If ever there was a war defined and illuminated by photography, it was the war in Vietnam. And if ever there was a photographer who left his imprint on the unforgettable images of Vietnam, it was Horst Faas.
The German-born Faas died last week in Munich at the age of 79. Even though he was on the front lines of most major events from 1960 onward, it was during his time in Vietnam that his craft had a searing impact on the consciousness of the American public.
I had every good intention of meeting this award-winning combat photographer during my 365 days in the Army in Vietnam in 1970-71. The Army information office where I worked was staffed with several good photographers, all of whom had a copy of a famous Faas photograph on their desks. And why not? Faas brought a clarity and precision to the war that no one else had, or ever would. Often accompanying his Associated Press (AP) colleague Peter Arnett, Faas was always out in the field, "in the shit" as the GIs used to say, capturing the majesty and the horror that is war. Even after a rocket-propelled grenade wounded him in 1967, he continued to exert his impact on the war's images by directing AP photo operations in Saigon. It was he who directed Eddie Adams to go into the streets of Saigon to cover the Tet Offensive. Adams came back with the photo of the Saigon police chief executing a captured Viet Cong suspect on a Saigon Street.
And it was another of Faas's protégés, Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, whose older brother was among the 70 journalists killed in Vietnam, who photographed a terrified, naked and scarred Vietnamese girl fleeing an aerial napalm attack in 1972. These and other Faas images and influences earned him four major photo awards and two Pulitzer prizes.
Horst Faas wasn't just brave. He was industrious and instinctive, too, often anticipating where the next good story and iconic image was. He more than anyone put a face and a name to the South Vietnamese people and their struggle.
Soon after I arrived in Vietnam in late 1970, I was sent to cover the arrival of Bob Hope for another of his annual holiday shows for troops stationed there. Mr. Hope and his entourage would arrive at Tan Son Nhut Air base near Saigon, and I was even more excited to perhaps meet some of my journalistic idols, reporters such as Peter Arnett and Horst Faas and Joe McGinnis and Gloria Emerson and others who were covering the war. To my disappointment, Faas and Arnett has just left Vietnam on a cross-country tour of my own country, the United States, to give their perspective as foreigners on what America was like in 1970-71.
Later that same year, when our troop numbers were dwindling and our information office no longer had staff photographers, I was given my own camera and told to take my own photographs while covering stories for the U.S. Army. About that time, Horst Faas won his second Pulitzer for his gripping photos of torture and execution in Bangladesh.
Alas, I never met him in Vietnam, nor did I ever take a photograph half as good as any he took during his decade in Southeast Asia.
Two years ago, my colleague Craig Werner and I were contacted by the folks at The Museum at Bethel Woods. They were hosting the Vietnam "Wall That Heals" exhibit at the site of the historic 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The exhibit included photographs by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams, and we were asked to suggest a soundtrack of Vietnam-era music that would resonate with Vietnam veterans. We provided a list of more than 60 songs that Vietnam veterans have talked to us about in the course of our research for a book on the impact and influence of popular music and the soldier/veteran experience during Vietnam War.
Later we were contacted by the museum director who told us that Eddie Adams's widow was very moved by the music we'd chosen, as I'm sure audience were by the photographs of Eddie Adams, many of them approved by Horst Faas.
I wish Horst Faas had been able to travel then, to see the photo exhibit and listen to the music. He could have had a story to tell and a few songs to share as well, since he played the drums for a black GI jazz band in Germany during the postwar Allied occupation. And he might have agreed that music can help us to understand some of the stories that the photographs can only begin to explain.
And that we're still trying to unravel the story that was Vietnam.
(NOTE: See some of Horst Faas' s striking photography here.)
In his blog earlier this week -- "Life in the Faas Lane" -- Doug Bradley neglected to reference former Saigon AP bureau chief Richard Pyle's obituary of Horst Faas as the source for information about Mr. Faas's drum playing for American GIs after World War II. He regrets the error and salutes Mr. Pyle and all the courageous journalists who covered the Vietnam War.