Larry Burrows: Vietnam
February 2003

by David Halberstam

Larry Burrows first went to Vietnam in 1962, when the war was still very small, and for the Americans at least (if not for the Vietnamese, who had been fighting in some form or another since 1946), still very young. He was thirty-six when he first arrived, just entering his professional prime, and it was the assignment he had always wanted. He had been too young for World War II. He was twenty-four in 1950 when the Korean conflict broke out, and he had tried desperately to go, but had been judged too young and too junior in Life’s pecking order. Vietnam, therefore, was going to be his war. He got there early and staked it out from the beginning, telling his wife, Vicky, that he was going to stay to the end and cover it until there was peace. He was hardly green at the time—he had been photographing as a professional for Life for more than a decade, he had covered violence in the Middle East and the chaotic tribal fighting in the Congo—but this story was going to be his own and he was going to see it through.

Because of that vow, along with his talent, his courage, and his particular feel for the Vietnamese people, he became the signature photographer of that war, a man whose journalism, in the opinion of his colleagues and editors, reached the level of art. He would stay in Vietnam for nine years. More than any other photographer and print journalist, his work captured the different faces of the war; for those of us who were there, opening this book brings the shock of recognition of scenes, some of which took place nearly forty years ago and are now almost forgotten. On one occasion, around 1969, after some seven years there, he had come back to New York and was visiting with his Life colleagues. Someone asked him how the war was going. “Well, you American chaps have quite a problem there. Thank God it isn’t my war.” “Larry,” said Ralph Graves, who was one of his editors, “if it isn’t your war, whose is it?”

Vietnam at the moment of his arrival was not yet that big a story, though it was soon to be the most important story in the world and to stay that way for nearly a decade. The Americans were not yet in a combat role and were still serving as advisers to the South Vietnamese Army, or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), as it was known. Larry Burrows was pulled to it from the start; he understood that this struggle had only begun, and that it was going to be, whatever the outcome, a bigger war and a much bigger story than anyone back in New York realized. I think he understood the unusually bitter quality of it because it was a civil war; it is in the nature of civil wars to be especially cruel and ugly. You can see the evidence of that in some of his very early photos of Vietnamese tormenting Vietnamese. He also knew the one great truth that the early generation of journalists and photographers who went there understood: that given the particular nature of this war—small units fighting all over the country—it was going to be, if you figured out how to go and look for it, amazingly accessible for a photographer.

That view went against the prevailing attitude of most of the photographic stars from the previous era who had made their reputations in World War II and Korea, and who more often than not judged Vietnam not worthy of their talents. (One notable exception was Robert Capa, who had gone to Indochina in 1954, late in the French war. On arrival Capa had toured the country and then told John Mecklin, the young American reporter with whom he was working, that it was a major mistake for the great professionals of World War II to put down this war. Scale did not matter, Capa said, and besides, this war had everything: great drama, great access, and above all, it placed great faces on the fighting. Shortly after he said that, Capa was killed by a Vietnam land mine in the Red River Delta.)

Larry Burrows was not to the manor born, nor did he start at the top. On the way to becoming the best of the best, his was a long, difficult apprenticeship. His father was a truck driver for the railroad system, his mother a housewife. He never went to college. Instead, in 1942, at the age of sixteen, he got a job in the lab in Life magazine’s London bureau. He was a gawky kid, unsure of himself, with a terrible stutter. He became a kind of lab rat, an all-purpose gofer doing all the tasks that no one else, certainly none of the stars, wanted to do, drying the film and running errands for the giants who were shooting the war—including Capa, whose film he processed. “Our darkroom tea boy,” Honor Balfour of the London bureau once called him, because among his other duties, he was to line up at the canteen and get coffee and tea and cheese rolls for his seniors in the office.

