"ALetter from Home, 1971" © David Burnett
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
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
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.
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
Museum-quality prints of this
photo and others in a series entitled "Under Fire: Images From
Vietnam" are available for purchase from
www.pieceuniquegallery.com This is the third in a series
initiated by combat journalist Catherine Leroy.