Do we need another book about Vietnam? We already have some 30,000 non-fiction books about America’s most horrific foreign misadventure, along with countless novels, histories, biographies, memoirs and movies. So the question must be asked: Do we really need more?
The short answer is: Yes, we will always need to know more about the Vietnam War and other defining moments in our national narrative. It’s an open-ended story that began with the arrival of the first Europeans and their brutal subjugation of the native populace, then continued on through the founding of the Republic, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, wars (both foreign and domestic, victorious and not), the rise to the pinnacle of world power and, now, the inexorable decline of the American empire. We will always need fresh voices giving us fresh takes on this spectacular, ugly, rich, and ever-evolving story.
So we should welcome Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a new work of history that argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration – not a one-off atrocity called My Lai – but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. These are devastating charges, and they demand answers because Turse has framed his case with deeply researched, relentless authority.
This book’s birth was an accident. Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, was researching post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 when he made a serendipitous discovery. One day at the National Archives, a friendly staffer posed a question: Could witnessing war crimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? Turse had never considered the possibility, but the archivist led him to the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force that had been formed after the widely reported massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.
The Working Group’s forgotten records were a gold mine, and Turse dug right in. The first thing he learned as he pored through the files was that the task force was not put together to prevent future war crimes; its mission was to make sure that the military was never again caught off-guard by a war crimes scandal. The distinction is important for what it says about the Machiavellian workings of the American war machine. Given those workings, it’s no surprise that hundreds of court-martial records were destroyed or went missing. Turse also learned that the military had succeeded in selling the lie that My Lai was an exception. As his research revealed, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration,” part of a pattern that contributed to a shocking statistic. During the years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, by the most conservative estimates, more than 3 million people died violent deaths; 2 million of them were Vietnamese civilians.
As Turse writes, “The War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division – that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”
Once he got through the Working Group files, Turse didn’t stop. He scoured other files about war crimes investigations in the National Archives, he interviewed generals and top civilian officials, former war crimes investigators, veterans who had witnessed or committed atrocities. He read widely and deeply. He made several trips to Vietnam to interview survivors of the war.
Like all good histories, the resulting book reads like a detective story, especially if you follow the dense endnotes as you move through the text. The evidence leads Turse to this damning but inescapable conclusion:
The hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians – whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush at Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
Yet only a handful of men were brought to trial or punished for a staggering number of pointless civilian deaths.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was eager to read Turse’s book because I share his fascination with the Vietnam War, and with the almost unfathomable missteps that turned it into the horror it became. My second novel, All Souls’ Day, is built around the C.I.A.-backed coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963, a day known to Diem and his fellow Catholics as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead. My reading of history told me that this was a pivotal moment, a chance for America to cut its losses and extricate itself from a deepening quagmire. Three weeks after Diem’s assassination, though, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and hawkish Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Soon the serious killing would begin. The opportunity for withdrawal was lost.
Thirty-three years later, shortly after I’d sold the manuscript and almost a year before All Souls’ Day was published, my fictional enterprise received validation from a most unlikely source. Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a prime architect of our Vietnam fiasco, published his long-awaited memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One sentence in McNamara’s book jumped out at me. It was not his maddeningly tepid apology – “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was this: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem’s assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness.”
That single sentence gave me the gratifying feeling that my novel had hit on an important but little-noted truth. It was the sort of validation all novelists dream of, but few get to taste. Robert S. McNamara, of all people, had made me proud.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kill Anything That Moves belongs on the very highest shelf of books on the Vietnam War – up there with the non-fiction of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, and Frances FitzGerald, the memoirs of Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Ward Just, and, of course, Graham Greene.
It’s worth noting that in her magisterial history, Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, FitzGerald made only passing mention of war crimes. “The (Johnson) administration, if it were to pursue its objectives, had very little choice but the strategy of attrition,” she wrote. “And because of the very nature of the war, that strategy meant the attrition not only of enemy troops and military supplies but all Vietnamese. No one in the American government planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.”
(Alas, FitzGerald’s book did not appear until 1972, too late for its contextual lessons to be of any use to Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert S. McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon or any of the hundreds of others who shaped America’s war policy from inside a bubble of nearly immaculate ignorance about the Vietnamese people and their history. FitzGerald has high praise for Turse’s book, calling it “an important piece of history.” So does Seymour Hersh, who calls it a “painful and important book.”)
