I have a soft spot in my heart for Tim Page, despite my normal inclinations. Those inclinations run to skepticism and distain for the numerous reporters who imbibed what we referred to as the "5 o'clock follies," that is, the American military's official version of the war, and simply filed their dispatches uncritically. Of course, there was that minority of reporters who insisted on going to "the field," and seeing the story for themselves, taking the same chances the "troops" routinely did, and making up their own minds. I'd include Neil Sheehan, and in other wars, Dexter Filkins and Sebastian Junger in that category. But even for those in the latter category, I am ever mindful of a line from the movie, Doctor Zhivago  [DVD
]. It is the beginning of World War I, the straw hats are being thrown in the air, men are enlisting, including Tom Courtney, who played the Red commander, Strinlikov. It was Zhivago half-brother who observed Strinklikov, dissatisfied with his wife (Julie Christie), and he said: "Happy men don't enlist." And then, you have Tim Page, a British photographer, who became addicted, as his subject quote states, and Junger further explored this theme in his book WAR to the adrenalin rush that is war. Much to Page's credit, and I give him much simply for helping assemble the book Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina
, the ultimate memorial for those who fought in Vietnam, he also remains obsessed with a Vietnam that is now at peace.
Page has gone back to Vietnam again and again, like a "repeat offender," as he says. This book primarily concerns his visit in 1990, when the country first began to allow foreigners to enter, even in modest numbers. In the first 50 pages he recounts a portion of his experiences during the war, including, literally, his near death experience in April, 1969, when, missing 200 cc of his brain, after other members of the 25th Infantry Division stepped on a 250 pound mine, he was logged in as dead at the medical facility at Long Binh.
The author describes a Vietnam that has long since been transformed. In 1994, during my visit to Hanoi, I was told that ox-carts still travelled the streets in 1990. In '94, the traffic was 80% bicycles, 20% motorbikes, and within two years, the percentages were reversed. By the year 2000, the far northwestern town of Sapa had a 5-star hotel with tennis courts, and by 2008 I read about $750 a night "boutique hotels" in Nha Trang. It is a matter of vital perspective when reading his account of 1990; most of which is impossible to see today.
The topics covered are wide-ranging, and episodic. He visited both Lao Cai, and Cao Bang, border towns with China. The latter was featured in the French war, the former in a war with China, in 1979, which is now almost completely forgotten in the West. China had been backing the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and when Vietnam finally invaded, in part to end numerous border incursions against Vietnam, China decided to invade in order to "punish" the Vietnamese for ending one of the worst genocidal regimes ever. (Even worse, the United States and China were allied, in not recognizing the new Vietnamese government run by Hun Sen, but preferring to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government. Strange bedfellows, indeed!)
The Khmer Rouge killed many, including Page's friend Sean Flynn, son of the movie actor Errol Flynn. The precise details of his death will probably never be known, but it's not for a lack of effort of Page's part, who documents some of his earlier efforts in the chapter "Danger on the Edge of Town." It was also in 1990 that General Hal Moore, along with the reporter Joe Galloway returned to Vietnam, ultimately to meet with General Giap. Page includes a good picture he took of that meeting. It was Moore, as a Lt. Col, who lead troops of the 1st Air Cav in the first major set piece battle of the war, in the Ia Drang valley, in the Central Highlands. Their book on the battle is We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam
In the movie, Mel Gibson played Col. Moore. Page was at the meeting, with his own wry comments about the participants.
For me, Page was prescient, by five years. In '95, I was able to travel overland to Dien Bien Phu, from Hanoi, perhaps one of the first 1000 Westerners to do so. As Page said: "There are few places on this planet where you can get a feeling of virgin turf. The hills in the northwest quadrant of Vietnam may have seen no more than a few hundred white people since the French were hoofed out; the only ones to make it to this remote area have been East-Block advisers or downed pilots. This is definitely not tourist country, though I suspect groups of yuppies and trekkers will be buzzing here before too long..."
For his guts - or his craziness- and because he played the Jefferson Airplane at "Frankie's House," but mainly because he "saw" the reality before us all, and concluded: "We should have come to learn, to liberate ourselves, rather than obstruct their liberation," I'll give him 5-stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 06, 2011)