A Degree of Disillusion

Remembering war photographer Larry Burrows


The archetypal Englishman, war photographer Larry Burrows led the line in capturing the true horror of conflict in the 1960s and early 70s until his tragic death in 1971. A photographer for Life magazine he carried on the publication’s tradition for showing the world, but more especially America the reality of combat and the dreadful suffering it wrought upon their country’s sons. Whilst America basked in a state of near blissful ignorance it was Life magazine and its journalists who set about to defy the government led propaganda machine and bring about a sea change in the public’s perception of its role and the price being paid on both sides of the Vietnam War.

Putting aside his fear of heights and spiders Burrows first toured Vietnam in 1962 whilst the war was in its infancy. He moved around the country saying little but asking a lot. He was formulating his way of conveying the situation from the hours of rain sodden boredom to moments of unmitigated terror. A year later, in 1963 Life magazine published a fourteen page feature story by him called ‘We Wade Deeper into Jungle War’. It was a first for both magazine and photographer, never before had Life published such a large, hard hitting account of a combat zone and the images Burrows captured have remained as daunting and harrowing as the day the unsuspecting public set eyes upon them.

Burrows showed the reality of Vietnam; mud, death and indifference in equal measure. There was no room for shallow patriotism in his work, he saw how napalm destroyed the land and its people and he photographed it, he saw the effects of close range jungle warfare on young American’s longing for home and the Vietnamese famer staring death along the line of a dagger as his family pleads for mercy. What drove him to do it will never be truly known, he was a quiet, unassuming man who cared little for praise and was happiest escaping the furore of his work being published whilst he remained in a war zone.

The systematic destruction of Laos by America is one of the true war crimes of the 20th century, a CIA led operation of public denial for the pounding of such a small, poor country will remain one of its most shameful periods. Burrows knew what was happening to the Lao people and their land and he was determined to report it. On the 10th of February he boarded a helicopter along with fellow photojournalists Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto. There was to be a huge ground invasion by South Vietnamese troops in what would become known as Operation Lam Son 719. They never made it. Shot down in mid flight shortly before his forty fifth birthday his death begs the question of whether the US government would have continued to get away with it for so long.

Perhaps, perhaps not but he and his colleagues ensured that a substantial part of American society woke up to what their government was spinning and refused to accept it.

Photograph of Larry Burrows taken by Roger Mattingly on the Laotian border in 1971

Categories: Reportage

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