Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tony Vaccaro, Realist

The old vet is 93, and he struggles with his memory. Last night on HBO they ran a documentary on another 93-year-old veteran of World War II, European Theatre. He's in better health, and actually revisits many of the battlefield moments that he photographed in 1944-45 as he made his way across France, Belgium, and Germany with the 83rd Thunderbolt Division.


His path was much the same as the old vet's, who was in the 35th. The old vet missed the Hurtgen Forest butchery. The 83rd didn't. There was butchery aplenty to go around. Both divisions liberated German death camps. Mr. Vaccaro was an "amateur" war photographer. He had volunteered to be a professional war photographer, and showed his high school work to the people who were staffing those positions. They said his work was great, but that he was "too young." An odd rejection. He was, as he told them, not too young to pull a trigger. Vaccaro was also determined. He carried a 35 millimeter camera with him for the entire time he was in Europe, and took hundreds of battlefield photos. At the end of the war he was so sickened by what he had seen that he gave the photos, mostly negatives, to his sister to keep, and went on to become a professional photographer in the world of fashion, never to personally visit war again. But he has in his heart a steely ability to keep seeing a-right, just as he had in those distant days. And he sees, too, how deeply war corrodes the soul. As he says at one point, "I had become a killer. I lost my innocence."

“War makes you a beast, I became a killer, that’s a terrible thing for a human being to have on his shoulders” he says movingly of his combat time. “The faces of people you killed, the friends who died, they don’t leave you alone. It took me years to overcome that. “It was necessary for me to be evil for 272 days, but not forever.” [Wiki entry on Vaccaro]

I hope you can see this film. Mr. Vaccaro has some things to tell you that you need to know, perhaps now more than ever. One of the early scenes in the film involves a photographer in our endless Afganistan War. He tells the camera about happening upon a moment of death amongst our soldiers, attempting to photograph it, and being beaten up and driven away by those same soldiers. Similar things are related by other war photographers about other wars. "You have to be in the parade to take photos," someone tells such a photographer. Vaccaro was in the parade from the get-go. He carried the M1 Garrand, and used it.

We've elected another guy who talks big and has never seen war. He'll be good with sending more kids over to fight, somewhere or other, where ever the perimeters happen to be. There was a terrific book by Harry Brown written about the Italian campaign called "A Walk in the Sun." In it a soldier talks about where he'll be fighting in 1958. He predicts somewhere like Afganistan. Soldiering can create an obliterating perspective. There is always, to a professional soldier, a perimeter to maintain. This is perhaps one of the many reasons that, since the end of Vietnam, there has mostly been a series of perimeters. And of course as the Germans understood, when you assert a perimeter, you assert solidarity on the inside of it. We must all fight together. Build the wall higher.

The worst thing a soldier can have is his more or less god-given empathy. In the film it is related that in World War II over 50% of soldiers never fired their weapons. They didn't want to kill people. This problem has been addressed. These days, the percentage is nearly 100%, in the direction of death. Professional killers come with the relentless territory, on all sides.

Vaccaro manages to realize this. He maintains his humanity. When I finished watching Under Fire I flipped over to the Giants/Bengals game. Monday night football, woohoo. After a little while I just turned the thing off, fed the cats, and went to bed early.

Just sayin'.

[Top photo Tony Vaccaro, bottom photo from coverage of a Trump rally this fall, photographer unknown]

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