Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

U.S. Elite Forces by Marti Demiquels

U.S. Elite Forces: Uniforms, Equipment & Personal Items, Vietnam, 1965-1975 (Andrea Press/Casemate, 250 pp., $61), is a collection of more than a thousand photos of virtually every uniform, piece of equipment, and weapon used by U.S. Army advisors, LRRPs, Special Forces, and Marine, Navy and Air Force elite units in the Vietnam War.

Author Marti Demiquels somehow managed to gather hundreds of uniforms, military equipment, and weapons and photographed them for the book. He organizes the book into sections on units and uniforms (including head gear and footwear), weapons (broken down into firearms and grenades and ammunition), edged weapons (knives and machetes), and demolition charges. The equipment is presented in categories such as radios, survival (vests, markers, signal kits, compasses), and medical gear.

Demiquels also includes a long section that contains photo spreads of what he calls the “personal memorabilia” of elite unit veterans. The page for former 1st Sgt. Rick Grabianowski, who served with a MACV-SOG recon company in Vietnam in 1970, for example, includes two snapshots of Grabianowski in Vietnam, a photo of a silk flag with the MACV-SOG logo, and a 101st Airborne Division death card.

This coffee-table book is an illustrated paean to American special forces in the Vietnam War—and a useful reference book for anyone interested in looking at the things they carried and wore in the war.

—Marc Leepson

Snakes, Rain, and the Tet Offensive by William Ingalls


“Mortars, Heavy Equipment, and Books” could easily be added to the subtitle of Snakes, Rain and the Tet Offensive: War Stories With Photos by William Ingalls (War of Words,  271 pp., $90), a remarkable recollection of the author’s 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty.

Ingalls’ first day with the 362nd Combat Engineers was also the first time he had done “more than turn the key in a road grader,” he writes. “Each day was a learning process.” The unit spent five months in the shadow of Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain), expanding Tay Ninh Base: building roads, helipads, bunkers, and hootches. The Viet Cong were entrenched on the mountain so mortar and rocket attacks were a constant threat.

Ingalls freely expressed his antiwar opinions, but he also was dedicated to his work and took pride in the well-built culverts and base construction projects he worked on. When he was selected as his company’s Soldier of the Month, the officers and NCOs asked for his opinions on the war. “Just following orders didn’t work for the Germans and Japanese,” Ingalls replied, “so why should it work for me?” The Soldier of the Month award was withdrawn.

Ingalls made good use of his downtime, shooting some three hundred slides of daily life on the base, including photos of the showers, mess halls, hootches, and bunkers and the occasional makeshift brothel or store. He read Hemingway, Kafka, T S. Eliot, e e cummings, Rod McKuen, and others in his grader cab during work breaks.

During Ingalls’ sixth month in country the company was relocated to what he calls “The Cambodian Adventure,” building a Special Forces base camp on the border “directly in front of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Disobeying a sergeant’s order to go to the aid of some men wounded in an ambush saved Ingalls’ life. He refused, citing an Army regulation never to abandon your equipment.A group of engineers “drove down to the ambush site, and were all promptly killed,” Ingalls writes. “Thirteen guys gone, just like that.”

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William Ingalls

He credits his first wife Faith for sending his “Communist East German EXA-1″ camera to him in Vietnam, enabling him to produce a photographic record that Ingalls likens to Mathew Brady’s work in the American Civil War.His wife saved all the slides in a shoe box.

The quality of the images ranges from hastily shot photos to carefully captured ones, such as nighttime explosions and tracer trails.

Bill Ingalls’ MOS was 62E-20 (Road Grader Operator). With this work, he has added Photojournalist to his resume.

The author’s website is www.warofwords.co

—Curt Nelson

 

 

Contrasts of War edited by Larry Johns

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Contrasts of War: Vietnam War Images from U.S. Army Medic Bob “Doc” Shirley (Red1Publishing, 100 pp., $29, paper) is a conjurer’s trick, in the best sense. By juxtaposing fragments of poems by veteran Michael Monfrooe and refugee Chay Douangphouxay with the simple, elegiac photographs of Bob Shirley, the book attempts to transport the reader to war-torn Vietnam—its beauty, its starkness, its horror, its humidity.

It’s a story of men and children. Women, too, are portrayed, but not as often as helicopters. Nor were they as important. There are mothers and old women, and there’s a marvelous image of a barely dressed performer at a remote base gyrating on a makeshift stage as the men stand in rapt attention. But the focus immediately returns to the young American soldiers and the even younger local urchins attracted to them.

As a medic, Shirley had greater access than most. His photographs are straightforward and unadorned. They show soldiers at rest and during combat. His images of helicopters in defoliated forests are stark. His men are tense, even at rest. His children are inscrutable, serious far beyond their years—even when smiling.

In one photo five men stand awkwardly on the edge of a landing zone surrounded by a nearly leafless forest. The helicopter overhead, judging by the scant attention being paid to it, is rising away from the scene. On the facing page reads:

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere
A wasteland of lost innocence,
Covered in a cloud of smoke,
Screaming of deadly silence,
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
–Chay

In another photo, also in pale color, two men—seated, shirtless, and still—face the camera. One, smoking a cigarette, appears several times in the book. The facing page reads:

Common Bond

Just two American boys conceived through the draft,
Brothers borne in the womb of war.
–Chay

Shirley’s are not great photographs, but they are clean and honest. Nor are the poetic fragments of Douangphouxay and Monfrooe great poetry. But magic sparks from the juxtaposition and the conversation that’s generated between words and images.

