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The Face of Battle


Horst Faas, c. 1962 (AP Photo/File)

John Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (Library of Congress)

Earlier this month, renowned photojournalist Horst Faas died in Munich at the age of 79. He was the chief of photo operations in Southeast Asia for the Associated Press between 1962 and 1974. During his time in the field, he captured many powerful and iconic images of the Vietnam War.

In 1862, twenty-three-year-old John Edwin Forbes traveled to Virginia to capture stories and images of war for a civilian population no less hungry for news. Forbes’ drawings are the basis of the Virginia Historical Society’s new exhibition An Artist’s Story: Civil War Drawings by Edwin Forbes, which will be on display through December 2012.

In the 1860s cameras were unable to capture motion and newspaper presses couldn’t publish photographs. People at home relied on various illustrated newspapers to “see” the war. Just as Faas would do 100-years later, Forbes’s drawings did much to shape public perceptions during the war and our collective memory of the event when it ended.

When I took a careful look at Faas’s photographs of the Vietnam War  and compared them to the images Forbes produced nearly 100-years earlier, I noticed something rather amazing. They captured many of the same images.

In his 1976 book, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, historian John Keegan argued that the nature of warfare over the years has remained unchanged. “What battles have in common is human: the behavior of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation or catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension, usually also of faith and sometimes of vision; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self sacrifice and compassion.”

Faas and Forbes clearly understood the human drama of warfare and, thankfully, used their talents to record it.

A Friend in Need, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.60)
A Union soldier carries a wounded comrade on his back during the retreat of the Army of Virginia after their defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas, August 30, 1862.

An army medic carries a wounded U.S. sergeant from the battle scene in South Vietnam on March 31, 1967 during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

An Old Campaigner, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.145)
Standing with his hands on the muzzle of his rifle, this member of the 42d Pennsylvania Infantry looks intently forward. Forbes applies the term “old” to a man likely under 30-years-old.

A U.S. infantryman of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade is seen on a patrol near coffee and rubber plantations northeast of Saigon, November 29, 1969. Although his pose is slightly different, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities in their headgear. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

Off for the Front, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.68)
Battalions of troops from the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry sit on the tops of railroad cars carrying them to the front lines.

An amphibious tracked vehicle with a load of fully-armed Marines approaches a river southwest of Danang, South Vietnam, August 22, 1969. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

A Night Battle, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.87)
Forbes wrote: “Fighting in the dark was always one of the most trying and difficult phases of soldierly experience, keeping the nerves wrought up to the highest point of tension; and once the fight was over, and matters quieted, officers and men exhausted by the terrible strain dropped down upon the ground oblivious to all surroundings, and slept till daybreak.”

As the day breaks in the jungle area of Binh Gia, 40 miles east of Saigon September 1, 1964, paratroopers of the first battalion airborne brigade are silhouetted at a mortar position they have manned through the night against possible night Viet Cong attack. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

News at the Front, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.66)
Forbes wrote: “At the battle of Antietam, I was scanning through my field glasses at the long lines of Union skirmishers . . . when I noticed one of the men lying on his back, under shelter of a low bank, calmly reading a newspaper, regardless of the enemy’s bullets which continuously drove up the dust and made the chips fly from the rocks within a few feet of him.”

G.I.s take time out to read newspapers and magazines above and below their sandbagged bunker in a base camp set up in a jungle clearing in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border on November 28, 1966.

On a Stretcher, Edwin Forbes, c. 1890 (2008.139.69)

Medics rush Lt. Col. George Eyster on a stretcher toward a helicopter after he had been shot by a Viet Cong sniper at Trung Lap, South Vietnam, January 16, 1966. Eyster, 43, of Florida, died 42 hours later in a Bien Hoa hospital. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. isw7 permalink
    05/18/2012 1:45 pm

    A superb post! The juxtaposition of imagery is striking — and moving. It’s one helluva exhibit.


  2. 05/18/2012 2:17 pm

    Very interesting. Warfare technology may change, but the human element remains basically the same. Compelling images.


  3. Joseph Maghe permalink
    05/21/2012 12:52 pm

    Andy, thanks for the post… very evocative.


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