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Marc P Yablonka

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Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
by Marc P Yablonka   

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Publisher:  Merriam Press ISBN-10:  0557084415 Type: 


Copyright:  Dec. 26, 2007 ISBN-13:  9780557084418

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Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Merriam Press, Bennington, VT)is a compilation of 20 years of Marc Yablonka's reportage about and from Vietnam. The chapters were originally published in Stars and Stripes, American Veteran, Army Times, Military Heritage, Soldier of Fortune and other publications

Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
Merriam Press

Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is a compilation of 20 years of my reportage about the Vietnam War from the country in which it raged. Within its pages are profiles of boots on the ground grunts, but I have also striven in the writing of the book to include those who experienced the war from behind the lines. To that end, the book includes profiles of doctors who served in Vietnam, pilots who flew for the noted and notorious, mysterious CIA-operated airline Air America, and journalists who covered the war in the jungles alongside the troops who fought the war. Even Wheel of Fortune game show host Pat Sajak, and the gracious and beautiful Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh (Joy Luck Club, What's Cooking, Hamburger Hill, etc.) have chapters in my book. 


The first time I ever met Associated Press photographer Nick Ut through our mutual friend Jim Caccavo, it was at a dinner and press conference held by film director Oliver Stone and a group called the East Meets West Foundation just prior to the release of Stone’s film Heaven and Earth. Stone’s views about the war that he had participated in as a U.S. Marine were well known to be quite pronounced and negative and it made me laugh when Nick referred to the people who had attended the dinner as “Beverly Hills VC,” people, whether Vietnamese or not, who, other than Stone himself, were nowhere near the action of the Vietnam War when it raged, yet managed to opine that the entire blame for its atrocities rests squarely on the shoulders of the United States alone.
Nick was at once charming, caring, and lovable. Something that became even clearer to me when I interviewed him in 2006 in the L.A. bureau of the AP after his forty-year anniversary shooting for the wire service for the following piece:


