The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
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September/October 2002    


The Universal Soldier


His eyes were the first thing I noticed because I didn't see them. I was aware of them in the way you're aware of anything that's invisible but tangible, like heat or cold or a sudden change in air pressure. You could say I felt them and their lightless, distant stare, almost completely hidden in the shadow of his helmet's brim. It was only after I'd looked at this photograph for a while that I saw them in the conventional sense: four white crescents cradling dark pupils, whose expression was so haunted that I couldn't meet their gaze for more than a few seconds before moving on to the dirt-smudged, bearded face, the filthy flak vest, and the hands clutching the barrel of an M-16 rifle.

The hands are almost as arresting as the eyes. There is a tension in them, even a desperation, as if the Marine were a drowning man clinging to the one thing that can save him. There is, in fact, a tension in his entire body, a coiled quality that seems to represent some knife-edge balance between terror and ferocity. He is both predator and prey, both active agent and passive sufferer. That pretty much defines what a combat soldier is.

He is often described as shell-shocked, but I don't think he is. To be shell-shocked is to be incapacitated, and this Marine appears anything but. The set of his mouth and jaw, the slightly forward thrust of his shoulders, and the taut grip on his weapon suggest a man waiting to go into battle. His eyes don't suggest, they tell us he's been there before, more than once, and that he knows exactly what's waiting for him. He is without a shred of illusion, and his only hope is to get through the next five minutes, maybe the next thirty seconds. That's his idea of a future; and if he survives and lives to a very advanced age, he'll never be older than he is now.

I think this is one of the most remarkable images of war ever made. Not of the Vietnam War, but of all war at all times. Change this Marine's helmet for a blue or gray flannel cap, and he's at Antietam or Shiloh. Put him in a tin hat and he's a Tommy at the Somme. Dress him in a thick wool coat instead of jungle fatigues, and he's a Russian at Stalingrad, an American at the Bulge. Exchange his M-16 for an M-1, and he's at the Chosin Reservoir.

He is, I've come to realize, myself, after a helicopter assault into a landing zone raked by mortar and machinegun fire one late January morning in 1966.

Because of its timeless message, I chose this picture to be on the cover of A Rumor of War. Indeed, it is the cover. Don McCullin, my editor, Marian Wood, and I tried to find out who this Marine was. We failed, and I think that's fitting. To give him a specific identity name, rank, service number would be to lose something precious. He is in his anonymity the Universal Soldier.

We hope he survived and went home with body and mind intact. We hope he is now living somewhere in America, perhaps putting a kid through college, perhaps awaiting the birth of his first grandchild. We hope his nights are no longer rent by dreams of blood and fire and chaos. We hope God's peace is upon him, because God knows he's earned it. We hope those eyes of his, gazing upon tranquil scenes, have recovered their lost light.

Museum-quality prints of this photo
and others in a series entitled
"Under Fire: Images from Vietnam"
are available for purchase at


Photogragh by Don McCullin,
"Portrait of a Marine during the Battle of Hue, 1968"
Contact Press Images

Photograph by Don McCullin, Portrait of a Marine during the Battle of Hue, 1968


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