The Vietnam War, which was waged from 1955 to 1975, represented the conflict between North Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union and other communist allies, and South Vietnam, supported by the US military. The North Vietnamese government viewed the war as a colonial war. They wanted to unite the North and South Vietnam under a communist system over the entire nation. The US government got involved in the war in order to prevent such a communist takeover of South Vietnam. This war cost the United States 58,000 lives, with more than 300,000 wounded, and consequently caused more than one million Vietnamese deaths and 600,000 casualties. According to US Senator John Kerry, who spoke out against the Vietnam conflict upon their return to the United States, “[s]omeone has to die so that President Nixon won't be… ‘the first President to lose a war’" (Barry).
The Vietnam War proved to be a proving ground for political photographers, and the arena afforded them a great amount of political expression. David Halberstam, the author of the book Requiem, believes that "Vietnam was a great war for photographers"(Burmaster). Many photographers took great risks in order to capture historical moments, playing a major part in establishing the public perception of the Vietnam War. The war was accompanied by a strong anti-war movement, which was spurred on by documentation via political photographers of the devastation.
One of the more influential photographs of the Vietnam War was Faas’ “War Is Hell.” Horst Faas, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was among the photographers who worked for the Associated Press. During his mission to cover events of the Vietnam War, he recognized that "Vietnam set an example of photojournalism that has become an eternal marker for all subsequent wars" (Burmaster). On June 18, 1965, Faas captured the image of an unidentified U.S Army soldier with a hand-written “War is Hell” on his helmet, which became the title of the picture (Burmaster). This photograph illustrates the perspective of the soldier as a participant in the anti-war movement.
Riboud’s work “Peace March,” taken on October 21, 1967, limns a young girl, Jan Rose Kasmir, attending the march with thousands of other anti-war activists ("Marc Riboud Biography"). This was among the most visually powerful anti-war photographs of its time, many of which effectively turned public opinion against the United States military’s participation in the Vietnam War. In works similar to those of Faas, Marc Riboud of Magnum Photos, an international photography cooperative, became a “witness” to both the Vietnamese and the American sides of the Vietnam War.
The two photographs captured by Marc Riboud and Horst Faas perfectly illustrate the horrifying nature of the war, and how peace-loving American youth stood against it. The main characteristic both black-and-white photographs share, despite their illustration of different situations caused by the war,,is that they convey a similar message: US civilians and military personnel want to stop the war. Though war is inevitable, their hopes to prevent further destruction are apparent through their anti-war stance.
“War is Hell” and “Peace March” connect to each other most obviously through an anti-war theme that is evident through the imagery in the photos. Faas’s “War is Hell” was taken in the middle of June 1965 in Vietnam, at the most pivotal time in the Vietnam War. The US government sent thousands of soldiers overseas to protect South Vietnam from the communist forces of North Vietnam. Many bloody battles between the two countries took place over this dispute. Civilians killed other civilians, soldiers murdered other soldiers, and horrifying photographs appeared on the news, but more effectively in photographs. These horrific images of the war, which illustrated soldiers’ experiences and the reality of terrible conditions in Vietnam, were quickly sent back to America. Photographs were one of the most influential elements in increasing US citizens’ abhorrence of the war.
“Flower Child” carries with it a similar significance, but the battlefield it depicts took place on the home front. Even in America, miles away from the campaign, thousands of Americans who had sons, husbands, or even fathers fighting in the war gathered to raise their voices against this costly battle. On October 21, 1967, Riboud had the opportunity to witness one of the most famous anti-war movements in history take place in Washington D.C., where thousands of livid young American peace advocates, including Jan Rose Kasmir, stood in front of the Pentagon to confront the horrific attendants of American troops in Vietnam (Curry). They sought to inquire about if and when their relatives would return home safely, and more importantly, they hoped to stop the war by influencing the government through peaceful protest. The two photographs play a significant role in the anti-war movement, both demonstrating the reality of the war to viewer.
Faas’ “War is Hell” photograph is one of the most evocative images taken of the Vietnam War, due to its composition and central message. One of the most telling attributes of this photo is the fact it is in black-and-white. Back in the 1960s, most photographs were taken in black and white, not only because of the affordable price of black-and-white film, the black-and white photography’s ability to show explicit details and create a classic historic. Black-and-white photography is referred to as "monochrome," a technique that contains all different shades created by the colors black and white ("Black and White Photography"). Black can represent fear, darkness, and death. The black sentence “War is Hell” on the soldier’s helmet stands out in contrast with the light shades of the soldier’s face and the surrounding background. This distinct contrast forces the audience to see the meaning within the photograph rather than focus on the color. Similarly, the white daisy in Jan’s hand, which represents happiness, love, and peace, becomes a focal point of the picture, while the rest of the piece is in black. The backgrounds of both pieces of art are also blurred in order to emphasize their major focal points. These black-and-white shots effectively take the new generation back in time to experience and understand the emotions felt by people at that time and thereby gain insight into history about the Vietnam War,.
In each of these photographs, powerful imagery related to the Vietnam War effectively catches the audience’s attention in multiple ways. Faas’s work illustrates an anti-war message by the hand-written slogan on the American soldier’s helmet, while the single daisy in Riboud’s work represents the simplicity of peace. The “War is Hell” letters are black, clear, neat, and evenly spaced with straight and angular lines. The presence of these distinct lines conveys the soldier’s comparison between his current condition and hell. In many religious beliefs, hell is a place of punishment or misery of the wicked after death, a cause of difficulty to sinners, humans banished to hell for the sins they committed throughout their lives ("Define: hell - Google Search"). Throughout the Vietnam War, thousands of soldiers experienced hell in their own reality. From the viewer’s perspective, the hand-written line belongs not only to one person, but also represents the voices of thousands of soldiers who were exposed to death nearly every second of every day. As they experienced the dark side of the war, some learned to understand the true value of life. “I'll never forget. It's the first time I've seen a man die and [I] feel so hopeless of ever coming home. I've got so much time and the risks are so high we pay each day. It could have been myself or Jeff and who knows that tomorrow will not repeat yesterday” ("Letters from Wisconsin Soldiers in Vietnam (1966-1971)").