Though he intended to go into the service and become an Army or Navy photographer, his eyesight was so poor that the military rejected him, and he was conscripted by the government to work in the coal mines, something he hated. Whenever he returned to London from the mines, noted Ms. Balfour, his stutter was much worse. She became convinced that much of the humanity that was eventually reflected in his photographs grew out of that experience. The mines, she believed, “burned into him a hatred of suffering and forged a courage that carried him into the most dangerous situations in the world.” In time he was invalided out of the mines, and he returned to Life’s darkroom, where he printed thousands of pictures taken by the great photographers of World War II.

So Vietnam was what he had long been waiting for. He was drawn to it by both its elemental humanity and its parallel cruelty and violence, and by the fact that it lent itself so well to what he wanted to do—the magazine photo spread, which Life more than any other magazine had not only pioneered but had made its specialty. From the start, the best photos from Vietnam were his. He had a feel for the war and the people fighting it, for the special texture of it, and he understood as well that if you were going to be a photographer for a great photo magazine, this was the ultimate assignment, demanding the ultimate risk, for the two could not be separated, opportunity and risk.

He understood Vietnam’s special possibilities for a photographer who worked for Life: you had the luxury of time (and space); you could hang out with the troops and get to know them; and sooner or later, if you spent enough time in the field, if you did not find the war, then the war would find you. Other photographers, based as he was in Saigon but more often than not working for wire services—journalistic institutions that demanded far greater immediacy—were always on deadline. They regarded him enviously: a major operation would be launched, a plane or helicopter would ferry them from Saigon to the battle area, they would shoot as quickly as they could, and then they would rush back to Saigon, hoping to get their photo on the wire and beat their rivals. Perhaps if they were lucky they were able to get one or two exceptional pictures; but their work was not rooted as Larry’s tended to be. Larry used this luxury exceptionally well. He did not like to work as part of a pack—he was a loner by instinct. He would spend time in Saigon listening to his colleagues, trying to figure out where the good (or hot) areas were and what was at stake, trying to decide what he wanted to portray. And then he would go into the field by himself, settle in, and wait for the action. In time, he developed an almost perfect sense of what was at issue in the war at that particular moment, and what it was he wanted to shoot. Sooner or later it would all happen, and he would have his story.

What he represented is historically important: the last great photographer shooting an evolving war that was becoming more violent almost by the day for a great and deeply influential magazine (which was week by week and month by month becoming weaker and less influential). Even as he worked, the importance of still photography was being muscled aside by the coming of network television as the prime visual means of communication, in what was the first television war, or in Michael Arlen’s apt phrase, “the living-room war.” Larry arrived when reporters and photographers were still part of what was called the press, and not yet “the media.”

In 1963, he made what was his real Vietnam debut, his first major, long photo essay, which appeared in Life in January of that year. Much of that unprecedented fourteen-page story is reproduced in the opening chapter of this book. In effect the essay introduced both Larry and the war to millions of American readers. It is brilliant and disturbing storytelling. There are a number of photos in it that are especially jarring and which back in those more innocent days helped trigger a certain uneasiness among ordinary Americans back home: a South Vietnamese soldier holding a knife, towering over a cowering and terrified Vietcong soldier whose hands are bound; Vietcong prisoners, their hands bound, being herded into a sampan; South Vietnamese troops moving through a village, a hut burning in the background. “We Wade Deeper into Jungle War” was the article’s prophetic subtitle.

It was the kind of storytelling which set Burrows’s work apart. Another factor that made his work so exceptional was his stunning use of color. Here he was a pioneer, far ahead of his contemporaries in understanding how to use it. He had learned the hard way, through an exceptionally taxing apprenticeship. For Life had sent him to Europe as a young man to do a job that had seemed at first almost menial, to help in a project that was to reproduce great artworks in the magazine. In the beginning he had worked with Dmitri Kessel, and then in time he took over the assignment himself. It was a transforming experience.

He learned how great artists saw their work, and he became expert in bringing the true color of a great painting through to the pages of the magazine. He understood as well that when the conditions were right, color cast a special glow around the core of a photo, and created its own living ambience. Color, done right, was mood; mood, done right, became art. Some of that is clear in a note he wrote to his editors relatively early in the war: “I am very happy with the equipment I have. All I need is time and patience to use it to the fullest degree, plus God on my side to help with the lighting problems—to move the sun and the moon and the stars to the positions of my choice.”

