Rants & Essays

Vietnam Mini-Series II
"Town and Country"

By Doug Clifford

When I went to Vietnam in 1968, I had already been looking at vivid images of the war for over three years-since 1965, which was the year I realized that I was going to be drafted. It was then that Vietnam became a reality to me. By the time my brother John went there in 1966, as a grunt in the 3rd Marines, Vietnam had become a part of the daily reality for my whole family. My mother kept scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine clippings and whenever I was home, my brothers and my mother had endless questions about what news I might have from the war and from John. So we watched as McNamara explained the bombings, and as Johnson reviewed the troops and visited the wounded. The daily papers showed us endless scenes of troops in combat, as well as shots of unfortunate civilian victims. We caught glimpses of life in the bush, along perimeters, in the rear, in and out of helicopters. We glimpsed operations undertaken in tremendous heat, in unfamiliar, strange terrain. We saw soldiers: young, very young, black, white, Hispanic, happy, sad, hurt, afraid, laughing, crying, going to and coming from Vietnam. Sometimes we saw Vietnamese in these pictures. We saw them shuffling down the road carrying their belongings or, if they were affluent, pulling a two-wheeled cart. I could not conceive that these people might be farmers, shopkeepers, barbers, mothers, uncles, or teenagers whose homes and businesses we had just destroyed. It never occurred to me that these people had jobs, families, problems, rent to pay, and property to maintain. We got to see the chief of police in Saigon blow out the brains of a captured Vietcong whose hands were manacled behind his back, but we never got to see a mother putting the rice on to cook for supper.

When I got to Vietnam I saw many of the images that were not provided through media or military sources. I still recall clearly a scene from my first day in the country. We had flown to the coastal city of Qui Nhon from Cam Ranh Bay, and those of us who were headed elsewhere (to Phu Cat air base where I had been assigned, and to other places inland) had to find our own transportation. Without much trouble we found a truck and an agreeable army driver who was going our way. Beyond the base and past the edge of town the countryside became farmland. Hills rose in the distance, beyond the rice fields. The heat was striking in its intensity but bearable because of the breeze we felt on the back of the truck. Even through the haze the verdant green of the fields was beautiful. Occasionally we saw small houses beside the road and people working in the fields. At one point, under some trees by the side of the road, a small stand, like a farm stand, had been assembled. At the stand, behind wooden crates, were two small boys, perhaps six or eight, selling Orange Crush and Coca-Cola in bottles displayed in rows and piled on top of each other in small pyramids. We passed by and shortly they were gone from sight.

Momentarily I was stunned. Here I was in Vietnam, in a war, headed toward my duty station not knowing what to expect, and kids were selling soft drinks by the side of the road while the grown-ups worked the fields. There was obviously some kind of hoax going on. All of a sudden I felt as if I was in a parade and the beautiful scenery was part of the decorous route that had been set out for us.

The irony of that brief encounter never left me while I was there, and it is with me still. Evidently, whatever mission I was on was not shared by those I saw around their homes and fields, tending their wares. There are many sophisticated explanations for the scenes I witnessed on that first day, but none have cut through the reality of what I experienced then. Vietnam was, and is, a land of peasants. That day I saw people trying to feed themselves but managing to do so only on a subsistence level. And people who are hungry are not worried about communism or Communists.

During the year I spent in Vietnam I saw the Vietnamese more and more as people with families. The places where they lived were home and they had jobs. Some of them were farmers and some were not. Sometimes they related to each other as friends, other times they didn't seem to like each other. This was the reality to which I was drawn. I wanted to take pictures of little children looking like children. I wanted to show the beauty of the landscape. The pictures I took of the people and their country were intended to be positive and to help people at home understand a little more about the Vietnamese people and the country that was-and still is-Vietnam.