From a Photograph

Do photographs and film have the power 
to change our perceptions about war?
My Tho, Vietnam. A Viet Cong base camp being destroyed. In the foreground is 
Private First Class Raymond Rumpa, St Paul, Minnesota, C Company, 3rd Battalion, 
47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, with 45 pound 90mm recoiless rifle. (April 5, 1968)
(Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

A guest blog post by Tristan Holaday, March 2012
Humanity is good at drawing lines. We draw map lines, political lines, social lines, cultural lines, and moral lines in an attempt to organize a disorganized world. And we often get our identity, hope, and assurance from believing in those borders we’ve created. There are many things in life, however, which are not clear and have no true black and white simplicity. War, especially the Vietnam War, is one of those messy things. To many war presents itself as a tidy and clear endeavor, its terror and suffering romanticized by belief in moral and just motivations. Our focus is shifted from the fear, stress, and waste of life inherent to violent conflict and is set upon the idea that war is a platform not only for settling disputes between clearly defined enemies, but is a great play in which noble ideas such as triumphing over evil, displaying courage, and sacrificing for worthy causes are supremely performed. Personal contact with war, though, usually breaks those idyllic notions, or at least tests them. We witness this truism in two memoirs, A Rumor of War and Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam, by Philip Caputo and Lynda Van Devanter.
What is particularly interesting about these accounts of Vietnam is their relation of how much importance the art of photography and film play in shaping a person’s perceptions, breaking down or exposing the walls we put up to make war a less horrific encounter. The major points of photography’s influence Caputo and Van Devanter’s accounts bring up, directly and indirectly, are the pre-war notions of combat as glorious, the humanity of man, and the wickedness of man. These obvious and inferred evidences of the power of photography seen in these memoirs are even strong enough to make one question how media has shaped and could shape our views of war in the present day.
Marine in dress blues.
Photo Howard R. Hollem
between 1941-1945
            There have always been young men throughout history eager for a taste of noble conflict. They wish to enter into a realm in which life and death are piercingly clear so as to test themselves, to know if they are brave and have meaning. As we have progressed, the romantic and na├»ve views of war people possess have been bolstered and confirmed by the motion pictures of Hollywood. War flicks and westerns of various sorts featuring tough, gritty, and manly characters, like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, captured the hearts of America’s young people, specifically men. Van Devanter gives witness to this when on the flight to Vietnam she notes that the movie they watched, “brought me close to tears, but the other soldiers on the flight would have probably preferred a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood flick.”  These soldiers on their way to Vietnam were familiar with the current action movies of un-realistic acts of dying and false bravado, and it helped to fuel their desire to take life.
Caputo, while discussing why he joined the Marines, says he partly did so because he would be in the thick of it all, “Not watching it on a movie or TV screen, not reading about it in a book, but there, living out a fantasy. Already [he] saw [him]self charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on [his] chest.”  Looking back on his experiences in Vietnam, Caputo realizes that he and his generation had been filled with illusions and had had to “suffer the loss” of those illusions, thus we know that eventually war erased those first perceptions he held. Van Devanter does not talk directly about media having an effect on her pre-war ideas of Vietnam, but she says upon first encountering enemy fire that “In a single moment, every idealistic thought I had ever had was gone.”  This implies that she must have had some romantic idea of war, and being a product of her culture it is plausible that media had an influence on her perceptions. In a meeting with several women after the war, one woman asked her ‘“Was it anything like M*A*S*H?,”’ to which Van Devanter replied, ‘“No, it was real.”’ It is apparent then that motion photography had a profound impact on the initial ideas of war that many Americans, at least those who had not yet seen combat, believed.
Napalm bombs explode on Viet Cong structures south 
of Saigon in the Republic of Vietnam. (1965)
(Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