Philip Caputo was with the first marines to land in Vietnam in 1965, and a decade later, as a war correspondent, he was among the last people evacuated from Saigon as the victorious communists closed in on the panicked city. Caputo wound up facing a court-martial when marines under his command miscarried orders and deliberately shot two suspects. Caputo was acquitted and eventually received an honorable discharge. In his memoir, A Rumor of War, here’s how he described America’s military strategy:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an important effect on our behavior. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was our rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and predilection for taking it.
This contempt for the lives of the Vietnamese, as Turse points out, led American soldiers to abide by what was widely known as the Mere-Gook Rule, or MGR. “This,” Turse writes, “held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”
Before reading this book, I had believed that the racial epithet “gook” was coined by American soldiers in Vietnam. Turse, in one of many deft touches, cured me of this illusion. He writes that the word originated during the campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when American soldiers disparaged the natives as “goo-goos” and proceeded to slaughter 600 unarmed Moros. Mark Twain called those soldiers “our uniformed assassins,” and he dubbed their proto-My Lai “a long and happy picnic.” In time “goo-goo” morphed to “gook,” and the results became far more deadly.
In the title essay of his collection called The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders dissected America’s tendency to rush into wars in places it knows little about. He was talking about our current, never-ending war in Iraq, but his words are almost eerily applicable to Vietnam:
A culture capable of imagining complexity is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is – no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny – the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.
Paul Fussell put it more succinctly: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”
As Turse has made clear, the Vietnam War was much worse than expected – partly because of the astonishing resolve of America’s enemies, but mainly because of the ignorance and the brute ruthlessness that beat in the heart of America’s war machine. Kill Anything That Moves should be required reading in every school, military academy and governmental office in the land. Not that it will stop us from blundering into the next war. Again, George Saunders summed it up, in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” He was writing about Slaughterhouse Five, but he could have been writing about Kill Anything That Moves:
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn’t mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there’s something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So this is why we’re still reading about Vietnam: because the truth, purely told by writers as gifted as Nick Turse, is the only thing that has the power to cleanse us.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
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Book lovers love to watch two heavyweights slug it out. Bloodshed, though not necessary, is always welcome. Think of Paul Verlaine shooting his lover, Arthur Rimbaud, in the wrist. Think of Norman Mailer head-butting Gore Vidal for lumping Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as the misogynistic troika “3-M.” Or, less bloodily, think of Truman Capote hissing that Jack Kerouac’s writing was mere “typing.” Or Mary McCarthy claiming that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the.” Or Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead over his negative review of Ford’s A Multitude of Sins. Yes, we all love a good smackdown, regardless of the body fluids involved.
So naturally I was delighted that Errol Morris opens his absorbing new book, Believing Is Seeing (Observations On the Mysteries of Photography), with an uppercut to Susan Sontag’s jaw. (I should say unprotected jaw since Sontag, who died in 2004, will have a hard time delivering a counter-punch.) The uppercut by Morris (who is no relation) was triggered by a photograph – more accurately, by a pair of photographs – taken by the British photographer Roger Fenton during the Crimean War in 1855. One picture, devoid of people, shows a road curving between two hills and a ditch beside the road that’s littered with cannonballs. In the other picture, also devoid of people and taken from the same vantage point, the road is peppered with cannonballs; it is much more evocative of the horrors of war and is, rightly, the more famous picture. But which picture was taken first? For Morris, who urges readers to approach his sumptuously illustrated book as “a collection of mystery stories,” the answer is both ambiguous and hugely important. The reason Sontag gets Morris’ blood up is that she made the assumption in her last book, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, that the cannonballs-on-the-road picture was taken second, thereby implying that Fenton posed the picture to heighten its impact.
Here are the two sentences by Sontag that threw Morris into a swivet:
Not surprisingly, many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (despite the title, it was not across this landscape that the Light Brigade made its doomed charge), the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture – the one that is always reproduced – he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself.
This assumption prompts Morris to ask:
How did Sontag know the sequence of the photographs? …Presumably, there had to be some additional information that allowed the photographs to be ordered: before and after. If this is the basis for her claim that the second photograph was staged, shouldn’t she offer some evidence? …This raises a question that greatly interests me: why people accept claims of posing, fakery and alteration rather than looking at the data… Isn’t Sontag’s theory something like this?