He did not like to shoot black and white and color at the same time, because the best conditions and lighting for each were so different, and the effect of the photos was so different. “He was not like all the other photographers of that time when they shot color,” said his good friend Horst Faas, the distinguished Associated Press photographer. “The others tended to take the same photo twice, and the second time, instead of black and white film they used color—so the same people turned up in both photographs. Color was very different for Larry. He understood what it could do the way a great artist understands it and he used it like an artist—as if he were one of the Impressionists.” The results of that rare talent are evident in this book, in some ways hauntingly so.

He once talked the Vietnamese Air Force into taking the doors off a fighter-bomber so he could lean out and shoot as if he were virtually outside the plane—shooting color, of course. When other photographers asked for the same privilege, they were turned down. When they complained, they were told by the authorities, “Mr. Burrows’s request was granted not because he is a photographer but because he is an artist.”

Larry, like the rest of us who covered Vietnam, had no idea how long the war would last and how infinitely more violent it would become, consuming us not just physically but psychically as well. It would be the defining experience of our lives, and in his case, it would take his life. But he always knew the risks. Everyone there did, especially the photographers. We print people always knew that we could show up after the battle and by dint of our skills we could reconstruct what had happened. But the photographers had to be there, right at the scene—arrive a little too late and it was over. No one was there more often and got up closer than Larry. He was, said his Life colleague David Snell, either the bravest man in the world or the most nearsighted, because he pressed himself so close to the very edge of battle again and again.

He knew of course that he was not immune, that the risks were always there. He told Vicky that the camera made him invisible, that the other side could not see him and therefore could not kill him, as if there were some lucky star that would always protect him. Of course, he knew that was not true, and sometimes he would talk with her about how dangerous it had become; but for a long time his luck was very good. My colleague Richard Pyle once wrote of him that until the very end his run had been so good that it was as if enemy gunners tracking a chopper had received orders saying “Don’t shoot, that’s Larry Burrows out there.”

Nine years of covering the war never made him cynical or hard or immune to its cruelty. Quite the reverse. He seemed immensely sensitive to the plight of the Vietnamese and the Americans alike. He worried about the morality of what he was doing, photographing young men in their moment of greatest anguish, and understanding always the terrible truth that the greater the suffering, the better the photograph. When one of his great photo essays, “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13,” came out, he was very uneasy about showing such terrible tragedy with such painful immediacy. He was greatly relieved when the mother of one of the men killed in the operation wrote to tell him that his work had helped her to understand the war, and that she was grateful for the comfort she knew he had given her son in his final moments.

Larry was not a very political man—his work is always beyond ideology of any kind. It is distinguished by its humanity (a nonpartisan humanity). It is unusually sensitive to the victims of war. If he had begun by being something of a hawk, the endless stupidity and mindlessness of the war had gradually made him politically neutral. He covered it for nine years, from 1962 to 1971, watching the list of victims mount. In time he came to wear the pain of the war on his own face. In 1962 he was young and boyish, oddly handsome. By 1971, the face had not so much hardened as it had worn down, as if he had witnessed too much killing for too long. The last photo of him, taken by Roger Mattingly in February 1971, three days before Burrows was killed in Laos, is of a very different man, fatigued, exhausted, his eyes behind those thick lenses tired and fatalistic. He is only forty-four, but he is at that moment a very old forty-four.

After his death Ralph Graves saw that photo and said to Vicky, “Don’t you just hate the picture of Larry looking so haggard?”

No, she had answered, she did not; she understood it and liked it. “I never saw Larry looking like that,” Graves said. “Ralph,” she answered, “you never saw Larry working.”

He was the most inventive of men, always tinkering with his equipment, trying to make it better. He learned how to carry extra rolls of film in his socks. He designed his own fatigue jacket, with extra pockets, which suited his special needs, just as he designed an odd webbed structure that allowed him, when crossing through waist-high paddy water with five or six cameras, to lift all of them above the water level merely by raising his left hand, and to lift his camera bag merely by raising his right hand.

