from AP leaves nobody behind. It is something of an Everyman. It is a monument to the courage and skill of the photographers. The places and people they saw are fixed for us forever in monochrome fastness. Many of them paid the ultimate price to make these images. Never forget them.
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