Small Wars (rescue)
An-My Lê b. 1960, Saigon, Vietnam
Small Wars (rescue)
Gelatin silver print
26 1/2 x 38 inches (67.3 x 96.5 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Aaron M. Tighe, 2009
At first glance, the photograph Small Wars (rescue) (1999–2002), appears to capture a frantic moment during a tense battle: A helicopter has been grounded and seems to have crashed, since smoke is pouring from its hull. A man in a camouflage uniform kneels on the ground, rifle cocked, prepared to fire. Two other men, also soldiers, given that they are wearing helmets, stand in the background, either dealing with the wreckage or poised to join the impending fight. The photograph was not taken on the frontlines, however, but is rather one of a series of pictures of men reenacting battles from the Vietnam War in the forests of Virginia—something they do as a hobby. An-My Lê, who left Vietnam as a young girl with her family in 1975 to move to the United States, conceived the project as a way to explore the mediatization of the Vietnam War and the ways it is presented on film and television. Since most people learn about the war from its portrayal in movies such as Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, which focused on the violence experienced by the troops, Lê set out to investigate the extent to which the Vietnam War is embedded in the collective memory of the United States. The men who reenact the battles are playing a part scripted by history, yet the battles ultimately bear little resemblance to the actual events on which they are based. Numerous factors point to this subtle subterfuge: There is notably little blood or gore in any of the photographs; the battles have been completely sanitized. Also, the surrounding foliage is made up of pines and oak trees, which are typical of North American woods rather than the dense tropical forests of Vietnam. The disorienting effect of the photograph raises broader questions of the reliability of media images of war. Lê uses a large-format camera similar to that employed by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, who famously staged some of the scenes he shot. Her choice of camera taps into the larger history of war photography and the ways in which images are manipulated to varying ends, often either to downplay or to highlight the impact of war and the consequences of armed combat.