These questions send Morris off on an exhaustive quest that is by turns bewitching, boring, frustrating, and fascinating. He operates under the belief, one I share, that if you dig up enough facts you will eventually approach something resembling truth. (Which is very different from saying that facts equal truth.) Morris travels to Sebastopol, he walks the road Fenton walked, he even locates a Crimean War-vintage cannonball to study how sunlight and shadow play on its surface. The remainder of the book is devoted to similar investigations into the ambiguity and meaning of photographs from Abu Ghraib, the Dust Bowl, Iwo Jima, Lebanon, and the battle of Gettysburg.
But it all spins around those two Fenton photographs. As Morris writes:
All of the central issues of photography that I address in this book of essays – questions of posing, photo fakery, reading the intention of the photographer from the image itself, questions about what a photograph means and how it relates to the world it photographs – are contained in these twin Fenton photographs.
As Morris’ investigations unfold, I sometimes found myself thinking that this guy has way too much time and money on his hands (including, presumably, some of that $500,000 grant he got from the MacArthur Foundation). But in the end, I wound up admiring Morris for his doggedness. If more prosecutors and police investigators were this rigorous, we would have far fewer innocent people on Death Row; and if more reporters and editors were this thorough, our news would be less tainted with factual errors and outright lies. In the end, Morris reminded me that all art springs from some kind of obsession. His obsessions lead him to some intriguing insights. The central one is stated in the book’s title:
What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photos provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.
It won’t spoil much to reveal that Morris’ painstaking investigation into the provenance of the Fenton photographs forces him to admit that Sontag was right all along – the picture with the cannonballs in the ditch was taken first, then someone scattered the cannonballs on the road for the second, more famous shot. (Presumably, someone had removed the cannonballs from the road before Fenton arrived on the scene and took his first shot.) What’s far more interesting than these facts is what Morris does with them. “The change in the photographs suggest that Fenton may have moved the cannonballs for aesthetic or other reasons,” Morris writes. “But we can never know for sure. And even if Sontag is right, namely, that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that? Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence – moral precedence – over moralizing about the carnage of war? Is purism of the photography police blinding them to the human tragedy the cannonballs represent?”
Saying that Susan Sontag belongs to “the photography police” is hitting below the belt. It was only after I finished reading Believing Is Seeing and went back to Sontag’s writings on photography that I began to see that Errol Morris, this dogged seeker of truth, had been less than fully truthful. But before we revisit Sontag, we need to drop in on Robert McNamara.
My introduction to Errol Morris’ work was The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which won the Academy Award for the best documentary movie of 2003. (Lesson # 7: “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”) I was drawn to the movie for reasons that were familial, political, and professional.
First, the family connection. My father worked in the Ford Motor Company’s public relations department in the 1950s, when “Whiz Kid” Bob McNamara was rising toward the presidency of the company. My father saw McNamara frequently at the office but only occasionally at social gatherings because McNamara had little use for anything that distracted him from work. He lived in Ann Arbor, urbane home to the University of Michigan, far from the insular suburban enclaves favored by most Detroit auto executives. McNamara promoted small, fuel-efficient cars and auto safety – two farsighted propositions with zero profit potential. With his watered hair and rimless spectacles, with his radical ideas and iron faith in the power of numbers, McNamara was, according to my father and many others, a fish out of water in booming post-war Detroit.
One night my father came home from a cocktail party and told me a story I will never forget. Bob McNamara had showed up at the party, unexpectedly, and while most of the men gathered in one corner doing what Detroit car guys do – talking cars and sports while drinking the hard stuff – cold fish McNamara stood alone across the room. (Though my father didn’t say so, I’ve always pictured McNamara drinking a tall ginger ale.) After noticing that McNamara was soon surrounded by women, my father drifted over to eavesdrop. The women were listening, rapt, as McNamara recounted how he’d spent his summer vacation hiking in Utah. Few Detroit car guys in the ’50s had been to Utah, and I doubt that any of them had ever gone hiking. That story about how McNamara could mesmerize the ladies stayed with me in the coming years, after he went off to Washington and became Secretary of Defense and led us into the nightmare of the Vietnam War. That story forced me to remember that there was a complex human being – outdoorsman, raconteur, something of a ladies’ man – behind the icy mask.
