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

May/June 2003

The Heat of a Vietnam Day



  (c) David Burnett  
  David Burnett, "ALetter from Home, 1971" David Burnett  

In David Burnett's haunting image, fixed in time, liberated from time, I see a sad, familiar yearning on the face of this young soldier, a longing for all that he cannot have, all that he may never have: a family, a child, a wife, a backyard barbecue with neighbors, a cold beer, a Big Mac, clean sheets, clean socks, a mother's touch, an uncomplicated laugh, a solitary walk through the woods, a Christmas with pretty lights and mistletoe.

I see the heat of the Vietnam day. I see the filth baked to his face. I see the looming machinery of war. I see the long, deadly nightmare that lies ahead for this soldier, all the toil and danger and frustration and terror and guilt and self-pity and second thoughts and moral ambiguity. Most vividly, though, I see a kind of wistful, old-man wisdom in the soldier's eyes, in the thoughtful tilt to his head, as if he has now come to understand things he had never before understood.

He understands his own mortality. He understands loneliness. He understands that which is truly valuable in our world, and that which is so often taken for granted, all the simple things. At war, he now understands peace.

In a sense, too, I also see myself in this photograph. I see the young man I once was and will never be again. As though gazing into some historical mirror, I recognize my own fear and distress of 30-odd years ago, my own pensiveness, my own craving for something better. I am reminded of how impossibly old I have become.

How little things change. How human beings always find such wonderful reasons to kill one another. How this young man's sad eyes could just as well be the eyes of a Civil War soldier, or the eyes of a POW on this evening's news broadcast out of Baghdad.

Who knows, really, what the young man is contemplating at this fast-frozen moment in time? But I do know, with near certainty, what he is not contemplating. He is not contemplating military strategy. He is not contemplating geopolitics. He is not contemplating how splendid it would be to sign up for a new war. He is not contemplating how patriotic and poignant and beautiful it would be if his unborn son were some day to fight a war of his own.

David Burnett went to Vietnam as a freelance photographer in 1970. His work regularly appeared in Time magazine, and, later, in Life. He joined the French photo agency Gamma in 1973, and co-founded Contact Press Images in 1976. Burnett has worked in more than 70 countries, revisiting Vietnam twice in 1994 and 2000.

Tim O'Brien is the author of the National Book Award winning Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, four other novels, and the stylized memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. He served as a rifleman with the Americal Division's Alpha Co., 5th of the 46th Infantry in Vietnam in 1969-70.

Museum-quality prints of this photo and others in a series entitled "Under Fire: Images From Vietnam" are available for purchase from This is the third in a series initiated by combat journalist Catherine Leroy.


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