Iconic Photos

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Geronimo Surrenders

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During his last days at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Geronimo became one of the most photographed of all Native Americans. He became a tourist attraction, and once even photographed in a car. It was therefore fitting that his titanic struggle against the United States army created “the only known photographs of American Indians as enemy in the field”.

Born Goyathlay (The-One-Who-Yawns), the Apache Geronimo was among the fiercest opponents of Mexico and the United States. His family was killed by Mexicans, and he waged intermittent warfare in the south-west until the mid-1880s. By the time, even the clairvoyant medicine man himself knew the end was near. He sent word to General George Crook — America’s most aggressive Indian fighter — that he was ready to surrender.

He chose the site: Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains, just south of the Mexico-Arizona border. It was a shallow ravine from which he could flee easily at the first sign of trouble. Geronimo came with his remaining troops, now numbering only 115. As demanded, Crook arrived with a small group of officers, scouts, interpreters, and a photographer, Camillus Fly.

During the three days Geronimo and Crook negotiated, Fly walked around the Apache camp and took photos. Finally, Geronimo agreed to Crook’s surrender terms, with historic words: “Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all.”  However, later that night, camp rumours abounded that they would be murdered as they crossed the border back into Arizona, and Geronimo and 40 of his followers slipped away during the night. Five more months of fighting followed. It was the last Indian war the United States was to fight.

As for Fry, he took 15 photos at the camp, including those of Geronimo with his two sons, and of a white boy abducted from his New Mexico home previous September. Fly was just 36 when he took these photos. Seven years earlier, he had moved to silver-boom town of Tombstone, Arizona to open a “portrait-making” shop. In 1881, he was a peripheral eyewitness to a mythic event which took place in the vacant lot by his photography studio (and not in the livery stable six doors away as frequently mis-remembered): The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 31, 2017 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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A Massacre at Pancevo

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An enduring myth about the Second World War is the canard that the Germany Army, the fabled Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization largely innocent of Nazi crimes. In his definitive The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Wolfram Wette dismissed this view: while the Wehrmacht treated prisoners of war on the Western front honorably, on the Eastern front, its campaigns were barbaric.

This was a view that the Germans themselves were uncomfortable with, until very recently. When an exhibition “The War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” opened in Hamburg in 1995 and toured 33 German and Austrian cities in the following two years, it was greeted with protests, denunciations, and even violence in Munich and Bavaria.

At the center of controversy were photos taken by Gerhard Gronefeld, showing an execution in the Yugoslavian town of Pancevo on 22nd April 1941. They showed an ugly, uncomfortable truth: that the ordinary soldiers were just as lethal as the SS in exterminating Jews and civilians. In the photos, executed civilians lie next to a cemetery wall as a Wehrmacht officer pointed his gun at the dying, as a SS-officer looked on. Thirty-six civilians were executed — 18 men were shot, and 17 men and one woman were hanged. The “most terrible scene which I photographed ever,” Gronefeld recalled, and he did not submit the photographs to the army magazine for which he was working. He secreted the photos until 1963, when they were published.

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Controversial though it was, the 1995 Exhibition was a landmark moment. As it toured across Germany and Austria, many veterans, ex-servicemen, and their families donated letters and photos and came forward to recall how the army had been deployed as state executioner. Gronefeld’s photo ran on the cover of Der Spiegel on 19th March 1997. Christian Social Union, the natural party of government in Bavaria, denounced it as an insult to the Wehrmacht, as neo-Nazis marched through Munich to protest the exhibition. An academic at Germany Army’s Bundeswehr University came out defending Pancevo as an act of defense, allowable under the international law*. As for Pancevo, it was once again in the news in the 1990s as the Balkans spiraled once more into a fratricidal war.

* See: Franz Seidler, Crimes Against the Wehrmacht (1997). p.18-19.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 16, 2017 at 6:22 am

David Rubinger (1924-2017)

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It is hard to find a photographer who embodied his nation as perfectly as David Rubinger did with Israel. Born in Vienna in 1924, he emigrated to British Palestine in 1939, and began his career in photography serving in the British army’s Jewish Brigade. By the time he died this week, he had been the official photographer of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament,  where he was the only photographer whose work is on permanent display.

In between, he married a concentration camp survivor and took intimate photos of Jewish establishment, often in their private moments. Golda Meir blew smoke into middle distance. David Ben-Gurion and Ariel Sharon surveyed Israeli defense lines. He followed soldier and archeologist Yigael Yadin into caves above the Judean Desert. He was the only photographer to be permitted to enter the Knesset cafeteria.

