a picture is worth a thousand-word story

War is Hell

War is Hell

I figure we might as well continue our them of Vietnam for another week…

German photographer Horst Fass began his career at the age of 21. He was a photojournalist during the Vietnam War and took a handful of iconic photos of the time period. One of the most famous pictures is War is Hell. On June 18, 1965, Fass wrote in his notes: “the unidentified Army solider picture was shot June 18, 1965, and the soldier was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam.” For a while, this was the only information known about this photo. The soldier’s identity was a complete mystery.

Fass’s picture grabbed the attention of many because of one main element: contrast. The soldier’s bright eyes contrast heavily with the darkness of the rest of the photo. He’s young and smiling innocently, despite his position as a soldier fighting in a very complex, mature war. “Take the helmet out, and this could easily be a high school yearbook photo.” Most importantly, his eyes lead the viewer to the words written on his helmet: War is Hell.

It was common for soldiers to write messages or draw graffiti on their helmets. They used this art to express their feelings about the war. Generally, these were not positive feelings. Every day, these soldiers faced not only horrible conditions, but moral and ethical issues that were psychologically overwhelming. They continued to fight for different reasons, but many felt trapped and resentful. The unidentified soldier pulled the words from William Tecumseh Sherman’s address to Michigan Military Acadamy’s 1879’s graduating class:

“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is hell.”

Years later, Fran Chaffin Morrison revealed that the soldier in the photograph was her late husband, Larry Wayne Chaffin. The two met while Chaffin was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia; they married when Chaffin was 17 and Fran was 16. Chaffin served for a year in the 173rd brigade, beginning in May 1965. When the photo was taken, Chaffin was only 19 years old. He was discharged from the army, and his wife gratefully met him at the airport upon his return home. Tucked under his arm was a copy of the Stars and Stripes publication that featured the photograph of the unidentified soldier. He showed it to his wife and jokingly told her, “That picture is going to make me rich some time.”His portrait was printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch special about soldiers returning home, along with his name in the caption. There was no doubt the photo was of Chaffin.

Unfortunately, Chaffin had trouble readjusting to life back in the States. He developed diabetes, possibly as the result of the use of Agent Orange, and died of health complications at the age of 39. His family carries on his story, however. All three of his children know the story by heart. Chaffin’s daughter Belinda was working as a magazine distributer when she noticed the photograph in the November 2010 Time publication that she was delivering. Best of all, Belinda’s son Marcus strikingly resembles his grandfather and has been photographed next to the famous portrait.

War is Hell grandson

Colorized version:

War is Hell 2


3 Responses to “War is Hell”

  1. Tanner Quiggle

    Ok so the yearbook comment is exactly right. Subtract the helmet and it does look just like a senior picture! But with regards to the story, I think that Mr. Chaffin’s story does truly exemplify the horrors of the war and demonstrate that war is indeed hell.

  2. Peter Rivera

    Wow, I’ve never seen or heard of this picture but I can agree that it’s very striking. The story behind this photograph is at least “semi-happy” as he got to spend his life alive with his family. Difficulty adjusting is a legitimate concern and I’m happy we have more resources which help with that today. “War is Hell”, sadly I don’t think many people truly know this :/. Fantastic work 🙂

  3. JP

    Again, another very influential picture that I… haven’t seen! And probably should have! It’s always a shame to hear about soldiers coming back from war and not being able to fit back into society like they used to, but it happens all too often. Anyways, thanks for another great post, and thanks for another learning experience for me!

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