Conceptualisations of Vietnam in the West are heavily influenced by the visual archive of the American War with Vietnam. The act of remembering Vietnam is now a part of American identity and mythology. Feelings of disgust are prevalent in how the war is remembered. Throughout the 1960s millions of people in America, Australia and Europe were exposed to graphic footage and photographs documenting the war. These help constitute collective memory and postmemory – shared repertoires of images that shocked and dismayed viewers. Hogopian[i] identifies the specific photographs, which continue to shape collective memories of the American War in Vietnam. Each of these photographs presents an emotionally charged image of Vietnam. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in protest to the anti-Buddhist stance of the Diem government horrified and disgusted the world and raised uncomfortable questions about the role of a photojournalist. It also questioned USA’s support for Diem. The image retains its impact and the uncomfortable questions regarding intervention remain.
Eddie Adams still of General Loan shooting a Viet Cong suspect has gathered resonance over the years. Ron Haeberle’s photograph of the My Lai massacre was used in protest posters. His photo of women and children is heart wrenching in itself but becomes even more so given that Haeberle said that after taking the photograph he turned and walked away. He heard gunfire; he turned back and saw that the women and children had been shot. The image deals with the theme of disgust when trust is violated. Larry Burrows famous photograph of American soldiers resonates with epic Romantic paintings by Delacoix and has influenced cinematographers working within the Hollywood Vietnam war genre.
Perhaps the most haunting still image that continues to gather layers of meaning is that of Kim Phuc after Napalm Strike, Highway 1, Trang Bang, June 8, 1972 photographed by Nick Ut. It is hard to view this image without experiencing disgust for the napalm carpet-bombing strategy and love for the little girl. This image typifies the expanded field within which artifacts and expressions cross borders of time and place. The image inspired a book written by Denise Chong called The Girl in the Picture with Ut’s photograph used as the dominant element in the book jacket design. Street hawkers in downtown Ho Chi Minh City now sell pirated versions of the book to tourists. The photograph evoking complex emotions signifying the American War and its aura is a part of the patina of urban spaces popular with tourists in contemporary Vietnam.
What the Americans term the Vietnam War has also produced a sub-genre in cinema – that of the Vietnam War movie. This sub-genre which includes films such as Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July is typified by certain types of narratives and character types which sought to counter the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon in 1975: “The loss of confidence in paternal figures, social institutions and commonly held beliefs, coupled as it was with a sense of powerlessness in both the foreign and domestic spheres, all had a costly and even traumatic effect”[ii]. The films are typically ambiguous yet attempted to validate the American role with gritty, individualistic archetypal characters undergoing a necessary and character building rite of passage. They encounter a treacherous enemy that is largely invisible. Ironically the enemy are the inhabitants of the land the USA purports to be defending. American soldiers are caught up in events beyond their control that invite viewer empathy and identification in order to support USA’s ideological position and foreign policy. Invariably they are successful in skirmishes even though they lost the war. The human experience of the Vietnamese military on both sides is largely omitted from representation within this sub-genre. Perhaps it is a way of dealing with disgust and guilt through a spatialising strategy that excludes these emotions. This sub-genre provides an interpretation of history and is a major factor in the constitution of collective memory about the American War in Vietnam in both the USA and Australia.
[i] Hagopian, ‘Vietnam War Photography as a Locus of Memory.’ In Locating Memory: Photographic Acts eds A. Kuhn and K. E McAllister, (New York:Berghan Books, 2006) 201-222.
[ii] Dittmar, Linda and Michaud, Gene. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000, p7