Nearly 10,000 miles from Vietnam, Jan Rose Kasmir, the main character of the “Peace March” photograph, joined the protest against American involvement in Vietnam. The photograph shows Jan holding a daisy in her hands in front of several soldiers who are attempting to block the protesters. The daisy represents love, happiness, and peaceful resistance. Unlike Faas’s representation of hell, the daisy in Riboud’s work acts as heaven by resembling a small sun that brightens up darkest times and gives people hope and passion for life. The two pieces of art contain images that are in contrast with each other; nonetheless, they sufficiently convey the horrendous act of violence.
A slightly different perspective from the photographers may lead the audience to observe the photograph in a different point of view. Faas captured the moment when an unidentified soldier looked straight up into the camera with a mysterious smile. From the angle at which the photograph was taken, we observe that Faas stood close to his subject in order to capture the soldier’s face in detail. With a cynical smile, the soldier seems comfortable showing people his negative thoughts about the war and unafraid of the heavy consequences he might face for this brave act. He clearly wants to show people his own perspective on the reality of the war. Adjusting to what he has seen, he smiles, mouth closed, acknowledging the battles ahead.
Similarly, “Peace March” shows Jan intimidated but courageously facing the soldiers who are trying to stop the protesters. On the other hand, her body language expresses fear through her tense shoulders. Her flower not only represents peace and an end to the war, but also provides a barrier to protect her. An attempt to have the conversation, "[s]he was just talking, trying to catch the eye of the soldiers, maybe try to have a dialogue with them," about the meaning of peace (Curry). Without any emotional expression on their faces, the soldiers do not seem to acknowledge this innocent young girl.
When placing “War is Hell” and “Peace March” side by side, the pictures provide the audience with different perspectives and bring about different reactions. “War is Hell,” the soldier seems to be talking directly to the audience; his story seems to be told from a first-hand account of the war. This eye contact makes people uncomfortable, which the photographer would wish to make them uncomfortable. The soldier looking directly into the camera successfully engages the audience, making the photograph more personal and eye-catching. This enables the audience to understand and sympathize with the unidentified soldier’s situation. In this instance, the photograph represents one aspect of the war from the observer’s perspective. In “Peace March,” the image is observed from the third-person point of view. This photograph shows one fraction of a story—it represents one part of the conversation between a young lady, who yearns for peace in a time of distress, and a group of soldiers trying to combat her demonstration. The advantage of this technique makes the audience curious by creating intrigue and allows viewers to ask questions. It opens a series of questions: what is going to happen next, what is the whole story, and does that girl successfully convince the soldiers or does she give up to the statuesque men? Riboud’s art leads the audience to more interpretation than Faas’s because it is from the third-person point of view, while “War is Hell” is from first-person point of view.
In both “War is Hell” and “Flower Child,” the audience sees a perfect encapsulation of the struggle of youth to maintain their innocence, refusing to fight in a war they did not believe in. The main characters of both photographs are youths around 20 years of age. The majority of the young people back then were either sent to Vietnam to serve in the war due to the draft or took their own stance against the war hoping to put an end to it like the “Flower Child.” During the Vietnam War, the average age of American soldiers sent to Vietnam was 19, with some as young as 17. Most of these young men were forced to enroll in the military service based on a government order. Many young men tried various methods to avoid the draft, like getting married and starting families, attending college, or finding another type of exception job ("Draft Registration, Draft Resistance, the Military Draft, and the Medical Draft in the USA"). However, not many could evade the draft, and the unnamed soldier in “War is Hell” was one of the less fortunate. The draft calls caused many marches from thousands of young college students who wanted to protect people’s right to stay out of this unreasonable war. One of the famous marches came from the Flower Child group. “Flower Child” is a term used to describe the young generation favoring the hippie style. This fashion has been strongly influenced by culture, music, television, films, and other types of art. The young generation wears everything related to bright flowers or floral prints; they use flowers to decorate because they were thought act as a symbol for peace and love. “Flower Child” started spreading during 1967 from the Summer of Love event in San Francisco. More than 100,000 young people from all over the US gathered together in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Berkeley, and other Bay Area cities to support universal peace and love as the answer for social or political problems including the Vietnam War. The activities of Flower Child extended over the US as they urged people to join hands and advocate for peace ("Flower Child"). Jan Rose Kasmir was a member of this organization and is shown expressing her anti-war beliefs in the “Peace March” shot. This remarkable affair showed the American youth’s insistence on shutting down the Vietnam War and bringing the young soldiers home alive.
Though there are many photographs of the Vietnam War, Faas’s “War is Hell” and Riboud’s “Peace March” may possibly be two of the most moving images of the war. These images stand for the anti-war movement, which majorly affected America's involvement in the war and future policies. The Vietnam War ended 36 years ago, but the memories live on through photographs. The conflict between the North and South has been resolved but the lives lost from the war can never be replaced. As we move forward in time, many may forget the tragedy caused by the war, but photographs still show that moment in time. One can only hope that those photographs representing the cold and cruel hardships that war can bring will deter us from entering future wars.