Early 1970: Artists Record the Growing Conflict in Southern NLF-controlled Regions

By the beginning of 1970, the conflict in Vietnam had left a devastating toll on the rural provinces of South Vietnam. Despite successive troop withdrawals initiated by the US government under the Nixon administration, military activity had increased in the provinces surrounding Saigon, as well as across the border into Cambodia.

On his journey south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, photographer Lê Minh Trường captured the environment like no other artist at the time. Using the accurate medium of photography, Trường revealed scenes of destruction and the level of devastation inflicted in the countryside by the increased US bombing campaign. Once lush mangrove forests were turned to kindling after repeated bombings raids, sometimes even dropping chemical explosives to deliberately ruin vegetation (fig. 1). It was an effective offensive technique, especially when considering the art work created by artists such as Thái Hà, who depicted regions such as Cà Mau as areas that offered important refuge for National Liberation Front (NLF) guerrilla soldiers.

Figure 1: Lê Minh Trường, 1970, Cà Mau Province, “Hủy diệt môi sinh (Rừng đước Cà Mau bị chất độc hóa học hủy diệt) (Environmental destruction (Cà Mau mangrove forest destroyed by toxic chemicals).” Silver gelatin print on Ilford 11 x 14, 255 gsm, multigrade, semi-matte paper.

In fact, still in Cà Mau Province at the start of 1970,  artist Thái Hà was also on hand to record the growing military activity. Hà depicted a female guerrilla soldier, Dương Thị Cẩm (fig. 2). Female guerrilla soldiers were a perfect model for artists wishing to convey the diversity of nationalist pride in the NLF and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) forces. Women were often highlighted for their fighting abilities, in some cases made into legends for the losses they inflicted on Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US troops. Hà details how Dương Thị Cẩm below “Fought in 200 battles and fought to retain Cà Mau Point for hundreds of days and nights.”

Figure 2: Thái Hà, 1970, Cà Mau Province. “JTA 1970; Dương Thị Cẩm; Du kích Cà Mau; Ðánh 200 trận – bám muĩ hàng trăm ngày đêm (JTA 1970; Dương Thị Cẩm (woman’s name); Guerrilla Cà Mau; Fought in 200 battles and fought to retain Ca Mau Point for hundreds of days and nights).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

In possibly one of the most intense experiences of a wartime artist from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), Trưóng Hiếu had only moments to sketch the occasion when he and a group of NLF soldiers took cover from a hover of US Bell UH-1 Iroquois, “Huey”, helicopters (fig. 3). On patrol in the Củ Chi District, northwest of Saigon, Hiếu lay disguised in the long grass while he sketched a quick portrayal of the helicopters, using just a few strokes of ink on paper. Although the sketch required speed and simplicity, it conveys the feeling of the moment by stripping it down to the bare essentials of Hiếu’s experience.

Figure 3: Trưóng Hiếu, 1970, Củ Chi district, northwest of Saigon, “Hiding from the Hueys.” Ink on machine-made paper.

The Củ Chi District hid an immense network of interconnecting underground tunnels and the location of several military campaigns during the war in Vietnam. They acted as one of the NLF and PLAF base of operations for the Tết Offensive of 1968.

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