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“Images of Vietnam: March 1970-February 1971”

“Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation”

Indefinite exhibit at the Museum of American History

Some sad anniversaries have put Vietnam in the news again—it’s been 20 years since the fall of Saigon, 25 since Kent State. Yet until now, the war has been largely off-limits in our national museums. Interpreting Vietnam means laboring in the shadow of the Veterans Memorial on the Mall, already an icon of national mourning. And if the Enola Gay can shake up the Smithsonian a half-century later, what of a war laid to rest barely 20 years ago? In a stab at consensus-building, the Smithsonian is unveiling its first exhibit to deal directly with the American war in Indochina. Currently at the Museum of American History is “Images of Vietnam: March 1970-February 1971,” an exhibit whose neutral title might portend a tourist junket (now a common way to visit Ho Chi Minh City) were it not for the grim dates that bracket it.

Given the bitter and divisive topic, the Smithsonian had the good fortune to find a man for all seasons. Stephen Warner, war protester and law student, was drafted by Uncle Sam in 1969 and assigned to Vietnam as an Army journalist. “Images” is comprised of his photographs—illumined by excerpts from letters and field notes—and disclaims any attempt at being a comprehensive history. A few days before his tour was to end, Warner was killed in an ambush near the Laotian border, a tragedy that colors this photodocumentary of a year in the bush. Warner is a kind of reluctant Everyman: He protested the war, he served when called, he gave his life. Today he would seem immune to the political sniping of hawk and dove alike.

In one sense, “Images” is a plain-spoken retort to the celebrated photojournalism of the war. Seekers after the usual mayhem will be disappointed: There are no burning monks, no refugees scarred by napalm, no executions of VC prisoners—a few bleary-eyed grunts are as close as the exhibit comes to the winds of war. In most of these simply framed prints (from 8-by-10 to 30-by-40 inches), shot with a 35mm camera, the rifles and cartridge belts could almost be fishing poles and camping gear on a wilderness outing—so casual are the poses, so unobtrusive Warner’s personal beliefs. The camera makes the fighting seem a backdrop to more immediate—if mundane—matters, a testament to the adage that war is nine parts boredom, one part unmitigated terror.

None of which is to say that “Images” is boring. We see soldiers washing up, tying down a tent, dishing out grub, reading letters, sleeping, praying. The men are accorded a respectful anonymity throughout. A GI crouched next to a mortar glances up from reading a copy of the Mississippi Press. A soldier with a wry smile sits with a Christmas stocking hung on a gun barrel. A patrol crosses a river, rifles held chest-high—the show’s closest approximation of a conventional combat shot. The nearest it comes to exotic is a few GIs helping locals load an elephant with provisions. With few exceptions, the photos almost strain not to be symbolic. The words that accompany the exhibition—Smithsonian commentary and excerpts from Warner’s letters—also mention body counts, morale problems, and hard drugs, though these are barely visible in the photos.

The focus on field life in these 50 black-and-white photos—chosen from over 2,000—isn’t surprising. Warner’s acknowledged hero was journalist Ernie Pyle, beloved chronicler of the World War II infantryman. So “Images” turns a controversial war into a touching document of social history, even if some of its allusions are hard to grasp. One field shot of a couple of GIs, for example, has an Army censor’s scrawl across the bottom: “Paint out beads.” Peace beads, that is—though there is no explanation of this in the text.

Warner is all the more compelling a man because he changes. Though his opposition to the war persists, he’s slowly drawn into the excitement of his work. “I wouldn’t give up what I’m doing now for the world,” he notes several months into his tour, a bitter irony for the Army SP4 who will be dead inside a year. He admits to a growing callousness, a transformation that the images—vigilant in their humane depiction of his comrades-in-arms—hardly reflect.

“Images” was curated and displayed in 1993 at Warner’s alma mater, Gettysburg College, in commemoration of his 25th class reunion. The exhibit moved this year to the Smithsonian with modest—but telling—changes. “War” was stricken from the exhibit title. An emotional photo of a hangdog-looking soldier was moved from the show’s front panel to the middle of the gallery. The Smithsonian added numerous wall panels to provide historical context, seemingly uncomfortable letting Warner’s pictures and words speak for themselves.

