Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam – Don McCullin
The US marine sits and stares. Not at the camera lens, but at something beyond; at least this is the impression garnered from the photograph. He stares beyond the lens, beyond his immediate surroundings and beyond the Vietnam War. The look is of someone who might be seeing some astounding event or who has come to realize some great truth. At least that was my first reaction before I looked at the title again. . The truth of the image is that we see a soldier in a state of shock who is most probably thinking nothing at all. Don McCullin’s took the photograph during the battle for the city of Hue in 1968, when he lived with the US Marines in Vietnam.
The photograph evokes a number of initial reactions. One is curiosity, as we begin to wonder what the Marine is looking at behind the camera. However, as we realize that he isn’t seeing anything physical we feel deep sympathy, as is usually the way. A realization sets in that the Marine is seeing nothing and everything. The Marine is staring into nothingness, mentally observing and reflecting on what he has seen and experienced. And this reflection causes an immense stillness in the photograph. McCullin’s image is extremely simple, especially when considering it as example of war photography. And perhaps ‘simple’ is the wrong word. McCullin’s image is still, rather than bloody, gory or thrilling like an explosion. It does not capture any of the frenetic energy of a battle and does not strive to. Instead what the photo does is show the psychological damage of war. Though not immediately obvious, it is always present.
It is arguable that ‘Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam’ is not as effective at documenting the Vietnam war or it’s horrors because it is not as shocking as Eddie Adam’s ‘Saigon Execution’ or Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ or The D-Day photographs of Robert Capa. These photographs powerfully capture the horror of war, and aim to shock, outrage and disturb. For these reasons, it might be said that McCullin’s image fails to drive that horror into the hearts and minds of people.
However, McCullin’s image achieves an accurate depiction of the horrors of war, but in a different manner, due in no small part to its stillness. It should also be added that it is not out of the realms of possibility for ‘Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam’ to shock, outrage or disturb. Instead it demands sympathy and reflection right from the start and simultaneously evokes an enormous sense of sadness. As opposed to other photographs of wars which shock or anger you, and then once you have calmed down, cause sadness. The sadness for the Marine, the Vietnam War and war in general is immediate and no less resonant. In this manner, ‘in its stillness and quiet intensity, [it] says as much about the effects of war on the individual psyche as many of McCullin’s more graphic depictions of conflict and carnage.’
The composition of the image, with its stillness also goes some way to conveying the message that the brutalities of war are indescribable. A soldier’s experiences in war are very unique to him, and can never be fully described. Furthermore, no two soldier’s experiences are the same, even if they were at the same time and place. That’s not to say that there should be no effort made to document war, because there are many decent reasons to do so. But through not showing any of the frenetic action of war, McCullin’s image conveys the idea that war is not only very difficult to depict in a single image, but also that it is an extremely personal experience for those involved.
Humans are never more fragile than when in the field of combat and as such the Marine is suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just as countless soldiers have over the years. For this reason the picture differs from many other war photos, which may be very specific to the war that they are taken of. This may be due to the “imagery” of certain wars. To put it crudely, each war has its own look, which in a sense limits the photograph and can restrict the potential impact of the image. It is because Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam lacks the aforementioned details, and remains less a source of hard facts, but reflection, that it can be timeless. It is an image that has always been there and always will. It is an eternal picture of a soldier, of any background staring into nothingness because he is psychologically damaged. For this reason it is arguable that Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam has far more to say about war than many other pictures, but also has the potential to say this to far more people, not only now but in many years to come. As long as there is conflict there will be PTSD, meaning the photograph has potential far beyond the Vietnam. Centuries into the future when the Vietnam War though not entirely forgotten, will not be a common historical reference point for warfare, this picture will be able to convey it’s message to generations.
It should also be noted that McCullin did not remain unscathed by the battle for Hue. In an interview with Cambridge newspaper McCullin said, ““The more questions you ask me, the closer to madness I feel. I think I’m a sane person and then I think, “am I?” Sometimes I’ll be in my house and I’ll play Elgar, I turn the music up until the whole house vibrates and the cats are running away. It brings me to tears and I wonder what the meaning of my life has been.” The picture not only depicts the loss of innocence, but in the two weeks that McCullin photographed the battle for Hue, he lost some of his own.
But the focus remains rightly on the Marine who sits with his mouth closed and his eyes wide open, tightly gripping his rifle. The look on his face tells us that he has lost his innocence, yet the face is childlike and innocent. It is as if the marine has reverted back to a childlike state. Susan Sontag in ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ writes, ‘Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood’. Photographs like Shellshocked US Marine, Hue Vietnam help people to reach moral or psychological adulthood, because they confront us with the suffering of others. Furthermore Sontag believes that, ‘no one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of innocence, or amnesia’. The image should haunt us, just as the Marine is haunted. It should as Sontag believes remind us of what human beings are capable of doing, and makes sure we don’t forget. McCullin’s image not only serves the purpose of perennially reminding us of the terrible things we are capable of doing to each other, but especially of reminding us how fragile we are.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (Penguin Books, London, 2004)