Picks and Pans Review: Vietnam: Opening Doors to the World
by Rick Graetz
These two photo books about Vietnam suggest how far Americans have come in our attitude toward that country and how far we have yet to go. Durrance (Hill and Wang, $35) is a former National Geographic photographer who, until he saw Platoon, had never wanted to publish the pictures he took during the war—he was an Army enlisted man attached to the Special Photographic Office. His photographs are not quite as stunning as those of, say, Tim Page, but they still vividly capture the fear, rage, tension and bewilderment of Americans in and out of combat. He also displayed an unusual ability—or maybe it was an unusual willingness—to focus on the faces of the Vietnamese, from the painfully cynical boom-boom girls to the South Vietnamese soldiers who never seemed to know whether to imitate the GIs or despise them. Ron Kovic, the ex-Marine who wrote of the wounds that left him in a wheelchair for life in Born on the Fourth of July, provides a bitter, impassioned introduction in which he says of a Durrance photograph of a tent used to store GIs' bodies before they were shipped home: "Do not go into that tent, because you will see war in there. You will see something horrible and dishonorable. You will see war in its most awful consequence." More to the point is the introductory quote from Albert Camus: "We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves." While Graetz's book (American Geographic, paper, $17.95) does not totally ignore the war, its more than 270 color photographs concentrate on the physical beauty of the Vietnamese landscape. Though that beauty was often remarked on even during the war by many American servicemen whose minds were not on enjoying the scenery, the unrelenting lushness of these photographs gives the book a travel brochure tone. Graetz, an outdoorsman-photographer, took most of the pictures and obviously did not have access to much of anything but picturesque scenery and bustling street scenes full of smiling Vietnamese. While Stanley Karnow's brief but enlightening foreword makes passing note of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978, none of the photographs shows any sign of an active Vietnamese military, for instance. Still, even many veterans will be interested in the then-vs.-now comparisons that inevitably arise from seeing a photograph of a gorgeous evening sky over Pleiku or the idyllic farm scene in a village near Nha Trang that looks like something out of a peaceful moment in the American West. And one of Graetz's comments, which could easily have been lifted from a sardonic joke of 20 years ago, probably offers a valid prediction for anyone who may be considering a visit to Vietnam: "The distinctly Vietnamese way of life and the physical setting, together with the changing political situation, ensure a memorable and adventure-filled journey."
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