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Home » What I Learned Photographing the Vietnam War: Dick Durrance at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

What I Learned Photographing the Vietnam War: Dick Durrance at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Dick Durrance

Following is the full transcript of photographer Dick Durrance’s TEDx Talk: What I Learned Photographing the Vietnam War at TEDxMileHigh conference.

Dick Durrance – Photographer 

Like 1,800,000 men, I got drafted. And when that draft notice came, I felt like I was going to be snatched away from my dream of being a photojournalist.

Now, we all know that soldiers are still being sent into combat, but because we no longer have a draft, most people have no idea what soldiers go through when they’re trained to fight, sent in to battle and return home.

And so what I’d like to share with you today are a series of photographs and stories from a photographic journal I kept from the moment I reported for duty until I returned from my tour in Vietnam. And what I hope you take away from today is a fuller sense of what soldiers go through and how it affects them.

On January 30th 1966, I reported for duty. I had no idea what to expect. Once inside, we waited and waited and waited. And then suddenly we were standing up, right hands raised, been sworn in. Before we could even think about what had just happened, we were whisked away to a train that would take us from our homes, our families and our friends to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for training. It was a long, lonely ride from everything we knew to we knew not what.

And when we stepped off that train in Fort Jackson, I was wondering, “Am I ready for this?” “Man, I’m about to be melted down, recast as a warrior, and handed to the president to do with as he wishes.” That afternoon we joined the longest line I’d ever seen in my life to get poked and prodded, shorn like sheep, stripped of our civilian clothes and our civilian identities.

The training started with the drill instructors whipping us into shape and teaching us to march. I’ve got to tell you something. Marching is not as easy as it looks. We couldn’t get 10 paces without getting out of step. But then the training got real. They issued us rifles. We were shooting at cardboard silhouettes of men, but I couldn’t help feeling that real men would seem just as unreal.

Think about it. If you saw someone as a mother’s son or a little boy’s father, could you pull the trigger? And then the training got even more real. We started hand to hand combat training, and I heard myself yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” It ran against everything I’d ever been taught.

As we continued to pound through the hot summer days, I could see that the drill instructors were molding us into a tight-knit team that would have its back. Each guy would have the other guy’s back when the shit hit the fan. As we neared the end of the training, it was clear: we’d learned how to be soldiers, we’d learned how to work as teams, and we’d learned how to kill.

And after graduation, we marched off into war. Most of the guys got sent to Vietnam. I, incredibly enough, got assigned to the Department of Army Special Photographic Office, called DASPO. I was thrilled. I was going to be a photojournalist after all, shooting assignments for The Pentagon that would take me for all over Vietnam, from the DMZ in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South.

And before I knew it, I was prowling the streets of Saigon. And on a hot afternoon, 35 miles northwest of Saigon, I photographed my first firefight. And I couldn’t believe how loud it was. There was the roar of the tanks, the “boom” of their big guns, the “ra-ta-ta-ta” of the machine guns. It was deafening and disorienting.

And as I zigzagged through the debris, darting from tree to tree, taking cover where I could find it, I realized that I was so focused on photographing that I never even thought about the danger until the guy right there got hit. And after that, all I could think about was the danger.

Well, that afternoon four guys got wounded, but their buddies had their backs, and that made all the difference that day as it does every day in combat. I realized that I was just going to have to suck it up and somehow come to terms with the fear that comes with fighting. And that’s just what I did when I flew into the Mekong Delta to join the Riverine Force on patrol.

We spent a day moving up and down canals, constantly scanning the shore, looking for enemy soldiers who could be hiding in those trees just waiting to blow us out of the water. We felt like sitting ducks. It’s an awful, awful feeling. I did it for a day and I was rattled. Those guys did it for a year. What did that do to their minds?

And I was still thinking about the impact that fighting has on guys’ minds when I flew into the central highlands to a little base that had been carved out of the jungle. The air was hot and humid and filled with the buzzing of insects, as I made my way across the base to join a unit that was about to plunge into that jungle to try and stop enemy soldiers crossing from Cambodia into South Vietnam.

But on the way I came across this guy. And as I raised the camera and focused on those dark eyes, I couldn’t help wondering, “How in the hell is this guy ever going to put these violent instincts and fighting skills that he needs to survive in this nasty jungle fighting – how is he going to put that back in a bottle when he gets back home?”

On another mission, way up North, near the DMZ, I run into another facet of the fighting in Vietnam. I had joined a small patrol that was on a reconnaissance mission to try and find a large force of Vietnamese troops that the intelligence guys thought were moving through the area. And we would start it out pushing through elephant grass that was so thick we couldn’t see more than three feet in any direction. Very spooky.

And then we move down into the valley, but we still couldn’t see the enemy forces, but we sure could feel them, like they were right nearby. And what made this mission and other missions like it so difficult was not knowing who was a friend and who was a foe. Ordinary life seemed to be going on: kids attending their water buffalo, women watering their fields, but the men, what about the men? Are they farmers, or are they fighters? We just didn’t know.

In spite of intense interrogations, nobody talked. It wasn’t until I was on the helicopter, flying out of that valley that I realized that the Vietnamese were facing a very difficult dilemma: whether their sympathies were with us or with the enemy, anything they told us would put their families or their friends at risk, but their silence put us in a bind.

One of the riflemen on the unit said to me, “Dick, there is no more hellish dilemma that we face than taking aim at somebody and not knowing if they’re a friend or a foe. ‘Do you pull the trigger or not?'” Well, for most of my tour in Vietnam, I felt that the Vietnamese wanted us there and appreciated our help, but on the 30th of January 1968, the enemy forces launched surprise attacks on 100 cities. It came to be known as the Tet Offensive. And when I learned that the enemy had been able to get as many as a thousand men into some of those cities without our knowing it, I realized that we have not won the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam.

No matter how many enemy soldiers we killed, no matter how many of their bases we destroyed, the light at the end of the tunnel was not going to get any closer. We went to Vietnam with the best of intentions, and we put everything we had into those missions. But it was now clear that we were not making the lives of the people we were trying to help any better.

Women and children were now getting caught in the crossfire; their homes were being destroyed. As the commander at Ben Tre so poignantly put it: “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.” This is hard stuff to look at, listen to, but if we were to appreciate what the men and women who are out there fighting right now are doing for us, we have to understand how profound their combat experience is. They risk their lives. They face terror. They lose buddies. And then they come home, and they have to somehow square what they did as warriors with what they are expected to do now. It is not easy.

It was 49 years ago that I came back from Vietnam, but the war is still with me. And it shows up like a ghost in pictures that I shoot every day, like this latch on the lid of a street sewer that made me feel like I was looking into myself; when a face appears in a swirl of walnut grain and reminds me of the guilt I felt when I pushed those civilian values aside; when I came upon a wool hat run over in the street with an earphone cord curling out of it, unplugged, and remembered how lonely I’d felt being unplugged from family members and friends; or when I saw a face in a candle holder that reminded me to take care of the little guy inside.

I think one of the best things that all of us could do to honor the men and women who fought in wars past and who are out there fighting for us today is to think of everyday as Veterans Day, to put a couple of minutes aside to appreciate what they’re doing for us and to try to understand what they’re going through and how it’s affecting them. And what I hope you never forget is that when war goes in here and in here, it never leaves.

Thank you.

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