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

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Compass and a Camera by Steven Burchik

Steven Burchik did a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War mainly in the rice paddies northeast of Saigon as a forward observer with the Army’s First Infantry Division. He served as a sergeant in D Company, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment. His memoir, Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 286 pp., $15, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is about that year. Burchik used the daily letters he wrote to his fiancee as the basis for this book and included many photographs he took.

Because of the letters and the photographs, Burchik’s book has an enormous amount of detail, which I see as a good thing. He explains exactly how search and destroy missions operated and how night ambushes were set up. The ritual of Saigon Tea is explained in a way that makes it unnecessary to read another description of how that works in a bar.

Several times his unit is visited by Red Cross workers and their role is gone into in some great detail. Once again, I found myself wondering who thought it was a good idea to send hundreds of young women into harm’s way to play games with soldiers. Burchik says they all were college graduates.

Burchik’s descriptions of filling sandbags and sitting on a bridge at night on guard duty convey tedium effectively without being boring to read. He lists the many movies he sees (including In the Heat of the Night), and the television shows he watches such as Laugh In and Combat. The men enjoyed laughing at the stupid stuff the squads did in Combat, such as bunching up when on patrol.

He spends time at places that echo and pay homage to movie westerns such as Fort Apache and Fort Pawnee. Late in the book we even encounter John Wayne in his classic film, Hell Fighter. Burchik praises Corky Trinidad, the cartoonist for Pacific Stars and Stripes who created “Nguyen Charlie” for the enjoyment of the troops. The author’s eye for pop culture makes this book more interesting than most.

Burchik tells is about hurrying up and waiting, and about how war is an imperfect enterprise. He goes out on a limb and says that he didn’t believe that God was on our side. Leeches and red ants and ARVN troops appear and are commented on then vanish. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” is heard.

Steven Burchik

No bands greeted Borchik when he returned to the United States. He was not spat upon or called a baby killer. He survived the boredom and drudgery of the Army and was eager to get on with his life, which he did. Steven Burchik became a successful marketing executive and continues to pursue his lifelong interest in photography. His many fine photos enrich this memoir.

If you are in the market for an infantry memoir, I highly recommend this one.

The author’s website is www.stevenburchik.com

—David Willson