But Rubinger’s most famous photos were taken in wartime. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he took photos of the Egyptian gunners from a helicopter (carrying the Israeli chief of General Staff) which was hit. Earlier, during the 1967 Six Day War, he took his most famous photo, Paratroopers at the Western Wall (above).

Between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were controlled by Jordan as part of the armistice between two countries. Jordan’s ruling royal family had always wanted to claim the entire Jerusalem to make up for the family’s lost guardianship of Mecca, which was lost to Saudi Arabia, and when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel in 1967, Jordan swiftly moved in to annex the entire Jerusalem. Hand-to-hand fighting between Israeli and Jordanian soldiers ensued on the Temple Mount. Rubinger was there to capture the end of fighting; he recalled heading back from the Sinai front:

“That night I heard some talk on the command radios about something happening in Jerusalem. I didn’t hesitate and just snuck into a helicopter that was evacuating wounded soldiers. When I got to Jerusalem, I heard gunshots, so I ran to the Western Wall, maybe 20 minutes after it was taken. I laid down on the ground and these three soldiers just passed by. I didn’t think much of the photo at the time.”

[The army’s chief rabbi arrived, below]. I thought that would be ‘the shot’. When I developed the photos at home, I told my wife: ‘Rabbi Goren, that’s a great photo, historical.’ But my wife pointed at the image of the soldiers and said: ‘that’s a nice photograph.’ And I told her: ‘What nonsense.’ Part of the face is cut off one the right said, in the middle the nose protrudes, and on the left there’s only half a face… photographically speaking, this isn’t a good photo.”

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But others thought different; the photo was widely reprinted — mostly due to the fact that Rubinger had previously agreed to give his negatives to the government in exchange for front-line access — and eventually, he relented. He put it on the cover of his autobiography, and in 2002, he re-staged it with three women to raise awareness for gender equality. In many ways, it was a fitting photo for Rubinger, whose photo career took off in 1954 after taking the photo of a Catholic nun searching for a hospice patient’s dentures which had fallen out the hospice’s window into Eastern Jerusalem, then Jordanian territory.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 2, 2017 at 7:55 pm

The Boat of No Smiles

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Are there faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations? 

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In the late 70s and the 80s, “Vietnamese” was almost invariably followed by the term “boat people”. Between 1975 and 1992, around two million people (nearly four percent of the country’s population) fled Vietnam by boat to escape poverty, oppression, and war. It was a perilous journey — up to 250,000 people died at sea from storms, illness, food shortages, and piracy.

Photographer Eddie Adams, now better known for another iconic photo, remembers being on the frontline of this exodus, and getting into a refuge boat which was turned away:

No one, no country, was letting the refugees land. You couldn’t even find out about them. At first, I went back and said the story was impossible to cover. Then I had an idea and got in touch with the Thai Marine police (I knew Thailand very well) who had been shoving the boats right back offshore to certain death. I told them would like to go with them on patrol in the Gulf of Siam.

They OK’d it, so we headed for the most likely point in northern Thailand, getting there at 4am when a refugee boat had just pulled in; the Thai authorities were getting ready to cast it off again. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1977. I suddenly asked the Vietnamese if I could go with them— I bought gas and rice – they had no fuel or food. There were forty-nine people aboard that fishing boat, including children— in the hold that same day a baby was born. The Thais towed us back out to sea and set us adrift. On that boat, there was no room to lie down, so they all had to sit up straight, waking or sleeping. I cannot describe the despair. There were dramatic pictures of mothers with half-dead children in their arms but something even worse was there.

Whenever you go to refugee camps in a war zone where terrible things have happened, where bodies might be stacked up, and disease everywhere, you still find children who gather before the camera with a smile. This was the first time in my life that no child smiled. I called the pictures, “the boat of no smiles.” The boat was hardly moving- they didn’t even know where to go.

Then we were approached by another Thai boat with a megaphone ordering me off at gunpoint— they were afraid someone would let them dock knowing there was an American aboard. I had mixed feelings about getting off. I wrote the story and sent the pictures immediately, and they ran. Peter Arnett did a story also and a few others. Within a couple of days the administration asked the AP to present the photos to Congress. And Carter said let them come to America. The Congress had been thinking about it, sure, but the pictures did it, pushed it over.

