Vietnam War Photos: 10 Powerful Images That Will Change the Way You Think

Like many young people who didn’t live through the Vietnam War, I have had to learn about this controversial and disturbing time through Vietnam War photos, articles and literature.

 Warning: this article includes graphic images that some people might find distressing.

While studying Vietnam in school has been enlightening, it wasn't until I began working with MAG America that my interest to learn more about the war's complexities was truly sparked.

MAG America joined forces with Clear Path International to support the "40 Years Too Long, But Not Too Late" campaign to help clear landmines/unexploded ordinances and create a safer, more hopeful future for Vietnamese citizens.

As I've worked on this campaign, I have found that photographs are the purest, grittiest and most telling way to catch a glimpse into the experience both the soldiers and civilians underwent.

As I navigate the magnitude of how life was impacted for Vietnamese people and American soldiers, I ask you to take your own journey with me through history. I truly believe that these photos represent, not only the devastation of war-torn Vietnam, but the heroism and the hope for a future in which we don't make the same mistakes.

If you did experience the Vietnam war – as a soldier, civilians, student, protester – I would love to hear your thoughts on these photos and my accompanying comments. Do the photos evoke completely different emotions for you? Or are we sharing a common experience through a photograph, 40 years apart?

• Author: MAG America summer intern Nina Lupin

1. Terror

Perhaps one of the most recognized photos from the Vietnam War is the image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, running naked alongside her brothers. Kim and her brothers had begun running down Route 1 near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese Air Force attack, which killed the rest of their relatives and left many of them badly burned. In just this one photo, the pure terror of war  especially for children  is captured chillingly

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

In this single image, I see a moment captured in time; an introduction to a new life without family, stability, normality or comfort. These are petrified faces, not only in response to exploding bombs, but because now their futures were so uncertain, due to circumstances they couldn't possibly comprehend.


2. Courage

This image depicts two American Prisoners of War connecting through a barred door-port in a Hanoi detention camp. While the number of American POWs of the Vietnam War is unclear and immeasurable, it's certain that the life of a war prisoner was traumatizing.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

In this photo, I see men in a time of desperation, conveying true courage and a sense of hope. They were often tortured and/or starved by foreigners whose language they most likely didn't speak, fighting for a cause with an uncertain end-date. And yet, they persevered and remained courageous in the face of such uncertainty and darkness.


3. Desperation

In times of war, there often is no phrase more astute than “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

In this photo, you can see Vietnamese men and women fervently try to escape over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Their dreams of flight, of grabbing the last coveted spots on the final American helicopters, are all they seem to cling to in this image.

This picture represents people who are merely fighting for their own lives and their own futures. From the sheer desperation depicted here, I couldn't help but wonder about those who didn't make it onto that helicopter. How did their lives progress following the U.S. presence and then ultimate disappearance? No matter what happened in the days, weeks, years following this photograph, the road ahead for them was mostly likely a long one.


4. Control

This photo - of a young Vietnamese girl holding an American solider captive - is one of the most powerful, striking examples of role-reversal in war because it recognizes that the notion of "control" can switch momentum at any given moment.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

While it seems unorthodox that a grown, well-trained soldier could succumb to a young girl, this picture illustrates how possession of control really defines the "winners" and "losers" and how it has the power to instill fear and defeat.

This image conjures up the idea of "sides" and how violence, danger, fear and desperation can cause people to act against their true character

We can't tell from this picture which "side" this young girl is on, but it does remain fairly certain, that she has domination over the American, if only for a brief time.


5. Family

Some of the most heart-wrenching photos I’ve come across have been those of families doing their best to survive the war together. This particular photo depicts a woman and her children crossing a river in South Vietnam to avoid falling American bombs.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

While researching, I came across many photos of families risking everything to provide as much safety as they could for each other.

MAG America has made me spend much more time thinking about the devastating effects bombs and landmines have on families and communities. Not just the immediate terror and destruction but the lingering effects that occur long after the fighting is over. Families are displaced; adults and children are maimed and injured. And for those living in post-conflict zones with UXO and landmines, simply walking to school or working in the fields is a struggle for survival. 


6. Destruction

The Vietnam War not only changed and destroyed the lives of families, but it also changed and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Agriculturally based communities were especially affected by the countless bombs, napalm, and defoliant.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

This image captures a small but crucially important bridge for both American soldiers during the war and Vietnamese today living near the town of Pleiku. The damage could have been devastating for the communities that rely on it for travel

When a single bridge like this one is destroyed, vital resources such as food and medical supplies may not be available to the affected community for an extended period of time.

While it was fortunate that a detour could be created through the mud on the other side of the bridge, many other areas during the war did not such an accessible alternate route available. 


7. Heroism

This image captures an American Airborne Private carrying a woman to a hospital after a US-Vietnamese air strike destroyed a Buddhist monastery located 40 miles east of Saigon.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

Despite all of the oppressive conditions - from the weather, to unpredictable landmines, to dangerous terrain – this simple act of selfless heroism shows the American soldiers’ willingness help the innocent civilians affected by the war in Vietnam.

While I understand the American presence in Vietnam divided the United States, an image that captures an act of service on a personal level is something that can unite us all.


8. Debate

The Vietnam War saw unprecedented levels of news coverage and reporting that, for the first time, let the American public at home experience the terrifying and gruesome world the US soldiers and Vietnamese were living in overseas.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

This level of access, in turn, was a catalyst for many people opposing and protesting the war. Over 100,000 protesters gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC to take part in this nonviolent protest of the US presence in Vietnam.

As a DC resident, this image reminds me of the incredible historical events that have taken place on the National Mall and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Washington, DC is the epicenter for people to express their thoughts and opinions for or against the government and its policies.

During the controversy of the Vietnam War, it would have been a great honor to express my opinions in such an epic way. 


9. Devastation

This graphic photo is a powerful representation of what life was like during the Vietnam War for those living through destruction and chaos. This photo was taken after the Bombing of the American Embassy in Saigon on March 30, 1965, where at least 2 Americans and 19 Vietnamese were killed.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

The Viet Cong would detonate car bombs like this to spread fear and chaos. These bombs not only damaged the infrastructure of cities, but also mostly affected innocent civilians.

This photo helps me understand how Vietnam could still be struggling, even after 40 years following the war. 


10. B-52 Bomber

This striking photo depicts a U.S. B-52 dropping bombs over a Vietnam coastal area. This photo also illustrates the ways that MAG America helps educate about the lasting effects that landmines and bombs have on war-torn societies and its people. Think about how difficult it would be to return to a normal life after an attack like this one.

MAG America - 10 Powerful Vietnam Images

Although I am only beginning to understand the lasting impact of the Vietnam War, I believe that it is not too late to help rebuild what was destroyed and bring further hope to a citizenry that has been damaged.

The Vietnam War, though technically over, continues to be a daily presence for the Vietnamese civilians who are victims of unexpected landmines and UXOs that remain in the area, 40 years later. Through MAG America, we can help raise awareness of the shadow of war that still looms over communities throughout Vietnam. 

Page published: 27 November 2013


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