The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
FEATURE
   
 

Kissing the Dead

BY WAYNE KARLIN
  Corpsman in Anguish 1967, (c)Catherine Leroy  
  CATHERINE LEROY, "CORPSMAN IN ANGUISH 1967" (c) CATHERINE LEROY

A corpsman, hunkered in a small nest of splintered, burnt-out trees, looks up, in anguish, towards the place where the enemy, or God, or some answer should be, though he knows by now it isn't. His mouth is open, as if he is asking the question anyway, or perhaps raising his face from what a friend of mine, an ex-medic, called kissing the dead. The corpsman has not saved the Marine whose chest his arm rests on now, the tips of his fingers registering nothing.

The photograph is the third of a series of four. In the first two, the corpsman is seen working desperately on the Marine, who has just been hit. In the fourth the corpsman has snatched up the rifle of the dead boy and is pressing up that hill.

The summer before this battle, the helicopter in which I was flying gunner landed in an LZ east of Hill 881 South, and we loaded it with dead and wounded Marines from another fight along the DMZ. Looking at the photograph, I think about how that dead boy also was handed up into the maw of a helicopter. All you can see of him next to the corpsman are bits and pieces of his equipment--a helmet, a bottle of bug spray still banded to it, part of a flak jacket, a canteen--and that's what bring me back, flips that image into another series of images, usually dormant in my mind. That's what the dead looked like on the deck of a helicopter. Like discarded equipment and shed garments.

Sometimes, flying back to Dong Ha, you looked at the clothing on the dead, and you would think how that morning or the night before their fingers had fastened buttons and strapped on 782 gear that now other fingers would unfasten. Only people who have not been in war or cancer wards or bad wrecks hold to the stupid confidence that what their fingers fasten in the morning will be unfastened later by the same fingers, or by the fingers they would choose.

You looked at the dead on the deck and they were just a tangle of ragged, filthy clothing and equipment. You didn't understand the word ``lifeless'' until you saw them that way. Yet at the same time they looked like you. Your eyes would go to their boots. They were caked with red mud and looked just like your boots. And then you'd understand that they were your boots.

The corpsman in the photo understood that. He had no illusions about his mortality but he sat up anyway, exposed, to try to save that boy. Then he moved up that hill, into the fire that shredded so many. Wasted. There was never a more accurate word. To say those boys were thrown away on that hill does not diminish them. It diminishes only those who threw them onto that pitted, splintered slope and stayed back behind the safety of oceans and cheered them on, as such cheerleaders always did. As they still do. One should probably not use the archaic word nobility when describing war. But there is no other word for the courage and willingness to sacrifice of the corpsman and the boys who flung their bodies up that useless hill they knew they would take just to give back; or of the boys who defended its seared soil as if it held the bones of their ancestors. The photo is one of the great war photos in that way. It's obscene and it's noble. Its obscenity grows from their nobility, from the waste of so many who could and would give so much.

Catherine Leroy covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and the Black Star agency from 1966-68, earning a reputation as one of the war's best and most daring photojournalists. Her photographs have been exhibited at museums and galleries around the world. She currently directs Under Fire: Images from Vietnam, a multimedia project that sells museum-quality prints of exclusive images of the Vietnam War by top war photographers at www.pieceuniquegallery.com

Wayne Karlin, a former Marine helicopter crew chief, is one of the most accomplished writers who served in the Vietnam War. His novels include the Vietnam-War-influenced Lost Armies and US. He co-edited the first anthology of Vietnam War veteran fiction, Free Fire Zone, in 1973 and The Other Side of Heaven: Post War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers (1995).
 

   

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