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