Politically, I was opposed to the war while it was being fought, and I was determined not to take part in it. I had no desire to step on a land mine and get my legs blown off, of course, but on a deeper level I sensed, even as a teenager, that the Domino Theory was a load of horseshit. And to paraphrase our most eloquent draft resister, no Viet Cong ever called me honky. Vietnamese communists posed no threat to America, as I saw it, and Americans had no more business killing Vietnamese people than the French did. I was not going to go there to kill and/or be killed just because Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Richard Nixon thought I should. The thing that saved me one-way bus fare to Canada was a lucky high number (#176) in the draft lottery in 1971, the year I turned 18.
When I went to see The Fog of War in 2003, my father’s story about that long-ago Detroit cocktail party was very much on my mind. I remember hoping that the movie would give us a three-dimensional McNamara – a man who had some visionary ideas, a man who could charm the ladies, a truly brilliant iconoclast – and not the cardboard monster so often served up by the media. Cardboard is not worth despising. To my delight, the movie delivers a complex human being. It shows McNamara pushing against the Detroit status quo for auto safety and small, fuel-efficient cars. It shows him fighting back tears when he recounts touring Arlington National Cemetery in November of 1963, trying to pick out a site for President John F. Kennedy’s grave. It shows that he was a dedicated civil servant who took a massive pay cut when he left Detroit for Washington, and that he was tortured by the consequences of his disastrous decisions as Secretary of Defense.
But Morris doesn’t let McNamara off the hook. For me the most unforgettable moment in the movie had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. It came when McNamara was describing his work crunching numbers – flight times, gallons of fuel, pounds of ordnance, abort ratios – for the fire-bombing raids on Japanese cities during the final months of the Second World War, under the command of bellicose Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay. “In a single night we burned to death one hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo – men, women, and children,” McNamara says, blinking, as though still astonished by the memory. “LeMay said if we’d lost the war we would all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral, if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?”
Those words still stun me. The man had believed since 1945 that he was a war criminal – and yet he was capable of doing what he did in Vietnam!
Professionally, McNamara and I crossed paths as writers, in an oblique way, in early 1996. I had just sold my second novel, All Souls’ Day, the story of a former Navy Seal who took part in some dark missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, then settled in Bangkok after his discharge. Eventually he gets drawn back to Saigon during the C.I.A.-backed coup that culminated in the assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, by his own troops on Nov. 2, 1963 (also known as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead). Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated. My novel implied that this was the fork in the road, the moment when we should have cut our losses and gotten out of an unwinnable war.
A few weeks before I sold the novel (and a year before it appeared in bookstores), McNamara had published his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Most reviewers seized on McNamara’s tepid apology for the bloody fiasco he’d engineered – “We were wrong, terribly wrong” – but the book resonated with me for a very different reason. McNamara made what was, to me, another stunning admission: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following the Diem assassination, or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness in South Vietnam.” Robert McNamara, of all people, had vindicated in advance the premise of my fictional enterprise. I felt something I can only describe as queasy glee.
My high opinion of The Fog of War bred high expectations for Believing is Seeing, and, as I’ve said, there is much in the book to admire. But Morris’ remark about “the photography police” gnawed at me. A second reading of Sontag’s writings on photography led me to the conclusion that Morris is not only a low-blow artist, he’s also less than completely truthful, which is a fatal flaw for someone on such a lofty quest for truth.
Roger Fenton was the first war photographer. Sent to the Crimea in early 1855 at the instigation of Prince Albert, Fenton was a lackey of the British government and the avatar of what we have come to call spin doctors. “Acknowledging the need to counteract the alarming printed accounts of the unanticipated risks and privations endured by the British soldiers dispatched there the previous year,” Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “the government had invited a well-known professional photographer to give another, more positive impression of the increasingly unpopular war.” It was a botched war in dire need of some good publicity; it was the Great War sixty years before the Great War; it was Vietnam a century before Vietnam.
Sontag continues in this derisive vein: “Under instructions from the War Office not to photograph the dead, the maimed, or the ill, and precluded from photographing most other subjects by the cumbersome technology of picture-taking, Fenton went about rendering the war as a dignified all-male group outing.” Until, that is, he came upon the Valley of the Shadow of Death and all those cannonballs beside the road. Sontag calls Fenton’s photograph of the cannonballs on the road “a portrait of absence, of death without the dead,” adding that “it is the only photograph he took that would not have needed to be staged.” And yet it was staged! But – and here’s the crux of the matter – that staging made no difference to Sontag, just as it makes no difference to Morris. “With time,” she concludes, “many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind – like most historical evidence.” Believing Is Seeing, for whatever reason, neglects to mention this crucial conclusion.