The photos convinced the American government to allow 250,000 refugees to enter into the United States. Tragic drownings were to mobilize public opinion and a coordinated plan led to resettlement of over 1.3 million refuges across the developed world (China also took in 300,000 Vietnamese of Chinese blood).

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In 1978, Adams and Arnett traveled to the Malaysian island of Bidong, “once a paradise with blue waters, white sandy beaches fringed by coconut palms, topped by a verdant hillside,” but by then one of the most crowded refuge encampments in the world — where 40,000 refugees huddled in a space the size of football field.

Here, tales evoking Sophie’s Choice were played out, as the developed nations selected who could migrate where, with varying criteria. For instance, the United States gave priority to those who had served in the South Vietnamese military and their families. An acquaintance of mine had to choose between migrating and his 10-year old brother-in-law (as the latter, not being his blood relative, was not accepted by the US). Making the choice all the harder, his newborn son was dying from dysentery: it was a decision between leaving behind a 10-year old boy or condemning their newborn child.

It has perhaps glib to compare the boat people to modern refuges, except to note that migrant experience was never easy. Yet there are faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations: in both United States and Australia (where the Vietnamese were the first non-European emigrants of significant size), the arrival of foreigners who worshiped different gods, from a country which espoused an ideology antithetical to Western values, and a country which until recently had been at war with them, initially caused great social disquiet.

Four decades on, these fears are a distant memory. By forgetting them, however, we condemn ourselves into repeating same mistakes over and over again.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 11, 2017 at 1:42 am

Ethiopian Soldier – Eisenstadt

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In December 1934, a border dispute between Abyssinia and the Italian Somaliland led to a small war. Haile Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, sought the help from the League of Nations. The League — dominated by European powers — responded by banning arms sales to both Italy and Abyssinia, a move which harmed the latter greatly.

Instead, the League, an international body founded after the First World War to arbitrate international disputes, reverted back into settling disputes a la Concert of Europe: Britain and France, both worn out by war and depression, secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy.

Emboldened, Italy sent a 400,000-strong army into Abyssinia even as the League re-elected the Italian Marquis Alberto Theodoli, as chairman of the Permanent Mandates Commission, an important League body. That winter, however, the opinion turned as the Italians bombarded villages, used poison gas and attacked Red Cross hospitals.

While it was a conflict fought mostly out of the world’s eyes, photography played a significant part. The uneven terms of the conflict were made clear in the photos of Alfred Eisenstadt, working for Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, who saw the poor benighted country before the Italian army arrived. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s Italy attempted to use Abyssinia’s own poverty as a justification for an invasion. Reprinted were postcards and photos of nude locals, to lend credence to the narrative that Italy was “intervening only to bring law and order to a backwards, warlord-ridden, and slave trading land,” as Susan Pedersen notes in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, her excellent account of diplomacy in the interwar years.

Eisenstadt’s pictures proved more powerful. His picture of the bare feet of an Abyssinian soldier was reprinted around the world but censored in Italy. In fact, the worldwide sales of his photo enabled Jewish Eisenstadt to emigrate from Germany. Although later to be often miscaptioned as the feet of a slain soldier, mud-caked feet wrapped in dirty WWI-era puttees belonged to a soldier participating in a rifle practice.

Public opinion did turn against Italy, but it was too late: the Italian conquest was nearly complete. The League voted for economic sanctions onto Italy in May 1936 but by this time, Italy had already walked out of the League Council. Following Japan and Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933 rather than to submit to its decisions, Italy left the League in 1937. Fascist Italy was now inexorably allied with Germany and Japan and contours of a global conflict were slowly settling.

(For Japan’s withdraw from the League, here; to follow the future career of Haile Selassie, here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 5, 2017 at 1:27 am

Look Back in Anger — Nazism in 1930s

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This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Iconic Photos look back at how it all began — and how we covered it. 

Hitler’s first appearance in Iconic Photos date from 1914, when a figure allegedly identified as Adolf Hitler was seen outside Field Marshals’ Hall listening to the announcement of the First World War. After the war, his rise in a defeated and dejected Germany was meteoric. In 1926, he became the Führer of the National Socialists; the then-37-year old was also already a millionaire, thanks to his book Mein Kampf.