“It doesn’t make a political statement,” affirms Jennifer Locke, manager for the exhibit and museum specialist at American History. “The images aren’t trying to say that war is bad.” A couple of days before “Images” opened in February, she adds, Smithsonian higher-ups ordered that the front panel text be changed, striking references to domestic dissent and public doubts about Vietnam, a decision prompted by fallout from the Enola Gay incident. A moving if modest exhibition, “Images” sheds light not only on the world of Stephen Warner, but on politicization of current curatorial practice.

Tucked away in the opposite wing of American History’s third floor is the other Smithsonian exhibit that addresses Vietnam (but not the war directly). Though “Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation” opened in 1992—co-sponsored by the Smithsonian and National Park Service—it is an evolving display. A collection of objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Legacy” has selected some 1,500 pieces from over 25,000 collected between 1982 and 1991. Curators will soon be rotating items from storage to display as a way of renewing the collection and satisfying the recent surge of public interest in Vietnam.

“Legacy” has the dual charge of being a shrine and a time capsule. Small but intense, the exhibit is doused with emotion, much of it provided by the power of everyday objects. An autographed baseball, a varsity letter, a golf driver, a stuffed bear—the plainest things become personal totems. There are more searing mementos, too—an amputee’s sock, a returned Congressional Medal of Honor, POW and MIA bracelets. It is a haunting display that works through a kind of collective voyeurism, allowing us to look at keepsakes from a war that—in retrospect at least—has barely been granted a public forum.

Some of the offerings, stamped with corporate trademarks, would seem to belie the Wall—inscribed as it is with over 58,000 names, a monument to individuals. A six-pack of Bud stands by a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. A pack of Kools, a pair of Mouseketeer ears, a Buffalo Bills pennant—mass commercial symbols become emblems of deep attachment. (Indeed, one of Warner’s most touching shots in “Images” is of a GI fondly reading a letter, a can of Pabst balanced at his feet.) The wrenching of things from marketplace to museum gives them a stark but curious poignancy.

The items, of course, have undergone another journey, having been moved from the memorial—the most funereal space on the Mall—into the noisy corner of a national museum. (I was told there have been no complaints about this by the original donors.) Oddly, some people have difficulty separating “Legacy” from the Wall. Museum employees routinely collect items that have been wedged through cracks in the display case—dog tags, Army-issue can openers, a St. Christopher’s medal. For such visitors, “Legacy” has become an extension of the Wall, a shortcut to becoming a visible part of the collective mourning.

In fact, a unique attraction and a drawback of “Legacy” is that it is curated by the public—sort of. The exhibit is intended to reveal the full scope of objects left at the memorial during its first decade, but what we see isn’t quite a random sample. The Smithsonian refuses to display anything received after “Legacy” was announced in 1991 —fearing that the exhibit would change the reason why some people left things at all—but it seems clear that word about a show had gotten out long before. A repro POW tiger cage in bamboo (glass shards scattered inside) is more of a political than a personal statement, unlike most of the items spontaneously left in the early- to mid-’80s. A 1988 card signed by the Reagans on White House letterhead—a rather self-conscious nod to posterity—pays a glowing tribute to those who fought in the war.

Also the project manager for “Legacy” as well as “Images,” Locke avers that the exhibit is twice removed from Vietnam—the reflection of a reflection. The collection is, she says, “representative” of objects left at the memorial—military and nonmilitary; donated by friends, family, and strangers from home and abroad. There is a multicultural mix, too: a menorah, a triangular plaque commemorating gay soldiers (protested by one vet through his congressman), eagle feathers with beaded quills. “The only thing we didn’t choose to put in,” adds Locke, “were kill photos”—shots of corpses, and severed ears and fingers. They didn’t seem to serve any purpose, she explains, and represent a tiny part of the collection housed in a Park Service warehouse in Maryland.

Curators, rangers, and visitors talk about the “catharsis” of these exhibits. Locke says that one vet openly wept to see a letter he had left at the Wall included in “Legacy.” The irony is that America’s most uncensored war (while it was being fought) feels the cautious hand of self-censorship today. “I don’t think America is ready to look at a historical analysis of Vietnam,” Locke concludes. In fact, an exhibit on the war planned for the Air and Space Museum in 1998—scheduled for the same gallery as the luckless Enola Gay—has been postponed. The Smithsonian has taken to heart, some 40 years later, the advice of Gen. MacArthur after Korea (another forgotten place): “Don’t get bogged down in a land war in Asia.”