Mark Hayward's City Matters: Vietnam War images stir ghosts
What is art?
Who can best tell history?
Does our country's psyche still suffer from a collective PTSD over Vietnam?
Those are some of the questions raging behind the scenes between veterans and the Currier Museum of Art, which is putting finishing touches on an exhibit of news photographs from the Vietnam War.
It features many — but not all — of the black-and-white images seered into the minds of anyone who lived through the Vietnam era. The naked, sobbing girl fleeing a napalm attack of her village. A Viet Cong soldier-assassin a trigger-pull away from execution. A panicky helicopter door gunner shouting as a wounded pilot dies at his feet.
To the Currier, the exhibit of 32 news photographs represents a pivotal time in American history. Vietnam was the first war ever where the U.S. military granted working journalists free access to a war zone, said Kurt Sundstrom, the curator of "Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War."
They captured the horrible aspects of the war, and the photographs contradicted the optimistic statements from leaders who said America was winning the war, he said. To Sundstrom, the exhibit honors the soldiers who fought in the war.
"The only way to explain what they've gone through is to show images of these horrible events," he said.
Caution to Sundstrom. To discuss Vietnam, even 40 years after the Paris peace accords were signed, is to enter a muddy river delta of suspicion and criticism.
Howie Howe, a Marine who spent two years in Vietnam, doesn't want to give journalists another crack at Vietnam. Just look what happened the first time, he said. The country and Congress turned against the war, South Vietnam fell to communists, and returning soldiers were shunned or demonized, the object of the country's disgust over a war gone bad.
"The entire representation of who we Vietnam veterans are is what the journalists said about us," said Howe, an activist in veteran circles. Just as insulting, the exhibit honors news photographers who made money taking senational photographs while American troops protected them, he said.
"What we did, we did for God and Country. What they did, they did for money," Howe wrote in an exchange of emails that both he and Sundstrum shared with me.
In veteran circles, some dismiss Howe for his blunt talk. But his voluneer work with parades and ceremonies — and his advocacy for returning vets — has earned him the grudging respect of veterans.
"He's done some outrageously great work," said Peter Burdett, a retired Navy commander and chairman of the state Veterans Advisory Council. He said Howe's forceful advocacy keeps veteran-affairs bureaucrats on their toes, but he cautioned that Howe can be quick to make judgments and sometimes he gets in front of himself.
"He's kind of a bit on a rant here," said Burdett, who acknowldged that the exhibit has irked a Vietnam veteran on his Council. Burdett, who joined the military at the tail end of Vietnam and did not fight there, said he's reserving judgment until he sees the exhibit.
In fact, his Council, and anyone for that matter, gets a peek at the exhibit on July 10, when the Currier will host a meeting of the Veteran Advisory Council and give a PowerPoint presentation of the exhibit.
Sundstrom said the Currier has gone to great lengths to make the exhibit acceptable.
The Currier took advice from an ad-hoc panel of Vietnam veterans, one of who works at the museum. They suggested the narratives attached to the photos be stripped of any politics and just explain the events taking place in the photograph.
The museum will put aside a "response hall'' — half the space of the exhibit — for veterans to display their own photographs and narratives.
Howe dismisses the response hall as a bulletin board, where veteran contributions will be seen as the work of amateurs alongside the works of the exhibit.
"Most of their award winning pictures were photos of opportunity, not attempts at art, while we were busy protecting their butts, as best we could, and the public deserves to know that," Howe said.
Actually, several of the news photographers died covering the war, and one of the exhibit photos includes an Army chaplain giving Last Rites to photographer Dickey Chapelle, the first woman war correspondent killed in the war.
As of this writing, Burdett is trying to get Vietnam veterans to submit material for the response hall, and Howe talks about a totally separate exhibit with veteran-generated material, something Sundstrom encourages.
Howe said Burdett is being too politically correct on the issue.
"Unless you were there in Nam you have no idea of the emotions us Vietnam Vets go through on a regular basis, and have for over 35 years," he wrote Burdett.
For his part, Howe fears the exhibit will focus on "limited information" — the anti-war aspects of the photographs that turned the country against Vietnam (and its soldiers) decades ago.
Of course, when he speaks of limited information, Howe wants to see more information about his fellow soldiers and how hard they fought for the Vietnamese and protected them. (In fact, some of the photos show that.)
But limited information cuts both ways, and if the exhibit can be faulted for anything, it is for a big blank page it leaves in its history book of Vietnam.
That missing page, as painful as it is, is My Lai, the village where 26 soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians in 1968. Sundstrom said the most incriminiating My Lai photos — including one of dead women and children in a ditch — were taken by an Army photographer, not a news photographer. (However, the photographer later sold the photos to Life magazine.)
The fact is hundreds of thousands of Americans saw combat in Vietnam —— one count says 1.5 million — while those who took part in atrocities is a scant fraction of the total. That shows the humanity of our soldiers, not their inhumanity.
But Sundstrom said My Lai photos would be inappropriate and hurtful.
"I don't think," he said, "it's an accurate depiction of a typical soldier's experience."
The exhibit runs Aug. 3 through Veterans Day.
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.