His party won the plurality in the elections of 1933. On January 30th 1933 when President Paul von Hindenburg, hero of a World War, called upon Hitler, villain of another, to be German Chancellor. Less than a month later, the Reichstag burnt down in a pivotal event which paved the way for the rise of Nazi consolidation. Hitler fingered Communist agitators as arsonists; civil liberties were suspended, and countless politicians and journalists were locked up, and the communist party was outlawed. When Hitler visited Tanneberg — the site of a famous battle in which East Prussia was liberated from the Russians during the First World War by Hindenburg — later that year, the ceremony was uncomfortably patriotic and militarist. Germany rearmament began on those blood-soaked fields.

A strong re-emerging Germany was on display in pomp and splendor of Berlin Olympics in 1936. There were a few hitches for the Nazis, like  Jesse Owens winning 100 m sprint and smashing Hitler’s theories of racial superiority, but the Olympics were a great success for Germany. The next year, the Fuhrer welcomed the Duke of Windsor, the ci-devant Edward VIII, to his Obersalzberg retreat.

Hitler’s plans for a Greater Germany were sown years ahead. Already in 1934, he has orchestrated the murder of Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss, who was vehemently against Nazism, and set Austria on the course that would eventually led to its capitulation to his Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938.  A few months later, British Prime Minister was in Munich to sign the Anglo-German Non-Aggression Declaration. Sudetenland was transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany in an attempt to satisfy Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum.

A little over a year later, emboldened German troops were in Warsaw, having divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the world was in a cataclysmic world war yet again.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 14, 2014 at 5:12 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Leaders of Britain, 1944

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I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.

After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.

In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.

And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery  for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.

Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor  Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.

Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 7, 2014 at 6:20 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Congo | Andre Lefebvre

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In 1960, a group of firebrand Congolese managed to outmaneuver the Belgian government into giving them independence, rather than a phased transfer of power it envisioned. Prospects for the country were bleak: in the country of 14 million people, there were only three native Congolese in its 1,400-strong civil service, and two were recent appointments. In 1960, only 136 children completed secondary education and thirty graduated from university. There were no Congolese doctors, no secondary school teachers, nor army officers.

In many ways, the Congo was just a mining camp. It was uranium from Katanga region in the Congo that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country produced nearly 10% of the world’s copper, 60% of its uranium, 70% of its cobalt, and 70% of its industrial diamonds, all of it under auspices of the Union Miniere which reported annual sales of $200 million USD in 1960. The company was loathe to give it all away and urged the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai to secede. 

The war was bloody and would claim over 100,000 lives. The United Nations intervened, but Congo’s new Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba quickly antagonized the UN mission, led by the respected Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Despite his later mythic status as a secular saint of anti-imperialism, Lumumba was far from an agreeable figure. He hated and later purged other moderate politicians. On his only visit to the US, he shocked the officials by demanding a female companion for him — ‘une blanche blonde’ he specified.

Meanwhile, the secessionist war accelerated. Lumumba’s battles against Baluba tribes took on genocide fervour according to the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Among the western casualties was an American journalist named Henry Taylor, his death magnified and scrutinized even more for he was the son of the American ambassador to Switzerland. Taylor was killed in a clash between government troops and Baluba tribesmen — a scene (above) well-documented by Paris Match photographer Andre Lefebvre who was traveling with Taylor at the time. The United States was now slowly being sucked into the conflict, not least by arrival of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into the Congo on Lumumba’s invitation.

The Eisenhower administration supported a palace/army coup in the Congo; Lumumba first sought asylum in an UN compound, and then headed off to Stanleyville, his power base; in a characteristic move, he made frequent stops to give fiery speeches to local villagers along his trip. He was denounced, arrested and handed off to Baluba soldiers. On the night of 17th January 1961, he and two others put on the back of a pick-up truck headed to a remote clearing and — eternity.

Other players from that tumultuous year not long survived. Hammarskjold was next to go — he died in a plane crash en route to mediate the Katanga ceasefire talks. The mining state itself was wound up in late 1962, when the United Nations put an end to its secession in a series of decisive raids. On December 31, 1966, the Congolese government nationalized the Union Miniere, the powerful conglomerate that started it all, seizing over $800 million of the company’s assets.

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Not much is known about Andre Lefebvre (1919 – 1984). His photos from the ambush that killed Taylor were grisly, and showed government troops machine-gunning and bayoneting the Balubas. Lefebvre himself took a bullet to his feet in the crossfire. He retired from Paris Match in 1968.

I have previously covered Congo in other posts, ranging from the atrocities of Leopoldine Congo to its hectic independence day to last photo of Lumumba.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 22, 2014 at 4:46 am

Posted in War

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Corpsman In Anguish | Cathy LeRoy

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Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used. 

