Journalists on the front line
Fully exposed to the horrors of war, the brave journalists covering the Vietnam conflict were just as heroic as the soldiers.March 4, 2015
It’s a story that perfectly encapsulates the sardonic wit of the English photographer, Larry Burrows, an anecdote demonstrating exactly why he earned the affection of his peers and subjects alike. Burrows sent, along with his roll of film from Vietnam, a note apologising for what he believed were subpar descriptions of the photographs he'd taken. “Sorry if my captioning is not up to standard,” he wrote, “but with all that sniper fire around, I didn’t dare wave a white notebook.”
One of his most celebrated shots,Reaching Out (below), anatomises not just the horrors of Vietnam, but the atrocity of war itself. The photograph shows Gunnery Sergeant Jeremiah Purdie – shawled in blood-soaked bandages – approaching a wounded comrade with open arms. The scene embodies the great schism of conflict: inhumanity, enmity and despair; companionship, altruism and hope. The very best and worst features of the human condition. The shot was taken in October 1966 on a ravaged and splintered hill south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Vietnam. The photograph was for LIFE magazine.
Reaching Out has become an indelible image of the conflict in Vietnam, but the photograph wasn't published until February 1971 – several years after the assignment on which it was taken. Its publication came in the same month Burrows met his end, killed in a helicopter crash in Laos. He was 44 years old.
In the 19 February 1971 issue of LIFE, managing editor Ralph Graves penned a elegant tribute simply entitled: Larry Burrows, Photographer.
“I do not think it is demeaning to any other photographer in the world for me to say that Larry Burrows was the single bravest and most dedicated war photographer I know of,” Graves wrote. “He spent nine years covering the Vietnam War under conditions of incredible danger, not just at odd times but over and over again. We kept thinking up other, safer stories for him to do, but he would do them and go back to the war. As he said, the war was his story, and he would see it through. His dream was to stay until he could photograph a Vietnam at peace.”
While the bloodshed, senseless waste of human life and ultimate futility of it all are depressingly familiar, the Vietnam War was quite unlike any other. It was a conflict that divided opinion and galvanised sociocultural change in a very unique way.
Its story unfolded in a era long before 24-hour rolling news, internet access and social media. A time when storytelling – as opposed to speed and medium – was king. Because of the tireless work of a select group of intrepid journalists, we have a vivid and compelling picture of this gruesome chapter of contemporary history.“I looked over,” Lieutenant General Hal Moore recalls, “and saw Joe Galloway sitting with his back against a small tree, camera in his lap, rifle across his knees. I knew why I was there. I'm a professional military man and it's my job. But what the hell was he doing there? Turned out he was doing his job, too.”
Moore beautifully articulates the feelings of incredulity most soldiers felt as they stood side by side, on the frontline, with war correspondents. But Galloway, on more than one occasion, went above and beyond the remit of even the bravest – or craziest – battlefield reporter.
He was just 24, in 1964, when he headed off to Asia to cover a war he had an incling was brewing in in a little-known country named South Vietnam. Just four months later, the first American Marines landed on the beaches of Danang. Galloway was right behind them.
“Joe Galloway is the finest combat correspondent of our generation – a soldier's reporter and a soldier's friend,” said Norman Schwarzkopf, himself a solider decorated with three Silver Star Medals, two Purple Hearts and the Legion of Merit for his time in Vietnam alone.
Galloway proved this to be true time and time again during his first 16-month tour as a war correspondent, working for United Press International. He returned to Vietnam on three other tours – in 1971, 1973 and 1975, when he covered the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam.
When a soldier was badly wounded under heavy fire during the battle at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley on 15 November 1965, Galloway was on hand to rescue him. For his bravery, in 1998, the U.S. army belatedly awarded him a bronze Star with V – the only such medal of valour awarded to a civilian by the army during the Vietnam War. For those journalists committed to reporting the truth from Vietnam, avoiding such grisly first-hand experiences was impossible. “I'm not a great believer in the power of the moving image,” Eddie Adams once said. “A still image has greater lasting power. A still photographer has to show the whole f****** movie in one picture. On the screen, it's over and back in the can in seconds. A still picture is going to be there forever.” His 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph is the absolute realisation of these sentiments.
Adams cut his teeth as a combat photographer in Korea while enlisted in the Marines. He would go on to have a 45-year career, working for the Associated Press, Time and Parade, covering 13 wars and collecting over 500 photojournalism awards.
His most famous image, below, shows the then national police chief of South Vietnam, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street. Adams captured the exact moment the police chief fired the bullet, at arm's length, at the prisoner’s head. It's as memorising as it is harrowing.
It was a shot heard around the world, too, the published image intensifying the already growing anti-war mood in the U.S. and beyond. The photo was used to support the view that the South Vietnamese and American military's attempts to defeat the indigenous insurgency, and the North Vietnamese army that patronised it, was proving more insidious than liberating. Adams railed against his work being used in this way.
The photo was taken during the Tet offensive, in which the Vietcong began attacks within South Vietnam's capital, Saigon. It transpired the prisoner had killed at least eight people – including a friend of Loan's, a South Vietnamese army colonel, the colonel's wife and six children. This, the general said, was the reason he carried out the execution. However convoluted its interpretation became, the image ultimately helped to change the public perception of the war. It haunted Loan until his death.The 2010 book This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive paints Loan as a decent man in depraved circumstances. A belief Adams also held: “How do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself?” he wrote.
