Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey

Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976 

Marines, Operation Starlite

Tim Page had already been two years “in country” when as an undergraduate I’d participated in the violent melees in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square protesting what Kenny Rodgers would call “that crazy Asian war”. Our undergraduate passions were inflamed by the fear that our government would answer US President Lyndon B Johnson’s call to join him and his forces in Vietnam – our Antipodean kin in Australia and New Zealand has already committed troops, and Johnson was applying the economic screws. But Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson held firm and Britain avoided the débacle that has haunted the US for half a century.

This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.

Chaos without a compass

A ship is waiting for us at the dock
America has trouble to be stopped
We must stop Communism in that land
Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.
I hope and pray someday the world will learn
That fires we don’t put out, will bigger burn
We must save freedom now, at any cost
Or someday, our own freedom will be lost.
Johnny Wright, Hello Vietnam

The Twentieth Century’s “Thirty Years War” was waged in South East Asia initially by the colonialist France, and then by neo-imperialist America. France’s war ended in defeat and ignominy for French arms and prestige, and a partition that was but a prelude to America’s Vietnam quagmire.

America’s War has since been defined as chaos without compass. It was inevitable that acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman would chose it as one of her vignettes in The March of Folly, her celebrated study of débacles through the ages characterised by what would appear to be a single-minded determination amounting to tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity.

As Tuchman saw it, exceptionalism and manifest destiny are historically proven folly. Self-belief in American power and righteousness has historically created delusions of grandeur, obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals, stubbornness, and an inability to learn from past mistakes or even admitting error – a wooden-headedness that often sees the US persisting on erroneous paths that lead to loss of blood, treasure, reputation and moral standing.

Why did the US’ experience of backing the wrong horse in China in the forties not provide an analogy and warning in Vietnam in the fifties? Why did the experience in Vietnam not inform the it with respect to Iran right up to the fall,of the Shah in1978? And why hadn’t it learned anything when it stumbled into Salvador in the eighties? And then, of course, we arrive in the 21st century with no-exit, never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Middle East that end in retreat and betrayal with the ‘freedom-loving’ USA still backing the wrong horses by supporting autocrats and tyrants against their own people.

But, back to Vietnam …

As historian Per Yule noted in The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War, the Vietnam War was based on an assortment of unproven assumptions and half truths. It wrongly identified a dictatorship as a democracy a civil war as an international conflict. Our armed forces were sent to fight in support of a corrupt military regime which received solid support only from the catholic minority and the small landowning class. Few willingly fought for the regime.

Many in the US military reckoned that if given a free hand by the administration of President Johnson, they could have prevailed against North Vietnam – by destroying it utterly with overwhelming firepower. But the US had backed the wrong side and no amount of support could make the South Vietnamese fight and die hard enough for their corrupt, incompetent, puppet government. We hear a similar rationale with regard to the the Afghan army’s rapid collapse and the US’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan

The US wanted to convince the North Vietnamese that they couldn’t win on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese wanted to convince the American people that the cost in blood and treasure was too high. Both sides continued to believe that they could improve their positions through escalation and both continued to focus on military rather than political means to end the conflict. And so we were left with an almost certainly unwinnable strategy of bombing the enemy to the negotiating table when that enemy shows no willingness to negotiate under duress. The bombing campaign, code name Rolling Thunder, was described by a commentator in Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War as “the dumbest campaign ever designed by a human being”.

The many names for a war lost before it began

All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I’ll lead on.
We’re waist deep in the big muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Vietnam has been called the pointless war and the needless war. It was certainly a costly war. The butchers bill was horrendous. No one really knows how many people perished. Civilian deaths range from 1.3 to 4.5 million.of which over 80% were Vietnamese and 7% Cambodian. American soldiers dead numbered 58,220 and wounded,153,303. The number of Vietnamese and Cambodian wounded is inestimable.