Fifteen-year-old Huynh Cong Ut was playing cards with his 23-year-old sister-in-law Arlette in her family’s house on Tran Hung Dao St. in Saigon one night in 1965 when she drew a black King, to her an unlucky omen. Soon, a messenger from the Associated Press's bureau there knocked on the door to let her know that her husband, AP photographer Huynh Thanh My, had been killed covering a skirmish between South Vietnamese Army Rangers and the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta near Can Tho.
Ut's life was changed forever that night, just as, shortly thereafter, his first name was--to Nick, which had evolved from “Nik Nik”, a name his dear friend, French-Vietnamese photographer Henri Huet, had christened him.
After his brother My’s death, Nick was taken under literal protective custody, not only by the AP's chief photographer Horst Faas, but everyone in its Saigon bureau, as he soon endeavored to follow in his much beloved brother's footsteps.
"My brother was also a very famous actor. A lot of media came to his funeral," Nick said, tears welling up in his eyes at the recollection.
In fact, the entire Saigon press corps was reported to have shown up at My's burial at the Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery, according to the book REQUIEM: BY THE PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO DIED IN VIETNAM AND INDOCHINA, compiled by two combat photographers who made it home: Faas and Tim Page.
Out of a sense of loyalty to My and the family, AP staffers would not, however, let Nick go beyond the darkroom, which his sister-in-law had asked Faas to allow him to work in since the family was now in need of a bread-winner.
Faas had originally turned her down owing to Nick's age. "`He's too young, Faas told Arlette,'" Ut said.
But she persisted and Faas agreed to hire him.
"I had never been a photographer before but the dark room was so easy. Nothing to learn but loading the film and developing. I learned everything in three minutes...and loved it," he recalled recently from the AP's Los Angeles bureau at which he recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with the wire service.
Forty years earlier, Ut began a career in which he rose from humble surroundings in Long An, in the Mekong Delta, to a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer.
"To me, Nicky continues to serve as an inspiration...proof that you can always improve. I've watched him go from a so-so shooter to a museum quality photojournalist," said Steve Stibbens, a former Marine, who came to know Nick during his second tour in Vietnam as a reporter for Leatherneck Magazine. His first had been in uniform with Stars and Stripes, his third with the AP.
"After my brother died, I had no one to learn from," Nick remembered.
That would soon change as he developed hundreds and hundreds of images of AP shooters--images of the war that Vietnam was by now embroiled in.
"Horst Faas told me how his own beginning in photography was in the darkroom at the Keystone Agency 50 plus years ago and he was able to learn what makes a good photo by seeing the work of others. I think that same beginning worked for Nicky," said Stibbens.
"One day I picked up a camera and began to shoot pictures of my girlfriend. Many girls wanted me to give them copies of the photos I took of them," Nick recalled, the welled up eyes of earlier now turned to the broad, baby-faced smile that has earned him continued affection from those who know him.
Pictures of beautiful young Vietnamese girls soon gave way to a much different assignment when then AP correspondent Peter Arnett, years later of cable TV channel CNN, was writing a story about the bar girls and shoe shine boys that often congregated around the Rex Hotel in Saigon's District 1.
Nick was able to win Arnett's confidence and shoot the photos for his piece.
"Peter told me, `this is good photography Nicky.'"
His images were so good, in fact, that they soon earned him front page slots in newspapers such as Stars and Stripes and the Saigon Post.
Stibbens and Arnett were not alone in noting Nick's work behind the lens. Admiration for his work grew, and it also quickly earned him the respect of most of the Saigon press corps.
"Nick, for me, reinforces the belief that the best work out of a war comes from people who open themselves to the agony around them and feel the pain of the subjects they photograph," said Jim Caccavo, who went to Vietnam as the photographer and writer for the Red Cross between 1968 and `70, and also shot photo assignments and filed reports for Newsweek Magazine during that time.
"Larry Burrows and Henri Huet were photographers of that standing. They were known to--at times--show emotion when talking about the children they had photographed in the war," Caccavo said.
That is a fact not lost on Nick Ut, the photographer of the most famous of Vietnamese children taken during the war, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, otherwise known as “the Napalm Girl”.
It was June 8th, 1972, in the Cao Dai village of Trang Bang that the incident occurred that would forever bind Nick with Kim Phuc.