Larry Johns is the impresario who pulled it all together. In trying to make sense of his older brother Jeffrey’s death in Vietnam in 1969, he visited the country several times and even built a memorial there to his brother.

Working with these three artists, Johns’ skillfully woven collection of poems and photographs stimulate the subconscious into a greater understanding of the past.

–Michael Keating

Vietnam: Another Look by Skip Nelson

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Skip Nelson’s Vietnam: Another Look (White Lotus, 100 pp., $69.99, hardcover; $54.99, paper; $9.99, e book) is a classic travel photo book, except that it welcomes Vietnam veterans back to a country they never knew. Peacetime Vietnam, as viewed through Nelson’s lens, is lovely and gracious—not at all the hell so many veterans remember.

“Friendly faces and gentle natures are everywhere,” Nelson writes. There are no sad people in these pages, no one crushed by poverty or neglect, no mourners, no spurned lovers. The colors are lush and saturated—vibrant reds, rich blues, and warm yellows—as befits a semitropical culture, although one that was seldom displayed to Americans during the war.

In fact, as Nelson clearly shows, there was a lot that America’s GIs didn’t have time to admire: gilded temples, underground river grottoes, delightfully fresh food, the Cham ruins in Quy Nhon. Both as treat and travel invitation, he has lovingly documented the people and places of Vietnam.

Nelson also includes a good number of photos from Hanoi, which will be a pleasant surprise for most Americans.

Nelson’s affection for Vietnam and its people is apparent. That’s the book’s greatest strength: It’s pushed him to look longer and harder at this former enemy. But it’s also the book’s one shortcoming: Looking through a lover’s eyes, he’s all but blind to its faults. Vietnam is a vibrant, interesting country, but it is certainly no idyll.

Nonetheless, Skip Nelson documents a society eager to plunge into the 21st century while remaining firmly rooted in a strong, traditional culture. It’s striking, too, that the French presence is still here in graceful, European residences, opera houses, and French-influenced cuisine. The French were a colonial power, of course, and they were there much longer than the Americans were. What remains of the American presence? Hardly a trace.

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Nelson has assembled a beautiful collection of photographs in Vietnam: Another Look. Veterans owe it to themselves to give it a careful look—if only to see perhaps for the first time the country that profoundly altered their own lives.

The author’s website is www.vietnamanotherlook.com

—Michael Keating

 

Vietnam War U.S. Helicopter Names, Vol. 2 by John Brennan

Vietnam veteran and historian John Brennan, with the help of a query on The VVA Veteran‘s Arts of War on the web page—and with his own tenacious original research—put together two volumes of books featuring names and images on helicopters in the Vietnam War. Vietnam War U.S. Army Helicopter Names, Volume 2 (Memoir Books, 80 pp., $19.95, paper) is now out in a new paperback edition.

The custom of personalizing military aircraft started as soon as air warfare began during World War I. Among those early images was the toothy shark face, something still used a hundred years later.

My hope is that this project continues to flourish, possibly discovering more art on the noses, such as this poignant question: “My God, How’d We Get In This Mess?”

To read our review of the first edition of this book, go to  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/vietnam-war-helicopter-art-volume-ii-by-john-brennan/

—Curt Nelson

The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl

Bruce Weigl served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division from 1967-68, and has written many books of poetry and prose dealing with the war. All are well worth reading. I have all but one or two on my poetry shelves, so this review of The Abundance of Nothing (Triquarterly, 88 pp., $16.95, paper) is coming from a huge fan of Weigl’s work.

I also have heard Bruce Weigl read a time or two, so when I read his poems, I hear his voice in my head.

Somehow I missed this book of poetry by Weigl when it came out in 2012. These poems deal with all of his usual subjects: the Vietnam War, the return from the war and the difficulties of that process, and of course, all the aspects of being a human on this planet.

“Thank You for Thinking of You” has the lines: “Thank you Sergeant X for leaving me/behind on the abandoned LZ,/where all night small arms fire/crackled in the trees along the river,/night of my downfall that won’t go away.”

Weigl tops that powerful memory in the very next line with: “Thank you teacher, coach,/who fondled my dick and balls,/telling me I had to be checked.”  Weigl always has the ability to shock the reader with an image.

Bruce Weigl

The poem that hit me the hardest in this book was “Response to ‘Why Don’t You Write About Something Happy?’”  I’ve been asked that question, too, and the next time I get it, I’ll refer the person who asked to this poem, which, by itself, is worth the price of admission to this fine book. 

I hope I’ve motivated readers to buy and read Bruce Weigl’s thirteenth poetry book. The blurb on the back by Yusef Komunyakaa also highly recommends the book, so you don’t have to take my word for it. 

If anyone would know a fine book of poetry, it is Yusef Komunyakaa.  While you are at it, buy his books, too. 

—David Willson