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Sunday, April 7, 2002

SHOOTING THE TRUTH

Images that shocked a nation


VIETNAM INC., by Philip Jones Griffiths. London: Phaidon, 2001. 223 pp. $28 (cloth)

This is a superb collection of photos that depicts the ironies and inanities that resonated throughout the United States' misguided war in Vietnam. Here are haunting images of casual and mindless brutality, thought-provoking juxtapositions and the unforgettable faces of those caught up in the war as they try to lead their lives amid wanton destruction. This is a book about betrayal -- the betrayal of American ideals by U.S. leaders, betrayal of soldiers, betrayal of allies and betrayal of a people who suffered more than can be imagined.

These mesmerizing images are informed by Griffith's conviction that, "the overwhelming impression of Americans in Vietnam is one of stupidity rather than evil." The barriers of language and culture combined with arrogance prevented the "best and the brightest" from understanding what they had stumbled into. By provocatively combining photos and text to deliver perceptive insights on Vietnamese society, he sets a standard for war reportage that others still only aspire to.

A haunting and incisive critique of the U.S. war, "Vietnam, Inc." is the best of its genre and a remarkable achievement that has stood the test of time. Anyone interested in understanding the nightmare that branded a generation of Americans and Vietnamese will learn a great deal from this reissue of one of the classic antiwar documentaries to emerge from the miasma of devastation. These photos are an eloquent and evocative testimony to the destruction the U.S. wrought for specious reasons on people in a faraway land.

The photo-reportage captures the faces of people stunned by what they were confronting in their everyday lives, stunned, "by the dehumanizing power of the modern war machine." Villagers gaze into bomb craters where houses once stood, stare vacantly and stumble through what was once familiar landscape. One does not easily forget the eyes filled with fear and the pain of loss. There are photos of Vietnamese tending the horribly maimed in cramped and basic hospital facilities juxtaposed with GIs enjoying treatment in far more salubrious conditions. Images of parents carrying or standing over the shattered and bloody bodies of their children linger. One closes the book realizing that the Vietnamese had been reduced to killers, pimps, prostitutes, beggars and supplicants in the armed camp their nation became under Pax Americana.

Griffiths' commentary is as subversive and ironic as his photos. He takes no prisoners in challenging how the government wanted the war to be seen. He writes, "The Tet offensive revealed the power of the VC and the extent of its popular support, while discrediting the claim of America to guarantee protection to its supporters. The U.S. command comforted itself with what has by now become the standard method, that of attributing nonexistent goals to the enemy and then taking credit for denying it these goals: In this case, it was claimed that the VC has failed in trying to start a general uprising that would take over all South Vietnam and push half a million American troops into the sea."

U.S. leaders fooled themselves into thinking they could win the war if only they could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. This meant convincing villagers of the innate good will and generosity of Americans, villagers whose homes and land were being bombed, who saw daughters sucked into brothels, sons killed and ancestors' graves desecrated. Photos of U.S. troops leading away a group of young men tethered at the neck, setting fire to houses and trying to enjoy the comforts of home while surrounded by deprivation rendered "Hearts and Minds" into a slogan for antiwar demonstrators who saw this as the epitome of delusion.

Griffiths denounces the ideological myths that the government used to rationalize a colossal and costly blunder; Vietnam did not need to be saved from communism as much as it needed saving from the high-tech U.S. killing machine. Noam Chomsky, in a introduction to this new edition, points out that it originally appeared in 1971 at the same time as "The Pentagon Papers," galvanizing the antiwar movement in the U.S. with its immediacy and searing photos.

This is a devastating visual record of a dark chapter in U.S. history that deserves a wide audience, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era when targets for military intervention are now casually suggested in the Op-Ed pages and controlled government "leaks." Among other things, this book makes a compelling case for careful scrutiny of government policies and restraint in the use of military power by forcing the horrible consequences of war into our consciousness. Viewed from the context of Japan, it also raises the familiar issues of reparations, contrition, official apologies and textbooks. As Mark Twain once quipped, history doesn't repeat itself, it only rhymes.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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