He had been covering operations with the ARVN (Army of the Republic of {South} Vietnam) early in the morning of the second day of a three-day combined North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong attack on the village. He had hitched a ride in the AP van, ordered the driver to stay by the side of the road, and got out.
He had witnessed plenty of attacks in his, by then, seventh year of shooting for the AP, but sensed there was something different about the one pending.
"I saw the ARVN surround the Cao Dai temple and knew if I stood there, I would be dead," said Nick, who had previously been wounded twice covering the war in Cambodia, and once in Vietnam.
As he and other reporters moved further down the road to take a more secure position, they observed black smoke rising outside the temple.
Suddenly, one of the ARVN troops popped a yellow smoke marker.
Nick pointed his camera up to focus and caught, in his viewfinder, a Korean War era A-37 just at the instant that it dropped four bombs on the village right where the smoke had revealed itself.
Within seconds an A-1 Sky Raider dropped four additional bombs on Trang Bang—but these were napalm.
"I had seen napalm before, but never dropped on a village. I was shooting in black and white. I wished I'd had color," Nick recalls, not for any reason other than to show the full effect of what napalm could do.
He started shooting "like crazy. I told myself, `I hope there was nobody in the village.'"
Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Soon, he saw a woman; her body badly burned, with four or five kids; a grandmother holding her dead grandson, the skin peeling off his torso, asking of Ut and the other reporters, "Cuu con toi!" ("Please help!").
Ironically, when Nick got back to the AP office and developed the photo of the grandmother, everybody initially thought that was the shot, but what happened next turned out to be the photo that would change his life—and Kim Phuc’s--forever. "I saw a little girl running. She had torn off all her clothes. She was yelling `Nong qua! Nong qua!’” (“Too hot! Too hot!").
The little girl was then nine-year-old Kim (the others he had just seen were, in fact, members of her family, all of whom had sought refuge in the temple). He shot a series of photos, the most famous of which would garner him both the Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo Award for 1973.
But recognition was far from his mind when he laid his camera on the side of Highway 1 and came to Kim Phuc’s aid.
"Her back was burned so badly," Nick said. "I didn't want her to die, so I poured cold water on her."
However, her cries of "Nong qua! Nong qua!" continued because, unbeknownst to him and other journalists who tried to cool her skin with water, liquid spreads the napalm gel around.
"Then I borrowed a poncho from an ARVN 25th Division soldier because I didn't want her to be naked."
As she began to weaken, Nick began to carry her, but the pain was unbearable for Kim and she asked him to put her down. Together, he, Kim and her uncle made it to the AP van and drove to Cu Chi Hospital.
"The traffic was crazy. There were dogs and water buffalo everywhere," he remembered.
"She kept saying, "Chac con sap chet! Chac con sap chet!” (“I think I'm dying! I think I'm dying!”), Nick recalled. As she was going into shock, he felt time was running out.
When they arrived at the hospital and he saw so many ARVN soldiers, some dead, some dying, and realized that a nine-year-old girl's wounds would not take precedence over a soldier's, Nick's adrenaline kicked in.
"I showed my media pass and I threatened, `If she dies, I will tell the story of this hospital!'"
That apparently shook the staff into action and Kim's life was spared.
"I think most photographers would have headed back to Saigon with their film and left Kim to local authorities," Caccavo said. "What Nick did is called `getting involved,' which most journalism schools frown on, but I think he changed that inhumane attitude forever.”
Whether or not that attitude was changed that day was no one's particular concern in early June, `72 however.
If the photo would be sent out at all was the debate at the AP Saigon bureau. Not because it showed the horrors of war on par with Eddie Adams's photo of Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Viet Cong Nguyen Van Lem in the head at point blank range; or Malcolm Browne's photo of the Venerable Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself on the streets of Saigon in 1963.
The issue was the frontal nudity.
AP higher-ups thought the photo should not run, according to Nick. But Horst Faas over-ruled them; emphatically stating, "Move it now!" And, after it endured some degree of touch up, the photo was transmitted to New York via Tokyo.
The image had immediate impact worldwide.
In addition, while Adams’s and Browne’s photos spoke to the horrors of the war, Ut’s image of Kim Phuc with her arms outstretched truly enveloped the viewer.
"Even today, Vietnam veterans come up to me and say, `Thank you Nicky. Yours is the photo that stopped the war.'"
Many of his friends and colleagues agree.
"His image stands alone in its mega impact becoming an iconic anti-war statement and will be forever more," said Tim Page, renowned British photojournalist and combat photographer in Vietnam, now teaching a new generation of photojournalists at Griffiths University in Australia where he is working on his Ph.D.
