Where does one start with a book of such apparent value as this, bringing into view 30 years of post-war Vietnam? One could start with the price, just £39.95 for more than 550 black and white images exquisitely laid out and hand bound in over 300 pages. In Viêt Nam at Peace, Philip Jones Griffiths presents the truth behind one of the most – if not the most – inaccurately reported, politically lied about and visually misrepresented acts of genocide in the history of mankind. When other photographers moved on – some from their news bureaux in Saigon to the White House Press pool – finding their interest in the story had dissipated after the war, Philip Jones Griffiths begins. His previous book Vietnam Inc., photographed during the war years, is widely regarded as the definitive book of photography about the war. But for Jones Griffiths and more importantly for the Vietnamese themselves, the story did not just stop with the hurried withdrawal and military defeat of the Americans. It was the start of the arduous and painful period rebuilding the Vietnamese identity and the cultural rehabilitation of an entire nation. Although “at peace”, Vietnam has spent the intervening years grappling with the devastation wrought by cultural and economic destruction and killing on an inhuman scale by the United States and its allies. This is a book of unrivalled significance and photographic power.
Growing up in Wales, Jones Griffiths cites his childhood experiences of the English as a reason for a heightened sensitivity to the fate of the Vietnamese and the desire to understand and document their struggle. Jones Griffiths recounts how the English sought to extinguish the Welsh identity by banning the native language in schools, and later, how they reinvaded the land in the guise of holiday-makers. As they trod the culture further into the ground, they consumed and discarded Wales as though it were just another flavour of ice cream or another cheap souvenir to be bought. Another childhood memory sowed a seed of scepticism that shaped the man. He recalls the day US serviceman came to his school during WWII to distribute candy. “It made no sense,” he says. Out of this grew his deep-rooted distrust for those in positions of power who wish to been seen as doing good.
Making a success of the war was the preoccupation of the politicians and generals during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In an Aryanesque twist of reason, the centuries old fabric of Vietnamese society was determined to be the real enemy and the man-made fibres of consumer capitalism the saviour. Might and blood was to be the best conduit for redemption. Assisting in the transition from one way of life to another was the military, levelling vast swathes of the country. Most notably singled out for destruction was rural life where the particularities of Vietnamese tradition had quite literally kept existence in equilibrium, despite previous invasions and colonisations, for 3,000 years. Bombing, burning, killing and looting imported by the invaders robbed the countryside of its balance. Some 10 years later, with the collapse of the Soviet financial support in the 1980s, the country was forced to, in some ways, accede defeat to the global über-culture of commerce.
In 2004 Philip Jones Griffiths released another book, dedicated entirely to the effects of the chemical decomposition of life: Agent Orange. In it he chronicles with unflinching honesty the reality of death and deformation made and bottled by the world’s most celebrated corporate killers, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and the US airforce. The pictures are perhaps his most vivid and explicit in their condemnation of the United States and the war. Disfigured men, women and children are the legacy of the West’s march of progress. But beneath the horrific imagery is a larger story, of victory, defeat and an indomitable resilience. In Viêt Nam at Peace we see the other parts of the story, victory parades, American Vietnam vets , and more recently the businessmen and the billboards for western products, all conspiring to remake the country in their own image.
Viêt Nam at Peace has been conceived and printed with the utmost care. Steven Coleman, the designer, and Trolley, the publishers, have succeeded masterfully in evoking the passion and grace of Philip Jones Griffiths and his photography. A muted pastel green underpins the design allowing whole pages to explode with his wondrously rich black and white photography. “Once the initial structure was in place the images were pretty much decided” says Gigi Giannuzzi, Trolley’s director. “Phillip had printed over 1,000 images, over the course of the years. After Agent Orange was released he showed me his idea for the book. That was last September, within six months we had the book done.” Accompanied by an essay from John Pilger, Viêt Nam at Peace is the real story, one that can only be told by a man who has dedicated so much of himself to the country he chronicles. It marks the passing of time in the lives of others and equally powerfully forces us to look at the present in our own lives.
Or, as Giannuzzi puts it: “Today the US masses troops on the border with Iran, and seeks to justify the comprehensive destruction of Iraq…this is a book that deals with the consequences of these things.”