Combat Art

During the American War, the Vietcong had almost no access to film or developing chemicals, so there were dozens of soldiers who were also combat artists. They sketched in the field, sometimes making their own materials by combining gun oil and carbon scrapings from guns, and chewing the ends off twigs for brushes.

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They drew heroic scenes, images of nurses and medics taking care of the wounded, what camouflage looked like. Sometimes they drew portraits of soldiers, and more than once, these images were used to identify a body.

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Many of these images were shipped back from the front in coffins, then used to reassure people at home that the army was strong, being taken care of, solid.

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I spent 5 hours today fascinated by Sophie’s Art Tour, telling the stories of Vietnam through modern and contemporary art, weaving together nuances and answering questions I didn’t know I had. I’ve been reminded again since I’ve been here how little I really know about the various waves of colonization and their impact — sometimes when I’m trying to decipher when the Belgians vs. the French vs. the English vs. the Dutch vs. the Portugese vs. the Spanish had their mitts on some country I’ve been in, it all feels like that game where you lay your hands on top of each other’s one at a time and the goal is to be the one with the last hand on top — and it all turns into some massive hot handed slapping game (at least it did with my uncles).

Anyway. Sophie. Rather, Stu, Sophie’s partner, who unfolded the images and wove them together to make sense, first with an ipad tour while we drank iced tea and then in the Fine Arts museum and three gallery spaces. French colonization of Indochina in the early 19th c, (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos); Vietnam divided into 3 parts; Vietnamese nationals learning how to paint and draw from French schools; the French plantation owners brutalizing their workers and sending postcard images of punishments of those who dared rebel throughout the western world. (A woman on my tour pointed out that one of these images is a photograph – in other words, this was the early 20th century). Exhibits of exotic generic Asians in Paris. Japanese occupation of Vietnam during WWII (the Japanese were allied with the Germans, who were complicit with the Vichy government in France).

Meanwhile, Vietnamese national Ho Chi Minh had been wandering the globe for two decades, working as a pastry chef, a waiter, a cleaner, a stoker of boilers, while studying marxist-leninism. Immediately following WWII, he returned home and declared the emancipation of Vietnam. Which sparked the war between the French and the Vietnamese that lasted 9 years (the French lost), and the 1954 Geneva Accord that divided Vietnam between the north and the south.

The north was communist, led by Ho Chi Minh, and the south was technically a republic, but quickly mutated into an anti-communist police state, and the two sides were immediately locked in conflict. The polarization between the north and south scared the Americans, who wanted to protect western interests in the long coastline and prevent the “domino” effect of communism across Asia. They had supported the French war effort since 1950, and the American War began in earnest in 1963 and lasted until 1975.

While the Vietnamese were sketching battlefield images and biting off twigs to make brushes, the Americans had full force photography and film. Yesterday I saw images from the combat photography of the American and allied side in the War museum; we’re all familiar with the Time covers, the television coverage, the famous image of the napalm-burned naked girl running down the road. Those images were incredibly important — the first time a war was televised, and the capturing of human suffering contributed hugely to the turning of the American public against the war.

There was a parallel set of images happening in Vietnam off the battlefield, especially in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where the American GIs went for R and R, and whose money spawned westernization and a decadent underculture. Again, it was painting that really told this story. This image was painted in 1964. The painting is called “naked lady;” her hair is distinctly western, as are the bikini tan lines you can see if you look closely.

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This stream of art both captured the seeping in of western influences and protested it. A copy of this painting of a GI being serviced by a vietnamese woman was used in the US in anti-war protests, underlining the impact the Americans were having on Vietnamese culture.

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The western coverage of the war with technology, and the capturing of the American influence in Saigon, were such a profound contrast for me to the sketched battlefield images, the makeshift paint. The Vietnamese combat art was just as purposeful — propaganda, documentation, bringing the war into homes — but made by individual hands stroke by stroke. There’s something in that comparison that points to the gritty, inch by inch force that eventually pushed out the Americans, pushed out the colonists, and created this strange fusion of communism and entrepreneurship, this city of buzzing bikes, glowing neon, coffee shops, electronics, people swinging in exercise in the parks in the morning and in the early dark.

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