THE REAL HEROES?
"We could miss the fighting and still do our jobs,” David Halberstam writes, referring to himself and his fellow print reporters who covered the Vietnam War. “(The photographers) could not. There was only one way for them to achieve intimacy: by being eyewitnesses.”
His words provide an introduction to the gut-wrenching collection of photographs, Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina (1997), edited by Horst Faast and Tim Page. It’s a book whose grief carries special force today.
Never has a war been so thoroughly recorded as the second Gulf War. The embedding of journalists in the armed forces has provided an immediacy to the reporting that is both instructional to those of us at a distance from war and taken for granted by those of us raised on movies and video games.
Day after day, the photos have been everything from hopeful to horrifying. Still, there has been controversy.
When two well-known American journalists—David Bloom of NBC and Michael Kelley of the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post—were killed, the press was criticized for overplaying their deaths at the expense of American soldiers, the “real heroes.”
When an American tank on a Baghdad street fired on the Palestine Hotel, where journalists were staying, killing several, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks suggested that they never should have been there in the first place. War, in other words, is no place for journalists—this from the same outfit that brought 600 along for the ride.
And some readers of this and other newspapers have objected to images depicting the terror and carnage of war. To acknowledge the flip side of liberation, to pause at the inherent contradiction of “just war,” is, for some, to engage in a leftist conspiracy. But the power of the photographs in Requiem argues wordlessly for the heroism of men and women like Dickey Chapelle, Henri Huet and Larry Burrows.
Chapelle, born Georgette Louise Meyer, was perhaps the most exceptional among them. A war correspondent to the bones, she was on the bloody front lines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II. In her late 40s, she was in Vietnam, still trudging through the mud with her beloved Marines.
“She’d spread her poncho in the mud like the rest of them and eat out of the tin cans like she hated it, the way we do, not because it was something cute,” a Marine officer remembered. “In fatigues and helmet, you couldn’t tell her from one of the troops and she could keep up front with the best of them.”
What is remarkable is not that Dickey Chapelle was a woman; rather, it is that she was able to capture photographs like the one of a South Vietnamese soldier about to execute a prisoner in cold blood. This is war.
In Requiem, there is another photo: Chapelle lying face down on the grass, bleeding from her head, a Marine Corps chaplain administering the last rites. This, too, is war. And this is the sacrifice made by those who make such awful knowledge possible.
Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina, edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page (Random House)
Concord (NH) Monitor, April 2003