One evening in 1969 I went into the 22nd Casualty Staging Flight at Da Nang to take a picture. Earlier that day two other medical corpsmen and I had spent several hours treating a young Marine officer who was grievously wounded. Although we hoped to evacuate him out of Viet Nam within 24 hours, his injuries were  so extensive that we’d built a metal framework over the bed so that, like a puppet, his arms and legs could be raised or lowered by cords to control circulation. Because of a lull in the fighting there was a lower than usual casualty count, and we were able to isolate him in a separate bay of the hospital ward where the sounds of the other wounded wouldn’t keep him awake. 

South China Sea  version 3,  oil and acrylic stain on canvas, 23 x 25”

A Moment in the Showa Era  version 16

oil and acrylic stain on canvas,  12 x 12”

In time visual images from the war did made their way into artworks,  first with images of  a hazy blinding sky and  jungle foliage, then later in more indirect ways like a glass-topped wall, a leper’s hand and the all-seeing eye of a Cao Dai temple.

© Photographs, paintings and text copyright Wayne Miller

For some reason I decided that a human being in a framework cage was something that needed to be recorded. He was asleep when I arrived at the hospital, and I went into the ward with a chair from the nurses’ station and sat a few feet away from the bed.  I took out a camera, and out of the habit of recording vital signs I began to watch him breath. Five or ten minutes passed before I realized that I was not going to take the picture. There was a moral threshold that I was unwilling or unable to cross. A person torn apart was something that shouldn’t be photographed.

Later in my tour of duty I made a similar decision in a leper colony near Hai Vanh Pass.  Although we spent most of our time working with the adults, who were severely deformed,  I limited photography to the children, who were not yet afflicted with the disease.  The focus became people living through war rather than people dead or dying.

Every American in Viet Nam had a camera. One of mine was an Olympus Pen half-frame camera that fit easily into fatigue pants pockets. But in places like the medical evacuation  hospital and the leper colony, where a camera was not always welcome, I began making  notes to record what was happening and what I was seeing.  Words became substitutes for pictures and then the words themselves became the pictures. Collections of these notes became the basis for the texts in my paintings.

As deeply as Viet Nam affected my life I’ve only attempted two paintings which deal directly with the subject of war.  “South China Sea” #3 shows a sea snake framed by a lament in Vietnamese.  “A Moment in the Showa Era” #16 shows a memory of war painted in the colors of the flag of the Republic of Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese text reads:

To die, to lose one’s life in a tropic zone.

To be unable to change, to be unable to forget.

The text is taken from the last two lines of a memory of Da Nang:

I am thinking now of the heat, the narcotic effect of the heat in another place, in another time.  Heat in which colors were washed or gone completely, then bleached again and again, forever. And the burning trees, and the poisoned grass, and the yards and the pathways filled with sand and twisted pieces of metal, pieces of small luxuries, things no longer useful to people who sleep too fitfully even for dreams. And

the skeletons of Citroens, and the helicopter graveyards, and the staccato whine of Vespas darkening ao-dais at high speed in hot winds of diesel fuel, winds that I have come to remember as a reminder of innocence in a time of small, sunlit exterminations.

The War in Viet Nam

Dog Patch