Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’
Are there faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
For a war where the public opinion was shaped by the photographs from the homefront and the warfront, it was fitting that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended with an especially poignant image of joy, an ephemeral meeting of homefront and warfront. The photograph came to symbolize the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and the prevailing sentiment that military personnel and their families could begin a process of healing after enduring the horrors of war.
In Burst of Joy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder captured this moment. Taken on March 17, 1973 at Travis Air Force Base in California, the photograph depicts United States Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family, after spending more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on 27 October 1967, while leading a flight of F-105s on a bombing mission, and not released until 14 March 1973.
The centerpiece of the photograph is Stirm’s 15-year-old daughter Lorrie, who is excitedly greeting her father with outstretched arms, as the rest of the family approaches directly behind her. Despite outward appearances, the reunion was an unhappy one. Three days before he arrived in the United States, the same day he was released from captivity, Stirm received a Dear John letter from his wife Loretta informing him that their relationship was over. In 1974 the Stirms divorced and Loretta remarried. All of the family members depicted in the picture received copies of it after Burst of Joy was announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. They all display it prominently in their homes, except Stirm, who says he cannot bear to look at it.
See Donald Goldstein’s authoritative Vietnam War photojournalism book, The Vietnam War: The Stories and The Photographs.
In above Corbis photo, Mary Vecchio is seen running at the rightmost corner
John Paul Filo’s Pulizer Prize Winning Photo [altered photo, below left]
Sixty-seven rounds of ammunition were fired over 13 seconds. They killed four students, wounded nine others, resulting in one permanent paralysis. It was May 4th 1970. The scene was Kent State University in Ohio. Unpopularity of the Vietnam War was at its peak that spring, and with the invasion of Cambodia a week before, the tension was fever-pitch. The Ohio National Guard fired at students protesters.
Among the most potent images to emerge from the incident is this photo of 14-year-old runaway from Florida Mary Vecchio wailing over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of the slain students. John Filo was in the student photography lab when the shots rang out. He ran outside. “I didn’t react visually,” he recalled. “This girl came up and knelt over the body and let out a God-awful scream that made me click the camera.” Other photographers also captured the scene from other angles.
Filo’s photo reached AP via a small Ohio daily. The New York Times used it on the front cover, three columns wide. NBC’s Huntley Brinkley Report held the image on screen for seven seconds, in silence. It would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The bullets were supposed to be blanks, the shooters later testified that they used the real ones because they were in fear for their lives, which was doubtful based on their distance from the protesters. “Triggers were not pulled accidentally at Kent State”, Time magazine wrote.
The tragedy at Kent stateset off a nationwide student strike participated by no fewer than eight million students. Two thirds of colleges in New England closed. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan closed 121 colleges of the state education system. Hundreds of colleges and universities came to a standstill.
Vecchio was accused by Florida’s Governor Claude Kirk of being planted by the Communists. She later ran away from home again, sent to a juvenile home, and was arrested for loitering and marijuana possession. She later admitted that the picture “destroyed my life”. An editor had airbrushed the fence post above Ms. Vecchio’s head out of the photo in the 70s and the altered photo has been reprinted in many magazines since.
In 1963, after suppressing internal revolts, President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem was widely seen as a totalitarian. Though he depended largely on US aid, Diem refused to be counselled by them on his handling of the war, which was leading to genocide. In June, Buddhists revolted at Hué and Saigon, which Roman Catholic Diem used military force to disperse.
On the 21st, the monks showed their anger by a rally in Saigon. A 73-year old Thich Quang Duc sat crossed legged in the centre of a human circle. A monk poured gasoline on him. With a look of serenity, Quang Duc struck a match at 9:22 AM. As flames engulfed his body, he made not a single cry or a muscle. In his will he wrote to President asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people.
Journalist Malcolm Browne’s photographs of his self-immolation were seen on the front pages of newspapers worldwide — except on the New York Times, whose editors deemed the photos too graphic to be put on the front page. John F. Kennedy noted that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”. One won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year. Although Diem’s decline and downfall had already begun, the self-immolation is widely seen as the pivotal point. Diem was later assassinated. After Diem’s death, America tried to influence their puppet leaders entirely – they could not risk another Diem – thus plunging the entire region into disaster.