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Collateral Damage

Photographer Philip Jones Griffiths reflects on the lessons of Vietnam

September 01, 2002|GLORIA EMERSON | Gloria Emerson received the 1978 National Book Award for nonfiction for "Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins From the Vietnam War." She is the author, most recently, of "Loving Graham Greene: A Novel."

In war, words buckle, shrivel or pale as the journalist struggles to describe an attack, and what it does, until the language seems dry and flat. This is not the case with the gifted photographer, who must creep closer to see and forever ratify a scene of suffering by showing the damage done, the unspeakable harm, the shock of being hurt. In a new edition of "Vietnam Inc.," the 1971 work of Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths that has been out of print for years, there are photographs that are so famous they couldn't belong to another war. They are horrifying, and yet it is cause for celebration to have "Vietnam Inc." again, for there is no other book quite like it.

Oddly enough, the photographer's favorite picture is a mocking and humorous scene from the old war, the only photograph that makes Jones Griffiths chortle. It shows a Marine demonstrating how to wash a child as he scrubs a wretched little boy standing in a basin. A group of Vietnamese women, whose presence is surely obligatory, are not impressed or the least bit interested. As Jones Griffiths notes in one of his acerbic captions, the basin belonged to one of the women, who claimed it with some indignation. She used it for vegetables. The women of Vietnam were always hard to pacify.

I remember Jones Griffiths from Saigon, from helicopters, from this grim place or that. The rest of the press corps seemed rackety in comparison with this quiet and very watchful man. We met for lunch in his apartment on West 36th Street in New York, where he has his darkroom and office. Recovering from major surgery, he is an amiable host, padding around in bare feet. He is happy to see "Vietnam Inc." back in print in this country and in Europe. He calls the war in Vietnam "it" and believes we need reminding of it.

"The fact is that America is busy repeating it. American foreign policy has always neglected the feelings and rights of the local population," he said. "Vietnam forecast the major attempt of America to subvert one culture and supplant it with their own."

Fanny, his 20-year-old daughter, races out for Japanese food for our lunch, and the living room table has to be cleared. He talks a little about the picture of the washbasin and remembers the places where he took so many pictures in this book.

In an excellent foreword to the new edition, Noam Chomsky reminds the reader that the publication of "Vietnam Inc." coincided with the release of the secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers.

It is the last photograph in the book that once upset people the most deeply. It shows the lunatic disorder imposed on a people who so valued harmony. We see a white-haired old man, barefoot and shackled to the bed, who seems to be remembering past days. There is a great sweetness and sadness in his face. The photograph was taken in an "asylum" near Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon.

"He looked more intelligent and dignified than most of the Americans," the photographer said. Not every photographer was quite as alert to the suffering of the Vietnamese people, and this is what sets Jones Griffiths apart.

Born and raised in north Wales and a Welsh speaker, the photographer studied in Liverpool to be a pharmacist and worked at a Boots the Chemists shop in London. But there was boredom in counting pills, and he eventually bolted. He started taking pictures at 16 with an Agiflex camera. He first went to Vietnam in mid-1966, staying for two years, and was back again in 1970 for another year. He could not have known it right away, but Vietnam is the country that has claimed him. He has been back at least 20 times since 1975 when the war ended with the American defeat, usually to take pictures. He will go back again this fall and looked happy at the thought.

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