One striking aspect of the Vietnam years — and the antiwar movement of that era — was the degree to which you could see images of Vietnamese civilian suffering here in the United States. Among the iconic images of that war, for instance, was Nick Ut’s photo of a young girl, burned by napalm from an air strike, running down a road screaming. And among war images, it was by no means alone. There were, of course, the horrific shots Army photographer Ron Haeberle took of what became known as the My Lai massacre as it was happening. After a long and tortuous journey, those photos finally appeared as a ten-page centerfold-from-hell in LIFE magazine (even if an African antelope was on its cover). Along with the piles of bodies of slaughtered women, children, and old men, the “eyewitness” text was little short of startling: “One body, an old man, had a ‘C’ carved on his chest”; “A GI grabbed the girl and with the help of others started stripping her… ‘VC boom-boom,’ another said, telling the 13-year-old that she was a whore for the Vietcong,” and so on.
I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the degree of American compassion for the suffering of Vietnamese civilians, but it existed, along with those images. And because, at least in the precincts of the antiwar movement, such imagery was regularly before American eyes — some eyes anyway — and on minds, the suffering and destruction our soldiers were bringing to ordinary civilians in a distant, disastrous war was far clearer then.
Strangely enough, though, in the American screen war that followed the real war by some years, Vietnamese suffering largely disappeared. Left screen center was usually the American platoon, a kind of “lost patrol” in an alien land, part of what, even during the war, was regularly referred to as an American — but not a Vietnamese — “tragedy.” From Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket to Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Vietnamese suffering became, at best, a distant backdrop for American suffering, and the war’s conflicts essentially took place among Americans within that platoon. (A rare exception was Good Morning, Vietnam, but you would never again, in all those post-war years, see a scene like the first one in Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds, which opens on a Vietnamese village, quiet and peaceful, before you notice the silhouettes of soldiers entering — intruding on an emerald green land, really — from the edge of the screen.)
Even more strangely, as Nick Turse points out in his discussion of Sebastian Junger’s new filmRestrepo, our Afghan War is now generally being recorded in real time in the fashion made familiar to Americans on screen in the post-Vietnam years — that is, largely without Afghan suffering. Not surprisingly, Americans now pay remarkably little attention to the civilians whose lives have been destroyed in our invasions and prolonged occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Turse, who won aRidenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction for his Nation magazine piece, “A My Lai a Month,” on suppressed information about a series of mass killings by U.S. forces in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, has never reported from a war zone. But over these last years, he’s traveled much of Vietnam, and more recently Cambodia, interviewing those (especially Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians) who were under fire. Tom