The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967.  Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead. 

LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.

In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Diên Biên Phu | Daniel Camus

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Since 1941, Ho Chi Minh had been rebelling against the French colonial rule in Vietnam. Sixty years ago, that struggle reached its climax at a broad vale known as Diên Biên Phu. The French, fifty thousand of whom ruled over the colony of 20 million people, grossly underestimated their enemy’s strength and capabilities, initially unaware that the Vietnamese had been supplied with anti-aircraft and heavy artillery by Red China. In fact, as the first French paratroops were dropped into the valley in November 1953, the French government hoped for a swift victory that might just win back public support for the war in Indochina.

It turned out to be a heroic, if foolhardy, last stand. Generals responsible raised doubts whether a defense was feasible as early as January 1954. President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about warring, privately despaired that the fort was indefensible. But media coverage was almost mythic. Paris Match called Diên Biên Phu “the capital of heroism”. For Time magazine, the attacking Vietnamese general was a ‘Red Napoleon’, and as it was during equally bleak sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore, Christian iconography was invoked. French papers frequently termed the fort a ‘calvary’. Geneviève de Galard, the only female nurse inside the garrison, became an ‘angel’ (and found herself plastered all over magazine covers [below, middle] and honored with Légion d´honneur and Congressional Medal of Freedom).

Meanwhile the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control. A group of firebrand paratroopers took over combat operations from the camp’s reluctant aristocratic commander General de Castries and were becoming de facto leaders of the camp. By mid-March, Vietnamese artilleries encircled the camp and made the airstrip unusable. By the end of that month, all supplies had to be made without landing. The garrison, however, stood for further forty days, before falling on 7 th May 1954.

An international peace was quickly drawn up: Vietnam was to be partitioned and granted independence. The end tally was bloody. The battle cost France sixteen battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. Some 12,000 French soldiers were imprisoned for a few months in camps where mortality rates exceeded 70 percent. On the Vietnamese side, the losses were above 20,000: many perished even before the battle began to hurl up cannons into the mountain pass; “death volunteers” threw themselves at French defenses with TNT strapped to their chests.

The defeat at Diên Biên Phu was seismic for both Paris and Washington and put them en course towards bloodier conflicts. In France, the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power. Soldiers from France’s African colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal who fought at Diên Biên Phu and saw the imperial power brought low returned home to begin their own independence struggles, and France decided to quietly withdraw from Africa. The French military, however, took the setbacks in Vietnam – and two years later, in Suez – bitterly. It would soon defy both public and political opinion to mount a scorching war in Algeria.

As for the United States, the war was an unsettling development. Its policy of containment could not work if newly independent countries were to choose Moscow-educated leaders, as with Ho in Vietnam, Nassar in Egypt, and Lumumba in the Congo. Diên Biên Phu itself was a symbolic domino, chosen precisely to cut off the Communists from entering the neighboring kingdom of Laos, and its fall was alarming. But coming as it did so soon after an inconclusive conflict in Korea, there was not much political will in the Congress for yet another foreign entanglement. An especially vocal critic, the one who argued against letting the French use American air fields, was an ambitious senate minority leader from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.

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The siege of Diên Biên Phu was widely covered in the French press; L’Aurore on 24 March published the first photos, which were sent back with letters and evacuatees. The most extensive coverage was in Paris Match, France’s equivalent of Life magazine, which published 144 photos from Diên Biên Phu between 20 March and 15 May, and devoted five front covers to the battle. Its headlines were equally grand: ‘L’épopée de Diên Biên Phu (The Epic of Diên Biên Phu, 8th May); Le Calvaire et la Gloire du Général de Castries (The Sacrifice and Glore of General de Castries, 13th May); and ‘La Tragédie des blesses” (The Tragedy of the Wounded, 22nd May).

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Match had an inside man, literally. Its photographer, Daniel Camus, was doing military service with an army cinema unit when he was parachuted into the garrison. His photos covered about the action of the siege and the desperate intimacy of the besieged, as was in the above photo of the paratroop “mafia” of young airborne officers who had effectively taken control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, Touret, de Seguin-Pazzis et al). Camus and another photographer Jean Péraud sent back photos from inside the siege until the garrison fell and they were sent to a reeducation camp. During the 300-km march to the camp, Péraud was killed when trying to escape with paratroopers’ commander Marcel Bigeard. Camus was released four months later from the camp.