He was the most meticulous of men. If he had been out with other journalists on an operation, when they all returned to the base camp the others might rush to the bar to anesthetize their nerves. Meanwhile, Larry would be back in the small room the military had assigned him, carefully laying out all his equipment and cleaning every bit of it, checking and polishing his lenses, taking them off the cameras so he could ventilate the interiors. Then, even though his colleagues were almost surely still in their fatigues (and three drinks ahead of him), he would dress for dinner, in long-sleeved shirt and tie—“always the British gentleman,” thought his slightly envious friend Faas.

He was not entirely fearless. He was frightened of spiders and cockroaches, and if he thought there was even the smallest spider in his bathroom at home he would send Vicky ahead on an extermination mission. He was afraid of heights; when he shot from certain high-rise buildings he was terrified by the very idea, and he would explain to Vicky that he had gotten through it by discipline—he simply refused to look down. To the rest of us, of course, he seemed utterly fearless; we were all too aware of the risks we were taking, that each mission we went on changed the odds against us; and of course he had done it for so long, and therefore the odds were even less favorable for him. But he took those risks because they went with the territory; if you could not accept them, you went home. Again and again his editors, worried about his safety, would force him to take other assignments—the British East India Company, the Taj Mahal, the birds of paradise—and he would do them with his usual excellence, and then he would always return to Vietnam. He longed, he told the editors, to photograph Vietnam when the war was over, because the country was so beautiful.

I met him in 1962 in Saigon, when he was already a star. I thought then, and I think now, that he was one of the most elegant men I ever met. I have no memory of the stutter that others talk about. What I remember of him are these three qualities: his grace, his modesty, and his generosity. In those days, before the ascendancy of television and its star reporters, the photographers for Life and Paris Match were the princes of the profession, and many of them behaved exactly as such. Not Larry. He wore his own supreme talent and professionalism lightly.

He treated young men like me, not yet established, with courtesy and warmth. He seemed interested in what we thought, and he did not press his opinions upon us heavily. He was a very good listener. Everything he said was understated in a certain British way that is somewhat alien to Americans. If there had been a hellish firefight and he had narrowly escaped being hit, he might say that it had been “a bit dicey.” My colleague Gavin Young, of the Observer, remembers coming back to Saigon from one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and a young American reporter asking what it had been like, and Larry answering, “Quite lively in a way.” Then he had paused, and added, “You might want to be a little bit careful.”

He knew he was very good at what he did, but he never let that knowledge get in his way. I remember thinking that he was the kind of man I would like to be when I grew up and that that was the way you were supposed to do it—that if you were that good, people would know, and you would not have to do the advertising yourself.

He was much loved by a vast number of colleagues, who greatly admired the constancy of his work, the fact that he unfailingly caught the humanity of the war in combatants and noncombatants alike. We admired him as a man, because he kept photographing the war long after his own singular reputation was set in concrete and it was time to go home and let someone younger do it. He was determined to see the war through; he hoped someday to shoot the coming of peace.

Larry Burrows died three months short of his forty-fifth birthday. I write today thirty-one years after his death. He was mourned then both by those who were his friends and by those who felt they knew him because of his photographs, which brought so human a dimension to so cruel a war. In retrospect, he was as much historian as photographer and artist. Because of his work, generations born long after he died will be able to witness and understand and feel the terrible events he recorded. This book is his last testament.

© David Halberstam

David Halberstam is a legendary figure in American journalism. His landmark trilogy of books on power in America, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning have helped define the latter part of this century more than any journalistic works, and have won him innumerable awards as well as broad critical acclaim. David Halberstam graduated from Harvard, where he served as managing editor of the daily Harvard Crimson. He began his career as the one reporter on the Daily Times Leader in West Point Mississippi and later at The Nashville Tennessean before joining The New York Times in 1960. He first came to national prominence in the early sixties as part of a small handful of American reporters who refused to accept the official optimism about Vietnam and who reported that the war was being lost.


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