Though Morris erred here, I think he is right to chide Sontag for declining to use photographs to illustrate her writings on photography. (The German writer W.G. Sebald solved this problem by including photographs in his books but shrewdly leaving out captions, forcing the reader to do the work of integrating the images and the prose.)
Delineating their differences should not overshadow the fact that Morris and Sontag see eye to eye on many questions. The slippery nature of photographs as factual evidence, for instance. In her seminal 1977 book On Photography, Sontag wrote, “Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” Compare that with Morris’ claim that every photograph “should be a constant reminder – not of how photographs can be true or false – but of how we can make false inferences from a photograph.” He adds that every photograph’s tenuous claim to factuality has been greatly weakened by new technology, such as Photoshop. To his credit, he embraces this development as a spur to heightened vigilance and skepticism. Morris and Sontag also agree that posing is not necessarily deception, and that every photograph is, in a sense, staged because of the photographer’s decisions on how to frame the shot, when to release the shutter, how to crop the resulting print. Sontag takes this a step further, though, noting the “spasm of chagrin” that arises whenever people discover that a supposedly candid picture was staged. “What is odd,” she writes, “is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. (What is odd) is that we are surprised to learn they were staged, and always disappointed.”
She’s thinking less about Roger Fenton here than about Robert Capa and Robert Doisneau: the former’s photograph of a Republican soldier in the act of falling from a fatal gunshot wound during the Spanish Civil War; and the latter’s 1950 photograph “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” which shows a young couple kissing, apparently spontaneously, on a Paris street. Sontag was aware that the authenticity of Capa’s photograph had come under question in the 1970s, but she was more interested in its jarring context than its dubious content. (The full-page picture was published in Life magazine in 1937, she notes, opposite a full-page ad for Vitalis hair tonic.) It wasn’t until five years after Sontag’s death that a Spanish researcher proved, beyond a doubt, that “Falling Soldier” was staged. The picture is formally titled “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Cordoba Front, Spain, Sept. 5, 1936.” But the researcher determined that the picture was taken not at Cerro Muriano, just north of Cordoba, but near the town of Espejo, about 35 miles away. Capa was in Espejo in early September 1936 – but no fighting took place there until later in the month. So the researcher, José Manuel Suspesrregui, concluded that “the ‘Falling Soldier’ photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.”
But “Falling Soldier” is such a treasured image in the anti-fascist pantheon that when an exhibition of Capa’s photographs opened in Barcelona in 2009, the culture minister in Spain’s socialist government felt the need to defend it through some linguistic contortions. “Art is always manipulation,” he said, “from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another.” Agreed, but Morris cuts to the heart of the matter: “Posing is not necessarily deception. Deception is deception.” And no matter how you try to spin it, “Falling Soldier” is a deception, not because it was posed but because the death it claims to document was not real. Yes, people died in that fashion during that war, but no one died on that day in that place. As Sontag rightly stated it, “The point of ‘The Death of a Republican Soldier’ is that it is a real moment, captured fortuitously; it loses all value should the falling soldier turn out to have been performing for Capa’s camera.”
As for “The Kiss,” Doisneau finally admitted in 1992 that he had paid two young lovers (who happened to be aspiring actors) to repeat their kiss at various Paris locations four decades earlier. After the truth came out, the woman in the picture, Francoise Delbart, proclaimed, “The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.”
And that, our two heavyweights would agree, is all that matters.
Fenton, “Valley of the Shadow of Death” with road cleared of cannonballs via Wikimedia Commons
Fenton, “Valley of the Shadow of Death” with road full of cannonballs via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Doisneau, “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville” via Masters of Photography
The Millions is adding a new staff writer today. Join us in welcoming Bill Morris. Bill most recently wrote a consideration of China Miéville for the site this week, his fifth piece for us thus far. Bill is the author of the novels Motor City and All Souls’ Day. His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, the (London) Independent, the Washington Post Magazine and the website Aolnews.com. He lives in New York City.