Here’s how it starts, because this is how it started for so many others in Vietnam. Stephen Warner is drafted, sent to training and then Vietnam in March 1970. He writes home: ”I am now on my way to Nam to play my part in America’s greatest military disaster.”
And here’s how the story ends, because this is the way it ended for so many others in Vietnam. Less than a year later, February 1971, Valentine’s Day, Warner is out with a road construction crew near the DMZ. He’s a week shy of his 25th birthday, two weeks shy of his return home. His group is ambushed, the truck he’s in is hit by a rocket. He’s gone, the end.
But a remarkable thing happened in those 11 months. Warner routinely risked his own life to travel on the front lines and document the war, and the people tasked with fighting it, in photographs, journals and letters. What he found along the way was humanity, in every hue it exists.
Warner’s writing and photographs were collected by his alma mater, Gettysburg College, and are now on display at the Vietnam Era Museum in Holmdel. The exhibition provides insight into the internal conflict Warner felt as an anti-war activist tasked with documenting the war through red-white-and-blue-tinged glasses for an Army publication. The collection also gives an intimate look at this critical point in the war when sentiments were rapidly turning against it and yet soldiers were still dying every day.
Warner grew up in Skillman, New Jersey, before graduating Princeton High School and then Gettysburg College. He was in his first year of law school at Yale when he was drafted. Warner chose to accept the draw and head overseas, despite being a vocal anti-war advocate, having written anti-war pieces in his school paper and attending rallies.
He went through basic training at Fort Dix before being assigned to the Army Information Office at Long Binh, considered a relatively “safe” assignment. Warner was tasked with writing stories and taking photos for Stars and Stripes and other military publications. Warner—intuitive, emotionally intelligent and clever—immediately recognized the incongruity of his status.
”I’m confused. Mr. Nixon says the college kids are bums and that the GIs in Nam are the greatest boys in the world. Where does that leave me, a college protester now serving as a GI in Nam,” he wrote in May 1970.
Warner had a free pass to travel the country in his role, and soon after arriving, he realized his time there could be best spent, and his efforts could best align with his virtues, by traveling away from Long Binh, with troops, to document the war as it really was—and soldiers as they really were.
In a request to travel with troops to Cambodia, Warner wrote: “As for personal risk well, I came in as a draftee and Lady Luck didn’t make me a grunt though she could have. If she wants to turn nasty now or at a future date, she can get me anywhere in Nam and I’d prefer it be where I’m really accomplishing something.”
To be clear, Warner could’ve chosen to stay in the relative safety of Long Binh, cranking out pro-American stories as his martial editors most likely would’ve preferred. In fact, as Warner traveled more, raised more questions, documented more unfettered truth, he came into conflict with military brass who would rather the words and images from the front lines be more controlled.
“His commanders grew increasingly skeptical of his desire to be out in the field and it was not out of any sense of trying to preserve his life, it was, ‘You’re getting too close and it’s not your job to be so up front and out there with them,” says Mike Thornton, who came on as curator of the Museum this year. “He would come back and say, ‘I can’t tell the truth if I’m not out there,’ but they would say they’re not happy about it. He’d already been a social activist, he just took that to Vietnam and …. his form of protest in the end ends up being up front with the guys at the American front end in Vietnam.”
Warner likened himself to Ernie Pyle, who documented the humble soldier—”the forgotten man”— in World War II. But that’s not what officers wanted from Warner. Actually, it was unclear, in the moment, what his officers wanted.
In one journal entry, Warner documents being told not to photograph bombing craters or boats, or actions in villages. He was told not to talk about body count. A month later, he was told the exact opposite: support needs to be drummed up so show the boys wreaking havoc, as it were. It was propaganda he was being asked to produce, which Warner couldn’t abide.
“I asked for the party line at the moment on giving statistics on casualties and reporting booby traps, ambushes, mines, and things like that blowing up Sam Pans [wooden boats] from the air. He assured me all were valid and always had been. I looked surprised and mentioned my troubles back in July. The whole affair smacks of Animal Farm where the rules kept changing but the poor donkey could never prove they were changing since there was no record of how the rules had formerly been. I realized now the promotion board was correct when they called me flippant. I’ve become flippant in my attitude toward a lot of stuff here,” Warner wrote in November.
Warner’s words and photos cracked the veneer of unified military might and devotion to Uncle Sam and uncovered the feelings many soldiers had that, “If I get drafted, if I can get through one year, then I’ve done my service,” Thornton says.
Images of soldiers with long hair, wearing love beads, personalizing their helmets and equipment speak to the individuality soldiers embraced, and, of course, the Army didn’t want that. And while they could stamp the love beads out of photos and edit Warner’s writing, his work possessed an inherent humanity that couldn’t be removed. As Warner spent more time in Vietnam, he became closer to the soldiers fighting it, and that intimacy is evident in the photographs he produced.
“You see through the images his sort of growing confidence and report with these soldiers,” Thornton says. “There’s an initial shot in the show where someone has received a fruitcake from home and the guys are all gathered around and devouring it with great relish, but [Warner]’s kind of on the outside. It’s kind of an awkward picture. More and more, as time goes by, he starts taking these really stunning portraits. There’ll be just a single figure, even them in a field with just a gun and there’s just this piercing eye contact, a sense of tension in the environment.”
The 25 images on display at the Museum exhibit are uncensored and tell a much more realistic and evocative story than the one published by the military 50 years ago—mining Warner’s personal collection of words and photos allows that. Thornton hopes the work, in full display, moves members of this generation to recognize the virtue of what Warner did and maybe put themselves in his shoes.
“It’s my hope that, not just from this exhibition but for all the work the NJ Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial does, is that the younger generation can see themselves in that generation and temporarily, while they’re engaging in a conversation with Stephen Warner, feel a little bit of the stakes at hand and to carry that for just a little bit, to understand what it means to be 18 or 19, and to be asked just to serve and carry big ideals and to want to help people and to see the humanity of people in one of the worst things humanity can do, a war,” Thornton says.
The exhibit provides a unique opportunity to peer into the unique horror of Vietnam. Consider this heartbreaking passage from one of Warner’s notebook entries:
“One rapidly learns to lose his sensitivity over here. I realized that at Cai Cai. Here was all this suffering and misery and could do nothing about it – so therefore my job was not to get upset by it. Same with Wiley’s death. Strange all during high school and college I worked like hell to make myself more sensitive. I even had a prayer: ‘Dear God, let me feel all the world’s hurts as if they were to me and yet have the strength to endure them and try to cure them.’ Learned to try to feel for the Czech students and most of all the American black man – suffer his suffering so I could know what needed righting – and now I try to learn to ignore the suffering – something I confess I find much easier.”
The war killed. Killed people, killed hope, killed virtue. And yet, until the day he died, Warner fought off the natural biological instinct for safety in the service of something larger: humanity. His life may have ended in Vietnam, but the work he did there to document the horrors of war and the strength of the human spirit lives on through his words and photos.
See the exhibit Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays via timed admission tickets. More info and tickets available at njvvmf.org.