We went to Vietnam and some of us came back
It has taken more than three decades for America to begin to come to terms with the Vietnam War—and with those who fought with us and against us. At best, it's a work in progress, but for encouraging signs that the healing process has begun we need look no further than the new National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, which has just co-published a book filled with the terrible beauty of Vietnam art.

Vietnam: Reflexes and Refletions is part coffee table book and part history book. Its recent publication—and the 1996 opening of the museum—is the culmination of 17 years of searching and collecting artwork done by Vietnam veterans. In some cases, that artwork was languishing in attics and basements—unappreciated and lacking legitimacy, even in the minds of some of those who created it. "To me, this collection is as important as the famous Chicago armory show in 1913 where Picasso and Matisse shocked the American art world," says UGA art professor Dick Olsen, who is a chief spokesmen for this new American art movement that he helped create.

The following vignettes were adapted from Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections (1998, co-published by Harry N. Abrams and National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum). Fortune Magazine called Reflexes "the first book to bring the work of Vietnam veterans to a mass audience."

Richard Jack
JD '83
Born: Newport, R.I., 1947
Army combat photographer
Vietnam tour: 1970-71
HQ: USARV, Da Nang

Jack in his Athens law office (right) and with a booster from a Russian rocket, detonated at Tam Ky, that killed one person in April 1971.

As convoys came over the Hai Van Mountains from Quang Tri and Hue south to Da Nang, they would become strung out and stop for stragglers. One routine stopping-point at the south end of the Hai Van Pass was the roost for several enterprising ladies who sold their wares to drivers.

I was taking photos of the drivers when this fortyish woman came into view. As I snapped a shot of her she broke into a knowing grin and pointed at me. She said something to the other ladies that I could not understand, but that was plainly a joke, sending them into gales of laughter. I've always had the feeling that the joke went something like this: If you're so rich, how come you're not smart?

Mama San. Photograph. 1971.

Although we had our cameras, our guns, our airplanes, our filter cigarettes, wealth beyond comprehension, we lacked the simple wisdom to observe the obvious fact that, beyond any shred of doubt, we were going to lose the war.

The camera does not blink, does not care, does not forget, does not interpret, does not impose philosophy or sophistry on the subject. These images are neither better nor worse than How It Really Was.

In time, because we're all getting "short," all personal memory of this war will be gone, but these unvarnished images will remain.

Karl Michel
MFA '82, PhD '99
Born: Atlanta, Ga., 1947
Army combat intelligence officer
Vietnam tour: 1968-69
HQ: 25th Military Det., Cu Chi

War seemed romantic until people died on Michel's first military operation.

When I got to Vietnam and saw my first freshly killed people, it hit me very hard because then I confronted the seriousness of what I was involved in: I had developed the information that led to an assault on a North Vietnamese Army position. These people were dead because I had started a chain of events that led us to a point of confrontation. This occurred on my first operation there.

My job was to provide intelligence information to units of the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. I went to Vietnam with a very romantic notion of what war was like. It didn't take long for all that fantasy to dissolve. I was shocked by the level of brutality, and it was even harder to accept when I found myself participating in it. I was involved in a lot of hostile interrrogations where people were beaten and tortured. I saw myself and others behaving in a manner that was very incompatible with my idea of how American soldiers were supposed to act. This vision of our darker side has become the basis for my art—or at least a starting point. My work is intuitive, and I do not attempt to present literal Vietnam imagery. Instead, I am concerned with representing the emotional reality of that experience, with directness and intensity. There is an impulse to anesthetize this raw material in order to make it more acceptable, but I feel there is a certain dishonesty in that.

Are these people following me around now? I do know that I can never erase the memory of their mutilated bodies, and particularly the smell of blood and cordite in the air. I am always interested that people see so much of the macabre in my images. I am cut off from this. It is almost as though I were immune—or perhaps I am just the messenger who doesn't know the content of his message.

Left: Egypt. Pastel on paper. 1987.
Right: The Agony of Others. Acrylic on board. 1994.
Top of page: Dead Patrol. Acrylic. 1982.

Four years after returning from Vietnam, I experienced a series of hallucinations accompanied by a flood of images and sensations from that time and place. The visions of people's faces obscured by a whipped-creamlike mask were so powerful that I had to do something with them. I started drawing them as a way of giving them a more objective reality. I've been making art ever since.

Art mirrors my desire to create and destroy. For many years the technique I employed reflected this dichotomy. I would put the paint on and sand it off over and over again, until an image gradually emerged and was refined. As I worked and reworked an image, I felt that many paintings eventually became one painting, with one narrative. The idea of telling that story seems important to me, but I'm never sure just what it is....

