Writing about my time in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 has never been pleasurable or easy. It was a difficult time. Reading Catherine Leroy’s fine book, “Under Fire,” opened up a whole box of Pandoras, to quote one of my state’s former governors. Many of the pictures she uses in her book, many of them taken by old friends, bring back a different time, a different war, and the loss of too many good people.
Again our nation is at war, in one of our choosing. I don’t think most Americans have any idea of the terrible suffering that goes on hourly, on every side. The grim human reality of the war in Iraq is damn near invisible: Most of what we see are images of plumes of smoke on the horizon, chewed and twisted metal midstreet, and our beleaguered soldiers, peering out from 70 pounds of Pentagon gear. We have no idea of the daily lives and terrors of sons and daughters who are serving there, or of the Iraqis, for whom they are trying to construct a nation.
Vietnam was different, with its daily realities, some would later argue, all too apparent. As a photojournalist, I spent a lot of time in the field as part of a two-man team, working with Martin Stuart-Fox for United Press International. In the time we were there, we were in almost every province in South Vietnam. Moving throughout the country was not difficult. And here’s the good part—the troops really liked having us around. Young privates were happy to have a link to their hometown paper. (It was decades before I quit asking those I had just photographed for the name of their hometown.) The sergeants, after giving us a thorough looking over and deciding we at least looked like we knew what we were doing, were our best guides and tutors. Officers, up through captain and major, were more cautious, but once trust and good friendships were formed, they gave us a lot of help. Contact with anything above that rank was rare. We were the grunts of the press corps.
In March 1966 Martin and I went into the Ia Drang Valley with a reaction force to try to extricate a squad of trapped 1st Cavalry troops and fell into a deadly trap. We lost a good part of our company before the battle was finally over. At one point I heard a shout for help and looking behind me saw a pair of paratroopers, Ellis Higgs and Collin Johnson, Jr., both wounded. I crawled over and gave Johnson a chamois from my camera bag to try to use as a bandage. Then I lifted up my Leica and made a couple of quick frames, one of which became one of the more widely seen images from the war.
For 30 years I felt guilty about the two seconds or so it took to make that picture, time I could have spent trying to get Higgs and Johnson to a safer spot and some help. Nothing worse happened during that time, but I still felt bad about using it. Years later Ellis and I met up, together with a bunch of his outfit, A Company, 1/12th , 1st Cavalry. After telling each other how happy we were the other one was alive (I always believed that Ellis hadn’t made it), the first thing I did was apologize for taking that time. “Don’t be silly,” Ellis told me. “You were there to take pictures, and you did what you were supposed to do.”
Later he sent me a letter I will always cherish. Here’s part of what he wrote: “I don’t know what makes a guy go to a combat zone armed with only a camera, but I’m glad you were there, and I thank you for all you did for me and everyone else over there and back home. If it wasn’t for people like you, people over here would not know what was really going on.”
Our government has done all that it can to make the war in Iraq invisible and thus, in the eyes and lives of many, a war without sacrifice. The reality is the sacrifices are many, yet they are terribly uneven. When a nation goes to war, it expends what is most precious: its name and honor, the gold of its treasury, and the blood of its children. We deserve a much better accounting.
Steve Northup, a 1974 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance photojournalist who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.