“In his muscular black arms,” John Sack wrote in October 1966, “the first specialist carried out a seven-year-old, long black hair and little earrings, staring eyes – eyes, her eyes are what froze themselves onto M's memory, it seemed there was no white to those eyes, nothing but black ellipses like black goldfish. The child's nose was bleeding – there was a hole in the back of her skull.”
It's from this horrific incident Sack's Esquire cover story, Oh My God! We Hit a Little Girl, takes it name. The piece, at 33,000 words, is the longest article ever to appear in the magazine. Arnold Gingrich, Esquire's founding editor, would compare it only to the work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
The article was the basis for Sack's great Vietnam book M, in which he follows M company, a group of American soldiers from Fort Dix, New Jersey, as they train for war – a war they find themselves embroiled in just a couple of months later.
A Time magazine article on the War, published in 1965, recounted soldiers jumping from helicopters as “lean, laconic, and looking for a fight.” This troubled Sack. Past experiences taught him soldiers heading into battle were far from eager to fight. “Scared sh**less was more like it,” Sack said to writer Eric Schroeder. “But all the reportage about Vietnam was written in that same gung-ho World War II style, and I knew that's not the way the army was. No one was writing about the way it really was.” His narrative approach is captivating but all-too real, employing an understated but deft use of description. In his distinguished career, he covered conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, earning a reputation as a pioneer of new journalism – though, unlike many of its proponents, the correspondent was praised for sticking to the facts and, for good or ill, to his principles.
Sack conducted interviews with Lieutenant William Calley, the only man convicted for the massacre at My Lai – where, in March 1968, as many as 500 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam were killed by U.S. soldiers. The writer risked prison by refusing to hand over his recordings to Calley's prosecutors on the grounds that, in America, journalists are not agents of the government. He was indicted on federal charges because of his refusal to give evidence, but prosecutors dropped the case.
His most famous Esquire piece and subsequent book – like all of his work – came with an admirable combination of tenderness and tenacity, instinct and objectivity, the literary journalism style that would see him through a 55-year career in which he covered every American war during that time. A compulsion to report from the most dangerous places on earth, it seems, like many of his peers, was in Sack's blood.
“Oh man, you got to be kidding me,” one solider asked Michael Herr. “You guys asked to come here?” “Sure,” came the reply. “How long do you have to stay?” the soldier said. “As long as we want,” was the response, to which the solider replied: “Wish I could stay long as I want.”
That was Herr's way: to duck the government junkets and daily press conferences in favour of front-line reporting. He got his hands dirty and tuned his ear to the language of war. He walked “the road less travelled." So much so that the New York Times Book Review described his book Dispatches as, “the greatest book written not only on the Vietnam War, but also on any war.” Like Sack – and alongside Messrs. Capote, Mailer, and Wolfe – Herr was a progenitor of literary journalism. And like Sack he wrote with brutal honesty – yet his writing was somehow imbued with deep compassion: the very essence of war.
His work was originally published in Esquire, where he was a correspondent between 1967–1969. A decade later, with most Vietnam veterans reticent and withdrawn, the war an internal battle they fought alone, Dispatches gave America a deeper understanding of the conflict. Its visceral but factual nature allowed critics to appreciate the book as not just an accurate representation of the zeitgeist at the time of its writing, but a work transcending its era.
“A certain kind of reporting came of age – that is, achieving literature,” critic John Leonard said of Dispatches. “It is the reporting of the 1960s at last addressing itself to great human issues, subjective, painfully honest, scaled of abstractions down to the visceral, the violence and sexuality understood and transcended.”
Herr's name will forever be associated with Vietnam, not just because of his consummate reportage, but for co-writing the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket with Stanley Kubrick and Gustav Hasford, and his work alongside John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola on the script for Apocalypse Now. In print and on screen, few men can claim a body of work that represents such a damning indictment of war. In 2008, after a tireless campaign by friends, family and colleagues, Larry Burrows' partial remains – along with those of the three photographers also killed in that helicopter crash in 1971, Kent Potter, Keisaburo Shimamoto and Henri Huet – were found and returned to the U.S., where they now rest at Newseum in Washington, D.C. The museum’s memorial gallery houses a glass wall bearing the names of nearly 2,000 journalists who, since 1837, died while doing their jobs.
“Joe Galloway has more time in combat, under fire, than anyone wearing a uniform today,” General Barry McCaffrey said of the writer who retired in 2010. “I will still write an occasional op-ed piece,” Galloway wrote in his farewell column, “when the bastards in Washington blast across the line into moron territory.”
Eddie Adams died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig's disease – in 2004, after a four-decade career in which he rose to be one of the most respected and decorated news photographers of all time. John Sack, the journalist who shared M company's pain when the “seven-year-old shuddered and died,” passed away in 2004, aged 74, writing until the last. Michael Herr is retired and living with his wife Valerie Herr in Delhi, NY.
These men represent a unique breed of journalists – half-valorous, half-crazy, wholly committed to the truth. Men willing to lay down their lives to cut through spin and propaganda. Men whose canonic works transcend war reportage to become literary milestones – emblematic of honest, decent storytelling, no matter what the personal cost.