I made Loomings in 1983. I see the brown and red form as the trunk of a body, or even the trunk of a tree that has been mutilated. The title, from the first chapter of Moby Dick, reminds me of the fear of injury that was such a big part of my life in Vietnam. I feared having my arms and legs blown off more than being killed. Looming means imminent possibility. It's like a pressure—the pressure of anxiety. Also, I was constantly exposed to the mutilation of other people's bodies. It was omnipresent; one had to become hardened to it. I can recall looking into the empty skull of an NVA sapper whose brains had been blown out. I found myself thinking of the aesthetic qualitites of this image: the beautiful colors of red, purple, and violet. I guess Loomings is a reminder of those wounds to all those bodies: this one flayed trunk symbolizes that accumulated experience. I find that I have a very apocalyptic imagination; the whirling black face hovering in the upper right corner of the painting must have some connection ot my sense of this darker side of life. It's a stylized skull and crossbones, signifying death or danger.

There is often a prejudice against art that is done out of necessity.

Dick Olsen
UGA art professor
Born: Milwaukee, Wis., 1935
Army helicopter pilot
Vietnam tours: 1962-63
HQ: 33rd Transportation
Company, Bien Hoa

Olsen at Cu Chi (left) about 20 minutes after being wounded in the cockpit of his helicopter on Jan. 16, 1963. And today in his UGA office.

In the early years after the war I had to paint Vietnam in order to tell it. Nam became the only truth; the experience of the war became the authority to paint. After that, all else paled; everything else became absurd, trite. After all, why paint unless you must? You must when you can put your whole self into it. My self-appointment as an artist was catalyzed or crystallized in Vietnam. Here was a world larger than one could imagine: a world far beyond my control. In such a world men are identified by what they do: by deeds and especially courage.

As a pilot flying a helicopter, I read Ho Chi Minh's writings, and I understood that we were involved in a world process, not a local insurrection. That year in Vietnam, if it didn't kill me, would form the rest of my life, especially my life as an artist.

Left: Early Morning. Oil on canvas. 1964.
Right: Memorial to Tim Lang. Oil and gold leaf on canvas. 1964.

Flying was a performance; it took a certain skill, daring, and a sense of the urgency of the mission; it had to do with functioning under tension. It had to do with expecting a surprise at all times. You were always thinking about emergency procedures, getting hit in the flight controls, the blades, the transmission, the torque tubes, about fuel running low, being over enemy territory, about where to go in a forced landing, returning to a friendly place. Everything at once. Like art.

Toward the last day of my tour I began to know that I had to stay alive in order to paint. Then and only then I began to feel the need not to get wasted—I began to feel awe and wonder at the miraculous experience of staying alive. I saw that the same sense of urgency I felt in Vietnam was needed for painting. Being a painter, one continues to live at that level of urgency. My paintings, drawings and prints after I returned from Vietnam oiled the gears of my deep engagement in art, heightened and liberated my convictions about the war, and what art could be and needs to be.

Stan Gillett
MFA '85
Born: Dearborn, Mich., 1947
Army rifleman
Vietnam tour: 1969-70
HQ: 4th Battalion, northwest of Saigon

Gillett's primary focus in Vietnam was staying alive. Now a registered nurse who cares for people who are seriously ill, he wonders if he's doing "payback on the misery scale."

For me, Vietnam illuminated, in exquisite relief, the dark side of being: all the hypocrisy and good intentions, failures and heroics. As a simple enlisted grunt, I was not privy to information about how our unit coordinated with the big picture of the war. As a matter of fact, I didn't give a damn where I was. "They" were in control and my goal through the whole ordeal was to stay alive somehow. During the days we searched the terrain; during the nights we set up ambush. My dominating emotion, which ebbed and flowed but never diminished, was fear. I shared point position for six months, caught shrapnel in the legs, had dysentery and malaria. In the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay we had a sapper attack that w ounded hundreds of bedridden patients. The point is: I never felt safe anywhere.

This overriding sense of fear was probably the dominating influence in the art that followed 10 years later. Depression, anger, and outrage came and went, but I can still trace the lines of fear. I recall the smell when I came upon rotting bodies in the fields. I remember how the bones would project through the flesh: the strength of dead bones, their integrity, their clean dominance over life. Bodies fresh-killed in the rice paddies seemed somehow to support the geography —actually to hold the scene together physically. They were so serene and strangely formal; and very dead. I made these connections after the work was completed; while it was in progress, I could not read the sources.

I have been working as a registered nurse at a hospital. I nurse collapsed people and search for meaning that doesn't exist. Maybe I'm doing some payback on the misery scale?

Left: Bones One. Bronze. 1983. Middle: Self Portrait. Charcoal. 1983. Right: Bones Two. Lead. 1983.

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