REQUIEM: BY THE PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO DIED IN VIETNAM AND INDOCHINA
336 pp., $65
They were brave. And ambitious. They were often young. And idealistic. They were the combat photographers who hurled themselves into harm's way to cover the Vietnam War. Their courage and grit and skill brought vivid images of that terrible 30-year struggle into America's homes and hearts.
Parachuting into battle, living and dying with the troops, the toll on photographers was high. On the allied side, 135 were killed, many famous, including Larry Burrows, Dickey Chapelle, and Bernard Fall. The Communists lost 72.
This marvelous book, filled with their stirring photos, is a fitting and beautiful tribute. "Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina" spans the struggle from 1945 when a Vietnamese guerrilla leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared independence from the French, to 1975 when Ho and the Communists triumphed.
David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, has a confession about his fellow combat photographers there.
Unlike reporters, photographers could not arrive "a little late," get a few interviews, and put together a splendid "you-are-there story" about the action, "even though, in truth, we had missed it all," Halberstam says. Photographers could report only what their eyes and their lenses could see. That meant putting themselves right into the cannon's mouth.
Yet this book isn't, as you might expect, all about war and suffering. It begins in the 1940s and 1950s when Vietnam was a gentler place, a land of rubber plantations and lush valleys.
The early black-and-white photos of Everette Dixie Reese of the US and Pierre Jahan of France portray the misty hills of the Black River valley and the lush rice fields of the Mekong Delta. There is a serenity, a calm before the war turned mechanized and ugly. Even a 1954 shot out of Dien Bien Phu, where the French soon fought their last battle, seems quaint - shirtless French mechanics assembling a tank flown in piece by piece in old-fashioned DC-3s.
Yet the pictures soon grow dark. Frenchman Jean Peraud's powerful images, reminiscent of World War I, show barbed wire, wounded men, fortified bunkers. The French are on their way out.
By the 1960s, the uniforms, the weapons change from French to American. The body count rises. Now there are helicopter gunships, napalm, B-52s, defoliated jungles. The troops are well-fed, well-equipped, and tough. Photos are in color. But the effect is the same: growing losses, stalemate. And civilians caught in the cross-fire.
Photos from the other side - the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese - provide and unexpected bonus. We see VC guerrillas smuggling in a rocket launcher, camouflaged trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail, an attack by bare-backed guerrillas.
There is a raw beauty in these photos. Even so, Nguyen Khuyen, a former war correspondent of the Vietnam News Agency in Hanoi, observes that any artistic value of the photos is "dwarfed by their content." These are real people engaged in a desperate struggle. We are staring at the faces of history.
These extraordinary pictures are accompanied by excellent commentaries from reporters (including Halberstam) who also served in Vietnam. They add a wonderful dimension.
* Managing Editor John Dillin covered the war in Vietnam for the Monitor in 1966 and 1967.