Photojournalist recalls 'mind-twisting' time in Vietnam
By Natalie Cortes
ARLINGTON, Va. The unfettered access journalists had during the Vietnam War made it the most memorable reporting experience of Robert Hodierne's 30-year career.
"We could go pretty much any place we wanted and report anything we wanted," he said. "The military is much smarter about that these days and makes it much harder. So from a journalist's point of view, [Vietnam] was the last war that we're going to be able to report honestly and thoroughly and as widely and deeply."
Hodierne, who spent more than two years in Vietnam, spoke about his experiences there at a Newseum Inside Media program on Aug. 11.
In 1967, Hodierne photographed the final day of what became at that point the bloodiest single battle of the war, the battle for two hills numbered 881 and 861. About 550 Marines were killed or wounded in the week that it took them to capture both hills, Hodierne recalled.
When he got to the top of the first hill, there was shooting from all directions. "They were in front of us, behind us, alongside us, and you really didn't know where they were going to pop up."
Taking photographs under these conditions was extremely dangerous. "You've got to constantly be moving to make sure you're trying out different angles and trying for different perspectives, [but] in combat you're pretty constrained. You know it might be better if you were [at some other battlefield location], but it might not be quite so protected," he said. His photographs appeared in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.
Despite being in the line of fire, Hodierne said he never felt afraid behind the camera lens.
"You're so focused on what you're doing, and it develops, in some sense, an aura of unreality … . I don't remember being frightened taking these pictures."
Hodierne described life in Vietnam during the war as "mind-twisting."
"Quite literally, I was in this battle one afternoon, spent the night on that hill, got up the next morning … caught a plane back to Saigon, had a shower, a shave, clean clothes and I was in a French restaurant having dinner that night, drinking tonic and regaling my friends with stories. And the next morning you'd go do it all over again."
With the exception of high-ranking officers, Hodierne said, the military welcomed the presence of journalists during combat.
"We were there eating the same crummy food they were, sitting in the same rainstorms, getting shot at the same way they were, and they loved it and it validated their experience."
Hodierne said photos of wounded and dead troops and those that showed Vietnamese civilians suffering had a big impact on public opinion back in the United States. But some of those pictures were not portrayed in the proper context.
For example, Hodierne took photos of U.S. soldiers burning a village because, he said, many GIs had been killed by heavy fire from that village.
"I went to great lengths to make it clear what was going on, and yet some of those pictures have appeared through the years in magazines and other publications to illustrate a very different point … that American troops were committing atrocities against the civilian population," he said.
The discussion was one of a series of programs in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.
War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.