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There is currently a fascinating exhibition going on in Paris at oft-overlooked Musée de l’Armée. “Indochine: Des Territoires et des Hommes, 1856-1956” follows a century of French colonial rule and runs through Jan. 26.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 5, 2014 at 6:21 am

Stalingrad | Emmanuil Evzerikhin

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Emmanuel Evzerikhin stalingrad 1942

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For six months in 1942/43, Nazi Germany waged a total war on the city; over 1,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city in the initial assaults alone, reducing Stalingrad’s city centre into rubble. These scenes of devastation were covered by Emmanuil Evzerikhin, among whose most memorable photos was that of Barmaley Fountain, a miraculously intact statue of children playing in front of a destroyed city square.

Evzerkhin was a Soviet Jew who had already been disgraced once, for a surreal Soviet offense.  In 1939, he was purged for staging a photo: while photographing factory workers, he wrote down that he took photos at 1 p.m. However, the time on the clocks suggested 7 a.m. By “staging” the clocks, Evzerikhin was guilty of subverting the system: the purpose of his assignment was to prove that all workers were already at their places at 7 a.m. When the war with Germany began, he was rehired as a war photographer. His poignant photos from Stalingrad — such as a musician saving his instrument (below) and a girl sheltering in bombed ruins — were widely printed in the press; he received an Order of the Red Star and “For the Defense of Stalingrad” medal.

After Stalingrad, Evzerikhin went on to document Ukrainian and Belorussian fronts. He saw the liberations of Minsk, Warsaw, Konigsberg, and Prague. On his return to Russia, however, he found opportunities fast evaporating. He was after all, a Jew; soon afterwards, he demoted again in anti-Semitic purges . 

Russians viewed and remembered the Second World War differently, not in sallow faces of Holocaust survivors or the horrors of concentration camps freed, but in sieges endured, and fathers, husbands, and sons lost. Victories at battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were refashioned as truly ‘Russian’ victories, as opposed to Soviet victories. Soviet Russia did not suffer total occupation, as had the Baltics, Belarus, or Ukraine, nor was it much marked by the Holocaust compared to Ukraine or Belarus. This distance from the horrors of the Holocaust was to deny Russia certain lessons; when the war ended, Stalinist antisemitic pogroms were just around the corner.

Soon after the war, Stalin cancelled a Soviet documentary on the Holocaust, which highlighted that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. By 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting Jewish denunciations which lifted phrases straight from Nazi propaganda. A fitting epigraph was penned by Vasily Grossman, a Jewish writer soon to be denounced; in sequel to his monumental novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, he had a Gestapo officer quip, “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 20, 2013 at 2:56 am

Editorial: On Syria, Liberal Interventionism, and Responsibility to Protect

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Photos from Syria are too gruesome to publish. Clicking on the black square will take you to a reddit site which has complied them. Caution advised.

Last week, there were allegations that President Assad has gassed his own citizens. A U.N. team sent to inspect the site were delayed and attacked.

To the naysayers who doubt that Assad would not have used chemical weapons in the twilight days of a civil war that he was gradually winning, we have this to say: the last century was filled with despots who were not rational — Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot — and mistakes had been made trying to rationalize their actions. Even the Allies used a heavy-handed approach in firebombing Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, motivated by revenge, war-weariness, and need for the enemy’s morale defeat.  In such light, Assad’s motivations become clearer.

By repeatedly emphasizing a hypothetical ‘red line’ over chemical weapons (while ignoring other inhumanities in Syria, from shelling civilian quarters to using cluster bombs and landmines), the West has painted itself into an intractable corner. To do nothing will undermine its credibility and embolden Assad (and many a tyrant observing how the West will respond to this crisis).  On the other hand, it is dangerous to rush into action; in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya where the West intervened, the results of the Arab Spring are increasingly murky, and for Britain and the United States, at least, it will be their fourth military action in the Middle East in twelve years, and the public is growing weary.

This house had supported the Syrian rebels throughout 2011 and 2012. However, it now seems the rebels are dominated by hard-core fighters, who tend to be Islamist Manicheans, under whom, we reckon, whatever little religious freedom tolerated under President Assad, will evaporate. Therefore, this house advocates for an UN-brokered ceasefire, guaranteed by an international fleet in the Mediterranean, while the U.N chemical weapons inspectors do their job on the ground. Out of this ashheap, we believe a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Syria can still be salvaged.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 27, 2013 at 10:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized, War

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