[It was] "Further sway to end that nightmare," Page added.
Author Marv Wolf (BUDDHA'S CHILD: MY FIGHT TO SAVE VIETNAM with Nguyen Cao Ky), public information officer for the 1st Air Cav stationed at An Khe in the Central Highlands, concurs with Page.
"It had enormous impact...the photo served to influence public opinion around the world. Unfortunately, few who saw Nick's photo bothered to read the original caption, which explained that the napalm had been dropped by a VNAF ({South} Vietnamese Air Force) aircraft. Most people still believe it was an American plane.”
In spite of that, many Americans, Vietnam veterans and others, continue to feel that it was because of photos like Nick Ut's, Eddie Adams's and Malcolm Browne's that the United States lost the war in Vietnam. They believe that the photos so turned public opinion against the war as to sway their congressperson’s vote to cut off funding, thereby making the war unwinnable.
Not surprisingly, many of the photojournalists who took these very photos disagree wholeheartedly.
Steve Stibbens is one of them.
"It is such nonsense and reveals their ignorance," he said.
Wolf elaborated.
"I'm more than a little bummed out by this kind of simplistic jingoism. That the Communists capitalized on U.S. policy blunders and military mistakes is hardly the fault of the media," he said.
Meanwhile for Nick Ut, Pulitzer Prize in hand, the war was over, as it was for all of his fellow South Vietnamese, when Saigon fell on April 30th, 1975.
And as Saigon was falling, the AP evacuated Ut and put him up in a nice hotel in Los Angeles. But his surroundings, indeed life in L.A. itself, were so foreign to him, that he opted to relocate with the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to the Tent City erected in their behalf just north of San Diego at the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton.
Among his first assignments, once settled in southern California, was to photograph an L.A. Dodgers baseball game.
Ironically, not only had Nick never seen a baseball game in his life, he knew nothing about the sport. Regardless, that day, he shot some of the most compelling sports frames ever.
But while he went about the day to day routine of a wire service "photog", thoughts of Vietnam and the young nine-year-old whose life he had saved years before persistently haunted him.
Then in 1989, his friend Jim Caccavo received an assignment from Los Angeles Times Magazine to photograph a reunion between Nick and Kim Phuc in Havana. Correspondent Judy Coburn wrote the story. The three were granted 24-hour visas and departed for Cuba.
"When I saw Kim, I couldn’t believe it was her," Nick stressed.
The nine-year-old girl was now a grown woman.
“It was obvious from the moment their eyes met that there was a special bond between them,” Caccavo recalled.
Following their meeting in a hotel, overseen in typical communist fashion by minders, one Cuban, one Vietnamese, and a two hour "undisturbed" interview in a restaurant, which Kim later told Ut, Caccavo and Coburn, was secretly taped, Nick recalled how Kim expressed to him that nobody would marry her because of her severely burned body.
Until then, Kim’s life had been one of constant pain, suffering through several reconstructive surgeries in West Germany, years as a poster child in a now reunited communist Vietnam, additional years in Cuba studying pharmacy and Spanish (in which she is fluent even today).
In the years that followed, Nick would hear news of Kim through her family still back in Vietnam.
Once, he even got a letter postmarked Mexico City charmingly telling Nick, "Uncle, I want to come to America. Can you wait for me at the border in San Diego?"
Then, mysteriously, in 1992, while away on assignment, he got a message at the AP from "somebody in Toronto." Not knowing a soul in Canada, he was non-plussed...
Until the caller called again; it was Kim. She'd married fellow Vietnamese student Bui Huy Toan in Havana and, while returning from their honeymoon in Moscow, during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, they'd simply walked off the plane, leaving all their luggage aboard, and declared political asylum, which was granted them by the Canadian government.
Today, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Culture and Peace and Nick Ut sees and talks to her whenever the two can connect.
In late April, 2005, thirty years after the fall of Saigon, Nick was back in what has, since then, been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. He was among the deans of the former Saigon press corps at a reunion atop the Rex Hotel.
According to Caccavo, who was present, an American woman approached Nick and told him how much she appreciated the photo of Kim Phuc. Through tears, she expressed how much it had affected her.
Nick, trying to console her, very humbly said, "Thank you so much, but everything is okay now. Kim is married…in Canada. She has two healthy boys."
Indeed everything is okay now for this gentle and most respected shooter among war photographers. He may have gone on from his experiences covering Vietnam, but they are never far behind him. He wouldn't forget them even if he could.

