The Girl with the Guitar

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Photo courtesy of Vietnam Art Photograph Archives and Exhibition Center

There have been many books written about the Viet Nam war from the American side, but very few from the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong side. There have been even fewer photo books from that other perspective. One of the best, published by National Geographic, is entitled ANOTHER VIETNAM: PICTURES OF THE WAR FROM THE OTHER SIDE. Among the numerous arresting photographs in that book was one that particularly caught my attention, by the late photographer Le Minh Truong. It is a photo which I call “The Girl with the Guitar” and which became the subject of the first story in my collection, LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM. That story is entitled simply “The Photograph.” The picture itself appeared in a section of the National Geographic book entitled “The Trail.” The caption is as follows:

“Location unknown, 1970. A Youth Volunteer plays her guitar during a rest break along the trail. Assigned to a team of young women who deactivated delayed-fuse bombs dropped by U.S. planes, the teenager was killed the day after this image was made. ‘There was nothing left,’ recalls the photographer, ‘not even flesh. Nothing except pieces of clothing scattered about.’”

LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM is dedicated in part to the memory of the young woman in the photograph.

I suppose I had two reactions to this photograph, which struck me as very beautiful and very sad. The first had to do with the quoted language from the photographer that appeared in the caption. Photographer Truong describes what happened the day after he took the picture in what seems to be almost a casual, matter-of-fact tone, but I believe that his reaction was anything but callous. In trying to put myself in his mind-set, to the extent that it might be possible for me to do so, I realized that tragic events of this nature must have been everyday occurrences in Viet Nam during the many wars which have plagued that country, and that his seemingly cavalier response was in fact a quite necessary one for someone who had seen and experienced great suffering first-hand and who needed, above all, to continue to survive. Indeed, photographer Truong himself had suffered a debilitating shrapnel wound as a young soldier in 1956 which rendered him blind, deaf, and paralyzed. His recovery was long, difficult, but ultimately successful, for by 1959 he was able to take up his new role as a photographer for the Vietnam News Agency.

My second reaction to the photograph was to try to imagine the inner life of the Youth Volunteer who died. What, if anything, was she thinking about as she played her guitar? How long the war would last? What she would do afterward? Was she thinking of her family, her country, a boyfriend, perhaps? Or, knowing full well the hardships and dangers of her life and how quickly it might end, had she decided that it was better not to think at all, that it was best just to play on as long as she was given the opportunity to do so? I have no answers to these questions, neither in reality, of course, nor in the story for which this picture formed the basis. Instead, “The Photograph” is told from the point of view of a young (fictional) man serving in the same corps along the Ho Chi Minh Trail who loved this girl and who refuses to resign her memory after the war is over and he is urged by the leaders of his country to “move on.” In his picture Le Minh Truong immortalized the girl. In the story I hope to show that she was part of a larger world which contained at least one other person who would always hold her image in the forefront of his mind and heart regardless of whether that image appeared on film.

About James

James D. Redwood, author of Love Beneath the Napalm, a collection of Vietnam-themed short stories published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Inaugural winner of the Notre Dame Review Book Prize.
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