The art of photography is not only used for constructing false lines in the sand on what war is, but can be effectively used to erase those lines by exposing the truth about the humanity of all people. Naturally, during a war it is easy to believe that those you are fighting are not humans but some sort of creature that looks like man, yet whose life is insignificant. This coping mechanism is in response to the reality that taking a human being’s life is devastating to one’s own emotional and mental state. Such deep seated perception can be deconstructed, however, by a photograph. In Caputo’s memoir, there is a particular combative experience that highlights this power of the picture. After finding a dead Viet Cong soldier, Caputo remarks, “There was nothing on him, no photographs, no letters or identification. That would disappoint the boys at intelligence, but it was fine with me. I wanted this boy to remain anonymous; I wanted to think of him, not as a dead human being, with a name, age, and family, but as a dead enemy.”  Shortly after this moment Caputo and his men come upon an enemy hut that has several photographs of the Viet Cong with their families. Caputo experiences emotional confusion in light of the fact that “what [they] had found gave to the enemy the humanity [he] wished to deny him.”  The emotional barricade Caputo had created out of a false view of those he fought falters with a glance into the truth of who the Viet Cong were, captured in a photograph.
Similarly, the emotional barriers Van Devanter constructs to protect herself from the insanity of seeing young men mutilated are demolished by the picture of a horribly wounded G.I. with his prom date in May of 1968. The young man, whose face has been blown off, is named Gene, and Van Devanter imagines his life with Katie, the girl in the photo, before the war. Up until this point, Van Devanter had, like many, thought of the Operating Room as “. . . an assembly line, not a medical center.” To cope with the pain, she did not recognize the humanity of the boys she tried to save. This picture of Gene and Katie, though, allows her that ability no longer. It causes her to realize nothing would be the same, because “the Lynda [she] had known before the war was gone forever.”  The photograph reminds both veterans of the humanness of every participant involved in the war, and it ultimately further reveals the devastating nature of violent conflict.
Near Qui Nhon. Troops of "A" Company
check a house while on patrol. (Oct., 6, 1966)

(Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)
                   Though the photograph reveals man’s humanity, it also reveals the wickedness inherent in his heart. Combining ideas presented by both memoirs, it is inferable that pictures and film of real combat and its casualties reveal not only what man is capable of but the American public’s denial of such atrocity through varying means. Caputo makes an interesting comment early in his memoir that Americans condemned the veterans of Vietnam because ultimately “the American soldier was a reflection of themselves.”  Van Devanter relates to readers what this judgment looked like when civilians harassed and verbally abused her upon her return from Vietnam. Vietnam was one of the most widely covered wars through means of film and photography, constantly “[disclosing] . . . U.S. atrocities” on the nightly news. It seems safe to assume then that a lot of those false ideas at home of war being noble and just were changed by the media. Because, as Caputo remarks, the soldier’s actions reflected the general public it could be that America lashed out at its veterans in an act of denial of the public’s own ability to commit such evil. Not everyone, however, assaulted veterans in attempts to deny the brutality of war and their sin in believing in the destruction of other human beings. No, many chose simply not to recognize the truth. Van Devanter’s family demonstrates this when she tries to show them pictures of what happened in the OR. As Van Devanter flips through her slides, her mother mentions it would be “wise to put them away.”  The media coverage of Vietnam and Van Devanter’s personal experience of having family members try to ignore the actual nature of war, and thus what she had endured, reveal the power motion and still photography possess in exposing our misconceptions.
            What does this mean then for us today? Knowing that a picture carries more weight than even a thousand words and that film influences what we think is truth, how should our nation proceed? It seems that our country as a whole has a better grasp on what war is, and that we should not outright condemn those who participate in it and fall victim to its moral and emotional toll. Yet it also looks as if we are still ignorant, partly because the government censors what combat footage is aired on mainstream media. To understand what the current combat in Afghanistan, and until recently Iraq, has been like one has to dig a little to find the photos and documentaries presenting both sides. With another large war, this one aimed at Iran, looming on the horizon it is imperative that the truth of what we are getting into is known by all. Perhaps if more Americans were exposed to the ugliness of war through footage and still photographs we could avoid another conflict, or at least another conflict that is without true justification. Maybe the photograph is part of the key to stopping the cycle Caputo talks about, the cycle in which, “. . . every generation is doomed to fight its war…to learn the same old lessons on its own.”  Perhaps, though, in the end Caputo will be right, regardless of how much imagery of war is shown. There will always be those who want to deny the truth, too blind to see it, even if it stares them down. Whether what is portrayed is denied or accepted, though, there can be no question that the photograph has the power to challenge our perceptions about war, about life, and about ourselves. 
Dak To, South Vietnam. An infantry patrol moves up to assault the last 
Viet Cong position after an attempted overrun of the artillery 
position by the Viet Cong during Operation Hawthorne. (June 7, 1966)
(Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996. Print.
Van Devanter, Lynda. Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2001. Print.

About the Author
Tristan Holaday was born and raised on the high plains of West Texas and has been writing since age 5. While his stories may have shifted in style and content over the years, his desire to write has never waned.  A 2012 graduate with a degree in Environment and Humanities from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, Tristan's interests vary widely from religion and military history to music and environmental awareness (and funny bow ties).