As the tempo of the drums of war accelerate in the Middle East, and two more U.S. troops are killed in Afghanistan, it is an occasion to pause and reflect on a previous conflict and the need always to consider the very human face and cost of war.
This summer will mark a half century since the historic summer of 1969, the end if not the apogee of the Sixties. In a few short months the nation was thrilled and startled by events such as Woodstock, the Apollo Moon Landing, the Stonewall riots, by Senator Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, the conviction of Muhammad Ali for draft evasion, and the Manson murders. Movie goers were enthralled by “Midnight Cowboy” and Americans were reading Slaughterhouse Five. They listened to music from “The Age of Aquarius” and Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising.”
Seldom far removed from any of these was the intense emotional debate over the American War in Vietnam. In the spring of 1969 there were major antiwar protests on a number of college campuses and in June President Richard Nixon announced the beginning of the drawdown of American troops from Vietnam. In early July, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded in a Montreal hotel room on Memorial Day weekend.
And, quietly, evocatively, in that noisy summer of acoustic protest and televised drama, Life magazine on June 27 published an issue with the cover story, “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It is hard to calculate today the impact of this issue, ironically coming at a moment when the great photo magazines of the previous half century were losing money and influence.
Television news footage of the war was often powerful but due to the need to ship film back to the American networks it was often dated and quite transitory. The great enduring images of the war often came from photographers.
But even the prize-winning photographs of chaos, of combat, and of death seemed distant, surreal, compared to the photos that Life published in 1969. And more than newsreels could, these photos had an impact on American perceptions of the nature and the cost of the war. It was personal – and devastating.
The magazine had 12 pages of photographs, listing the 242 Americans whose deaths had been announced by the Department of Defense for the week of May 28-June 3. In yearbook style, the photos, provided by families of the dead, largely were high school graduation pictures or Basic Training/Boot Camp photos. So many looked so young.
By the end of May 1969, over 43,300 Americans had died in Vietnam. Over 6300 died in the first five months of the year. The Pentagon provided weekly tallies of this growing cost. But tallies and numbers tend to abstract, to dehumanize the costs of war. Television broadcasts from the combat zones would touch on losses but were not able to name the dead. Local newspapers typically did include photographs with their obituaries, but this acted to isolate the impact, the grieving.
These photographs shocked in the aggregate. But even more, the individual images personalized and humanized the numbers. The photos reminded readers of sons, grandsons, siblings, classmates, boys from next door.
Ironically, cruelly, this feature story seriously understated the actual cost. The list included all of those announced by the Pentagon for the week-- releases that only came after the families had been informed. And informing families was often a delayed process. So it is the case that many of those included in the story had died earlier. The true tally for those who died in the week spanning May and June was double the Life figure: 446 Americans actually died in that week.
The average age of those pictured in Life was 21. Fifty-one of them were teen-agers. There were also men in their 30s and 40s, one of whom, the Life editors noted, had seven children. Nearly two-thirds of the junior Army enlisted men were draftees. Their hometowns were in 46 different states, from cities and towns and farms from Seattle to Miami to the Navajo Reservation, from Maine to Honolulu to two who called Puerto Rico home. William Gearing, Jr,. a twenty-year old soldier from Greece, NY was on the cover of the magazine.
Twenty-seven were African American and two were Native Americans. The Pentagon did not compile data on Hispanic service members but surnames suggest that at least seven or eight of them were Hispanic. Indeed, the names on the list suggest a cross section of American national and ethnic groups.
One hundred ninety were in the Army and 49 were Marines. Three served in the Navy. Of the Army casualties, six of them were among the 72 who had died in the major and controversial May battle on “Hamburger Hill” in the Ashau Valley.
There was a national reaction to and conversation about this issue. Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson referred to it in their national columns. Newspapers from Canyon, Texas to Charleston, South Carolina wrote of the story. Some were critical, describing it as an anti-war ploy. Most were not. As the Sault Ste. Marie, MI Evening News wrote, “One cannot fail to be profoundly moved by these photographs of men who, with only a few exceptions, died at an age that for most of us is but the threshold of adult life.”
A Des Moines resident wrote to that city’s Register that he did not know how any of the nation’s leaders could look at the photos and “not see the utter waste of all these young men.” Pearson, the columnist, observed that Life had its largest reader response in years. Some criticized the editors for, as one Texan wrote, supporting “the antiwar demonstrators who are traitors…” An Indiana reader observed, “No peace demonstration, no dovish editorial, no antiwar speech could approach the mute eloquence of those young faces.”
There is no way to assess the impact of the magazine on attitudes toward the war. Clearly it appeared at a time when the war had become the leading issue facing the nation and there was decreasing support for military involvement in Vietnam. In July 1965 Gallup reported that 24 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should withdraw or stop fighting in Vietnam. By July 1969 55 percent thought there should be de-escalation/withdrawal.
In early July, the New York Times published an account of members of the 9th Marines preparing to ship out from Vandegrift Combat Base as part of the initial drawdown of American troops.
Several were looking at the Life issue, looking for pictures of friends. As one officer noted, “The people just don’t realize what these guys have been through.”
Across the country some did realize. These photographs were of young men they knew. A mother in Utah met the soldiers who came to inform her of the death of her 18-year old son by embracing his young brother and saying, “You are not going to get another one!” A young widow in Iowa asked that there be no firing squad at her husband’s burial, saying he had already had enough gunfire. A young Marine from Quincy, Massachusetts who had joined after a friend was killed was mourned in the large Irish-American community there. A soldier from Oregon was buried in the same grave as his brother, an earlier casualty of the war in Vietnam. A young black Marine who had already been wounded three times and just wanted to be home with his mother in North Carolina, came home finally, with a Marine Corps honor guard after his death on May 29.
The Life editors prefaced this article by reminding readers that the weekly statistics and numbers of dead “were translated into direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country.” They suggested it was time for the nation to “pause to look into the faces.”
This advice remains true today, as the Pentagon just released the identities of the two latest casualties of war. It is too easy to abstract casualties into numbers or minimize deployment as “boots on the ground.” We need to look into the faces to see who wore these boots, to always remember the very human cost of war.
James Wright a historian and President-Emeritus of Dartmouth College, served in the Marine Corps. His books include “Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them” (Public Affair Books 2012) and “Enduring Vietnam: an American Generation and Its War.” (Thomas Dunne Books 2017) The latter was a finalist for the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
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