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

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