As for the American forces, it most certainly “the poor man’s war” – most who were perished or were maimed were not rich folks, and a disproportionate number were black. Amd the more who died, the more were sent to replace them. And like here in Australia, thecdraft caught mainly the poor and unconnected. Even as soldiers started going home, actual or attempted murder by enlisted men of their superiors increased alarmingly.

As to the monetary cost: an estimated $1 trillion in today’s dollars. But that is doubtlessly an understatement – what about the rebuilding, the rehabilitation, the recompense? Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped, compared to 2.1 million tons in WW2. U.S. planes dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate VietCong hiding places. It decimated 5 million acres of frostbite and 500,000 acres of farmland.

It has been called “the helicopter war” because choppers were the primary mode of ground combat and transport, and also “the television war – it’s triumphs (few) and tragedies (many) were beamed Into American homes nightly, fuelling the public’s confusion and unease about this Asian war, and eventually, the anger that forced the US government to eventually withdraw over half a million soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and abandoning South Vietnam’s puppet government, its demoralised and abandoned army, and its unfortunate, battered and bloodied people to the tender mercies of the hardline and heartless ideologues in Hanoi.

Vietnam was also, notoriously, a pharmaceutical war. In its final year’s, as raw and reluctant draftees made up an increasing proportion of the US forces, indiscipline and substance abuse transformed, in the words of one professional soldier, an officer, a fine army into a rotten one. Alcohol, marijuana, acid, coke, heroin, and a cornucopia of pills were freely available on base, on leave in Saigon, and often, in the field, and many soldiers actually made it a business. The press too were sucked into the machinery.

And, it was a promiscuous war. So far away from home and loved ones, like warriors in all wars since time immoral, US solders took comfort and solace where they could find it. Historians, memoirists, veterans of both the French and American wars in Indochina write and talk of the beauty of the Vietnamese women. Economic deprivation and social dislocation create a flesh market supplying lonely, frightened strangers in a strange land.

It was chemical warfare – not the mustard gas of older wars, and the Zyklon B of the Nazi death camps, nor the recent wars in the Middle East, in the first Gulf War, between Iraq and Iran, and in Syria – but the broad-acre use of chemical defoliants designed to deny the enemy of jungle and forest concealment that left behind a bitter harvest, a legacy of disease, deformity and death that ricochets to this day.

And, in the United States, it was a war that divided a nation. The protest movement emerged during 1965. It grew and grew, and by the Moratorium of October 1969, it became the largest outpouring of public dissent in American history. The moratorium movement was massive and unprecedented – and peaceful. Nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the US were marching. The children of politicians and officials and soldiers were also marching. They were marching not about winning or losing the war but demanding an end to the war.

It was a journalists war too, and the photographers’ War. The military had a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards the press that would seem profligate and foolhardy in today’s tightly managed and manipulated combat media. Journalists and photographers would be permitted and indeed invited along on patrols and sweeps, carrier landings, on helicopter “dust offs” (a euphemism for evacuating the wounded and the dead), and the controversial “search and destroy” operations that destroyed so many fields, villages and lives. Needless to say, the coopted fourth estate were often in harm’s way. They were taught how to use weapons and often actually did use them in self defence and, sometimes in anger. And like the officers and men with whom they worked, many were wounded and slain. More than two hundred would die covering the fighting in South East Asia.

And English photojournalist Tim Page, who ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’, washed up in the war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper.

Tim in a tight spot

Cameras and Comrades

There is no decent place to stand in a massacre
But if some women takes you’re hand
You go and stand with her.
I left a wife in Tennessee and a baby in Saigon
I risked my life but not to hear
A country-western song
Leonard Cohen, The Captain

Tim Page literally and figuratively ambled into the last of the “great” wars of the Twentieth Century; and reading Tim’s autobiography, you wonder whether this peregrinating, ever-restless bloke had more lives than a cat!

