Cameras, Combat and Courage – Review by Mark Barnes

It seems like a long time since I told you about the compelling Shooting Vietnam by Dan Brookes and the late Bob Hillerby. These two gentlemen were photographers serving with the US Army in Vietnam. The book told not only their story, but also those of some of their comrades and it was quite a difficult read at times.

I came away with the impression the authors harboured a strong sense of bitterness, or perhaps just a deeply philosophical disappointment that they and their work had gone largely unrecognised. Their photography was drowned out by the ‘greats’ of the press world whose work dominates our consciousness of Vietnam. It was nice that such a luminary as Joe Galloway had written the forward. It was recognition.

Dan Brookes is back with a second instalment that looks and feels like the first volume, but this one seems far less melancholy. This time around the author has curated the stories of men like him who give us a flavour of their Vietnam experience in an absorbing and often very understated manner.

There is a shed load of dignity infusing this book. All the same, it feels a little lighter – easier on the emotions – than the first volume, although there is as much violence, tragedy and sacrifice to take in.

The one thing the reader cannot fail to notice is the universal love of their craft these men share. I’m a passionate photographer and my day job sees me working in a photo archive. Photography has been part of my life since my parents gave me a camera in 1971. I have been fortunate to have met and worked with some of the greats of press photography in my own country. But the men in this book seem far removed from the people in my professional world. I can’t properly say why. I suppose I look on Mr Brookes and his comrades as being pretty cool and that is not far off being a shallow impression. They have far more substance than that.

But I stick to my point – these blokes were young men who loved what they were doing and they got to do their job in the most extreme circumstances. Soldiers first, photographers second, they had to do it all and they did it well. That so much of their work has been destroyed in recent cost saving exercises is heartbreaking.

For me this is a photographer’s book and if you are a devotee of the medium you really must read it. There isn’t a duff story to be had and the moderate amount of techy stuff about cameras and so on is a real draw. These men had some pretty cool kit to play with and they were able to spend what seems like very little money on cameras now considered priceless or bloody expensive at least. Happily the US Army provided the majority of camera kit they used and there was a fair old mix of it to get on with.

I dated a gorgeous woman for nearly a year, but, middle-aged disappointment ensued and it didn’t work out for us in the long run. Her uncle was a British merchant marine officer who crewed ships packed with aviation fuel and other dangerous stuff during the war. He did it for quite some time and has some cool stories and a box full of photos and ephemera – personalised Zippo lighters, unit patches and so on.

His photos wouldn’t win any prizes but they have immense charm – they are real. He gave me the Yashica camera he used. I look at it every day. There is a point to this story: Mr Brookes has written a book I could also look at every day. His book offers something tangible from the war that is a mile away from those classics written by the likes of Michael Herr, Philip Caputo and, yes, Joe Galloway (who is here again). Perhaps the prose isn’t up to the strength of those other heavyweights, but it has something really special about it – total authenticity.

Read all the others if you must (I’d say you definitely must!) and look at that fantastic Associated Press photo book on the war (NB if you don’t have it – get it). Marvel at Don McCullin, dream of having a few beers with Sean Flynn and smile at Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. It is allowed. But, this book and its tougher predecessor will give you something to cherish and you will never want to part with them.

Find Cameras, Combat and Courage here.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Book cover
Book cover

The Vietnam War by the Military’s Own Photographers
By Dan Brookes
Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978 1 52675 023 5

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.