Professional Reviews

Opinion: Book Review: Distant War, Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by Marc Phillip Yablonka
by Karen St. John, Staff Writer

Like many of us, the Vietnam War became teenager Marc Phillip Yablonka’s war. The son of a holocaust survivor and U.S. WW II veteran, Yablonka watched as the war dragged on and Saigon fell in 1975. For decades falling the collapse, a steady stream of Vietnam refugees poured into California. Yablonka’s role as an English teacher for adults suddenly brought him up close and personal to the war that he had only a vague notion of.

But it wasn’t until all the war films on Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia came to the big screen that he sat up and took notice of what fighting a war in Vietnam might really have meant. The one movie in particular that seared itself into the gentle heart of the English teacher was the 1984 Killing Fields.

The brutal reality of Pol Pot’s genocide during his regime over the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia depicted in Killing Fields, made a profound and poignant impression on Yablonka. He was moved by the deep friendship between Schanberg, a NT Times reporter, and Pran, a Cambodian reporter, and developed a deep respect for all who trekked the jungles of war to write and photograph the events.

Without so much as a backward glance, Yablonka switched gears and began studying journalism. His new career blossomed as a freelance journalist and stringer for wire services, newspapers and travel publications.

The plight of the refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the topic of his Masters degree thesis, became what Yablonka felt was his true calling: to chronicle war.

He made several trips to the South East Asian countries, but it was his first trip to Saigon that he recalls with clarity: “I looked up at the blue Saigon sky and felt as if I had arrived – truly arrived – in the center of the universe.”

Distant War, Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is not a traditional story, with a beginning and end. In fact, it isn’t a story at all, but a collection of Yablonka’s articles written during his frequent trips to these countries. There are little to no dates assigned to his articles, so it is a bit difficult to put them into the historic perspective of the Vietnam War. Occasionally, the same theme (such as the American embargo against Vietnam) will creep into an additional article or two, without an editorial commentary by Yablonka.

All this is a tad frustrating at first, especially if you are seeking another interpretation or judgment of the Vietnam War. Yet Yablonka steadfastly refuses to take a stance. He allows the subjects of his articles to speak for themselves, and this, more than anything, is what makes Yablonka’s assembled collection like no other. Yablonka’s articles are listed as individual chapters and cover a multitude of roles: doctors, pilots, special forces, donut dollies, civilians; he even writes of the dogs that went on military patrols. There are interesting tidbits on the likes of celebrities such as Wheels of Fortune’s Pat Sajack (himself a Vietnam veteran), entertainer Bob Hope, actress Kieu Chinch, filmmaker Oliver Stone, and Perot’s running mate and former Vietnam POW, Vice Admiral James Stockdale.

Not all the articles are about Americans. As the title implies, there are articles on people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, even France (a newspaper woman captured and held as a POW) and Canada (Vietnam veterans). The photographs Yablonka has included give faces to the names and events, and provide a good balance to his articles.

The subjects in Distant War, especially the articles on refugees, give a new respect for the wide range of fallout from any war. Yablonka’s collection proves that war is not an isolated event, but a large explosion that splits into multiple ripples, crossing many miles of land to the horizon, for many decades after the actual combat has ceased.

In the end, any story you may want to find in Distant War will be in the chaotic realization that perhaps there truly is no beginning or end to war, only recollections of moments, paused and pondered over and over.

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Distant War Memories
Distant War Memories

It is always good to be surprised by a great book. I was expecting the same old typical Vietnam War kind of experiences that hundreds of other books have already explored and exposed. However, author Marc Phillip Yablonka gives us a new dimension to those long ago Asian conflicts in his new book “Distant Wars: recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”. His tales are fresh and new and give the reader a much broader view of what happened in Asia back during those war years.

Yablonka takes us on a journey with members of Air America, some donut dollies, a radio DJ in Saigon named Pat Sajak , to doctors who served in various places in Asia during the war years. He moves through people and places that give us a richer and fuller and much deeper image of the big picture. It is also a very emotional telling of life experiences by many diverse people.

The author is able to weave these very personal stories together so that they make a composite picture that will certainly impact the reader. The writing and flow of the stories featured in the book is first class and professional at all levels.; but more importantly, it is riveting and entertaining . You will find yourself wanting to finish the book in one long sitting.

Personally, I found the book contained lots of wisdom and insight that seems to be hidden and very subtle. But nonetheless, it will move you. It may make you think about these people who are featured in the book long after you put it down. I give this book my personal recommendation. Truly a great book!
Review by Bill McDonald, MWSA Reviewer & former President (August 2009)

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