09/23/2013 01:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Every Picture Tells a Story

Looking at the photographs included in Vietnam: The Real War, a newly-released, collection of 250 of the Associated Press's remarkable images from that brutal conflict, you scratch your head and wonder just why is it that we've never put an end to war? It is extremely painful and difficult to review those photographs and relive those memories. Weren't they -- the burning monk, the executed Viet Cong prisoner, the Napalmed Vietnamese girl -- supposed to convince us that all war is horrible, inhuman?

Obviously not. Since Vietnam, we've assembled a plethora of equally gruesome images from equally vicious conflicts, the latest being footage of convulsing, Sarin-gassed Syrians. Can we be moved to take action by a photograph, an image? Are we less moved now than we were then? Are we moved at all by what we see or do we avert our eyes and look away? And keep on looking away?

I'm reminded of this, both by the publication of these extraordinary photos in Vietnam: The Real War, but also because I think I know where true appreciation of the horror that's captured in these Vietnam images resides.

And that is with us Vietnam veterans.

We don't need a photo book to see these images in our heads, to agonize over the loss of our comrades, to distinguish in a split second between the fear in the eyes of a Vietnamese peasant and the danger lurking in a potential enemy, to wake up at night in a cold sweat ...

Don't misunderstand me. This is an impressive and historic collection. Yet as impressive the photography and as heroic the photographers (many of whom were killed in Vietnam), and as necessary the legacy, the story that isn't told in these images is how the nearly three million men and women who served in Vietnam have tried, unsuccessfully, to not keep seeing these faces and reliving those fatalities every day.

But they do.

I was struck most by this insight when my old friend and colleague, James Gill, put together a photo exhibit, and later a book -- Back in the World: Portraits of Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans, of portraits of several Wisconsin Vietnam veterans, myself included.


My family and I visited Jim's exhibition when it was on display in Madison nearly three years ago. Surrounded by these 30 portraits, his father among them, my son, choking back tears, uttered the truth that we all were witnessing. "None of them are smiling," he said solemnly. "Not a single one of them can smile."

We lost more than our smiles in Vietnam. Vietnam: The Real War reminds us why.