Page ran off to join the circus. Leaving England in 1962,was was to be twenty years until he saw his folks again. A restless soul, he split for Europe with his girl friend, and when she baled, headed ever-eastwards, an early pioneer of that famed trail in a succession of secondhand vehicles and a caravan of colourful comrades. The further east he wandered, the more drugs he savoured, sampling the local toke through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Burma. Many a time, he was flat broke and broken down, and laid low with a variety of exotic, intimate and excruciating ailments. But we needn’t go there.

Though photography was a teenage hobby, he drifted into the profession almost by accident, and virtually ambled into the Vietnam War, the Great War of our generation, almost by accident: – a road -trip to Vientiane, the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Laos to renew his expired Thai visa saw him hanging out there just as the the US’ fateful foray into Indochina was escalating into the quagmire that it was to become.

For Tim, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. “Hot and cold running …” he says, using the vernacular of those days … booze, drugs, girls, he meant – battle injuries and diseases – and action, lots of it, in the air in helicopters and on occasion, fighter bombers, on the land in jeeps, armoured vehicles, and motor bikes, on the rivers in patrol boats, and on foot.

The lure of sex, drugs, and excitement – and paid work for a major news agency saw him wash up in Saigon and the celebrated, inebriated Frankie’s House, a kind of home-away-from home and party house for transiting bao chi – ‘round-eye’ newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. From here, they would fan out though war-wracked South Vietnam under the often dodgy and dangerous protection of Uncle Sam.

Like the soldiers they accompanied, many came back in body bags or on stretchers. Many just disappeared @and it has been Tim’s mission in life to trace these lost souls. They include his best buddy Sean Flynn, the son of famous actor and pants man Errol Flynn.

Tim’s number almost came up in a blood-soaked friendly fire debacle on a navy river boat. Patched up and R&R in the US, he photographed the burgeoning antiwar demonstrations wracking the nation and ‘fesses up in his chronicle that he didn’t quite get the rage of the protesters – to Tim and his Saigon peers, the war might’ve been hell, but it was also a helluva buzz, and he was itching to return to the maelstrom.  

But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helicopter crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.

Post-op and recuperating in the US, Tim took himself off to Woodstock, New York State. where it was being said that there was going be a cool scene – which indeed there was, as we all remember:  the famous music festival held over three days in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York (65 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock. But Tim never got to hear any of the great music – complications from his injuries meant that he had to be medivacced out of Woodstock, probably on the same chopper that had just brought in the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash.

And today he is still alive and kicking, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures, revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his bao chi who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the forest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison 1967

A Vietnamese woman grieves for her dead husband

Author’s note

Internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page has been the subject of many documentaries, two films and the author of ten books, including his latest opus Nam Contact. He has been recognized as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographers of All Time’ and is the recipient of many awards. After a career spanning sixty years, world renowned photographer Tim Page has settled quietly into the Bellingen Shire, where he and his wife Marianne live what Tim describes as “a peaceful life. The choice of the word Peaceful’ is pertinent considering that his photographic assignments during the of the Laos Civil War, the Vietnam War and the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967 brought him directly into the firing line. He still carries the injuries to prove it.

This piece was originally conceived as a forward for an autobiography of Tim, now a friend and near neighbour on the edge of Bellingen’s Tarkeeth Forest. It was but a fallback option – I’d suggested to Tim and his Marianne that the book would be better served with a forward by either Paul Ham or Peter Fitzsimmons, Australian historians who have written about the Vietnam War.  It eventuated that the book was not published – but the story grew with the telling, informed by a re-watching of Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The Vietnam War and historian Max Hasting’s masterful tombstone of a book Vietnam., an epic tragedy 1945-1975  

The photographs featured in the post are but a few from Tim’s large archive. They are used with his kind permission ©Tim Page. These and many more can be viewed on his website timpage.com.au and in Nam Contact .

Also in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy ; and Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited

Nam Contact: Symphonic coda to Tim Page’s Vietnam

 

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