In Sight | Perspective
February 23, 2018 at 7:00 AM
Don McCullin, a British conflict photographer for nearly six decades, was knighted in 2016 in recognition of his work. He wrote the following essay for The Washington Post’s Outlook section in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
It was 50 years ago this month, and yet, almost every night, I lie in my bed remembering Hue. More than any other experience I had in more than five decades of covering war, it haunts me.
I had come to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1968 to capture what threatened to be an ugly fight: At the center of Hue was an old imperial fortress called the Citadel; the city was filled with thousands of civilians. U.S. Marines had been surprised by the North’s attack, and they were unprepared for house-to-house guerrilla warfare. Sunday newspaper subscribers needed to see pictures of the ensuing battle, I thought.
At 32, I’d already covered wars in Congo, Cyprus and Israel. I’d witnessed combat up close. I reviled violence, always, but journalism had also inculcated me with a certain dutiful attraction to conflict. I thought that in Hue, like elsewhere, I’d be able to walk right up to the fight and photograph it. I thought I had the stomach for the Tet Offensive.
But during 11 days inside the Citadel, I beheld all the ways that men live and die in war. I shot wars after Hue, but nothing so intense and dangerous. I witnessed the most incredible courage, too. But for what?
One day, a couple of yards away, I saw a soldier sitting and gazing into space. I asked the sergeant near him what had happened. “I don’t know,” he said absently. I dropped down on my knees and took five frames of that man. My “staring soldier picture” captured what men seemed to feel about what they’d endured.
Later, I photographed another Marine in a Christ pose against a wall while two others held him up. Snipers were everywhere. I asked his helpers to bring him to me so that I could carry him to a first aid station not far away. They tried to run over, but they fell, exposing a ghastly bullet wound under his hip. I lifted the injured man on my shoulders and ran him away from the battle.
This was an unusual thing for a photographer to do. I was not there as a medic or a lifesaver. I was not bearing arms and had no enemy; nobody was ever my enemy in a war. But I felt I needed to pay him back for the photograph of agony I took of him.
After several days of seeing carnage up close, I began to feel a certain encompassing trauma. I was among the oldest men in Hue. I could have left any time I wanted. Nobody would have blamed me. But I had come to show the world what conflict really looked like. Before me I had the most grisly — the most true — answer. How could I possibly walk away?
When I did leave, I could barely keep up a conversation anymore. I lifted off in a helicopter with the courageous French photographer Catherine Leroy. She was talking to me, but I simply couldn’t make out what she was saying. Back at the press center in Danang, I took all my clothes off for the first time in nearly two weeks and showered. I had been stoic enough in Hue, but at the camp, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t talk. I felt weak and vulnerable. All the soldiers I knew from the battle were the same way.
Elsewhere during the Tet Offensive, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams captured a famous photo of the national police chief executing a bound Viet Cong prisoner in the street. Reporters on the ground and even pundits back home thought his image would represent the turning point in the war. How could voters support a conflict they no longer found honorable? Yet it took seven more years to end the Vietnam War, and many hundreds of thousands more dead.
All the great images — then and even now — do not make any difference. They are proof of what happens in war, but they are like Christmas cards: They come every year.
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