As You Were: Stephen Warner
Words and Images from Vietnam
On display at the Vietnam Era Museum
through February 2021
This exhibit shows
Stephen Warner as he was:
Strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, yet willing to risk his life as he took part in it.
Stephen was inducted into the United States Army and was sent to Basic Training at Fort Dix. He arrived in Vietnam on March 23, 1970, and was assigned to the Army Information Office at Long Binh.
Long Binh Post was considered one of the safest areas in all of South Vietnam and Stephen's assignment as an Army Information Officer was considered a very safe and enviable position. His main responsibility was to document the war by taking photographs and writing articles for Stars and Stripes and other military publications.
By all accounts, Stephen could have spent his tour in Vietnam in relative safety and returned home without experiencing the worst aspects of life during wartime. Stephen, however, wasn't interested in going to Vietnam and returning home without fully experiencing the war.
As an Information Officer he was given a pass that allowed him to travel freely throughout the country. He repeatedly volunteered to leave Long Binh to document the stories of the men serving in the field. He spent weeks in the field with various units, rejecting the comforts of Long Binh and embracing the harsh realities of life as a grunt. In doing so, he gained a unique perspective of the war and the people involved in it.
Stephen Henry Warner was born and raised in Skillman, New Jersey on February 21, 1946. He graduated from Princeton High School in 1964 and then continued his studies at Gettysburg College. It was during his time at Gettysburg that Stephen became a vocal leader of the protest movement against the Vietnam War.
He began writing for the school newspaper and wrote often about his opinions of the war. In 1966, he was a founding member of an "ad hoc committee of students who are opposed to the war in Vietnam" and the following year he participated in the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon.
Stephen graduated with top honors from Gettysburg in 1968. He then attended Yale Law School for one year before receiving his draft notice in June of 1969.
Stephen was conflicted about serving in a war that he didn't believe in. Ultimately, however, Stephen chose to accept his draft notice and decided to make the best of his time in the military.
On February 14, 1971, Stephen was accompanying a road construction crew that was working in territory near the DMZ controlled by the North Vietnamese Army. The group was ambushed and the vehicle that Stephen was riding in was hit by an enemy rocket. He was killed in action one week before his 25th birthday and two weeks before he was scheduled to return home.
Stephen's story is told here with the photographs that he took and the words that he wrote, either in letters to loved ones or in the notebooks he kept while serving in Vietnam. They show Stephen Warner as he was, strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam yet willing to risk his life as he took part in it.
The photographs featured below were all taken by Stephen Warner during his tour of duty in Vietnam that began in March of 1970 and ended with his death in February of 1971. Locations and identities of the individuals in the majority of the photographs are unknown. In this way, the men seen here become anonymous representatives of all those that served in Vietnam.
The majority of the letters quoted below were written to his parents. He also wrote in a series of notebooks about his experiences. The quotes are arranged chronologically and document his evolving feelings towards the war and his role in it.
In his will, Stephen designated that his photographs and writings be donated to Gettysburg College. They are kept in the College Archives as the Stephen H. Warner Collection. The entire collection can be accessed at the link below.
"I am now on my way to Nam to play my part in America's greatest military disaster."
Letter - March, 1970
"As far as my safety is concerned, don't sweat it. Long Binh Base hasn't been attacked in over two years by ground forces. As for the rockets... well they've never come close to the USARV HQ where I work, or my barracks. So relax!"
Letter - March 24, 1970
"I'm confused. Mr. Nixon says the college kids are bums and that the GIs in Nam are the greatest boys in the world. Where does that leave me, a college protester now serving as a GI in Nam."
Notebook - May 3, 1970
"We in IO - the enlisted men - are totally and literally sick at the mess in Cambodia, not to mention the problems back home of which the Kent State massacre is the most blatant example.
When will America wake up that this war is tearing out our very soul. Raising bitterness and hate which can't help but linger long after the killing has stopped and only the maimed in body and mind remain."
Letter - May 6, 1970
"I plan to write a book about the year... a first-person narrative of what a HQ IO [information officer] saw and heard and on the other hand the feelings of an individual actively against the war in college and one who thought seriously about refusing to come."
Notebook - May 9, 1970
"Death came to HQ USARV-IO this afternoon. I took the afternoon run to Saigon and came back to be greeted by news that Wiley Hooks was killed this morning about 10:30 when his helicopter went down in Cambodia. Strange, when it comes this close. Wiley is the first death ever in this office.
[I have] no added feeling of bitterness or hate of the war - nothing that grand - just the realization that the next round of casualty figures will include a friend - someone with a name, a face, a personality - a real flesh and blood human, I knew."
Notebook - May 9, 1970
"One rapidly learns to lose his sensitivity over here. I realized that at Cai Cai. Here was all this suffering and misery and could do nothing about it - so therefore my job was not to get upset by it. Same with Wiley's death.
Strange all during high school and college I worked like hell to make myself more sensitive. I even had a prayer: 'Dear God, let me feel all the world's hurts as if they were to me and yet have the strength to endure them and try to cure them.' Learned to try to feel for the Czech students and most of all the American black man - suffer his suffering so I could know what needed righting - and now I try to learn to ignore the suffering - something I confess I find much easier."
Notebook - May 11, 1970
"It is really kind of hard to think of stuff to write about when I'm here at Long Binh, just putting in a regular day at the office. Lots better when I'm out traveling. Boy, is that fun... Talking to people learning, learning, and learning.
Ignoring my original objections to coming over here (which I still think are valid, but all history now), I wouldn't give up what I'm doing now for the world."
Letter - May 11, 1970
"As for personal risk well, I came in as a draftee and Lady Luck didn't make me a grunt though she could have. If she wants to turn nasty now or at a future date, she can get me anywhere in Nam and I'd prefer it be where I'm really accomplishing something."
Request for assignment with combat troops in Cambodia - May 16, 1970
"PLEASE TRY NOT TO WORRY.
Believe me I'm having a ball"
Letter - May 28, 1970
"One afternoon we were sitting around and bemoaning the lack of ice, beer, and sodas. Suddenly, someone suggested that I catch a chopper (since I can come and go as I want), fly back to Vietnam, buy the stuff and bring it back... I enlisted the aid of another fellow to help me grab the junk and at 3 p.m we grabbed a chopper for Song Be. We got there about 3:30, I borrowed a fellow's ration card that I know at IO [Information Office] there and rushed down and bought 6 cases of beer and coke. Then we stole some ice and rushed over to the chopper pad where by a super miracle, we found a chopper going back to [Fire Support Base] Neil. At 5 p.m. we were back at Neil on the front lines sipping beer and cokes with real honest to goodness ice."
Letter - June 8, 1970
"I don't mean to sound so negative, but at this point I really don't believe anything less than incredible horrible defeats (hopefully costly in land and materials only) is going to drive home to the folks in the U.S. that this Viet mess has gone too far and we must write it off.
We have lost the war in Southeast Asia and any frantic steps to cover this up are only going to make the mess bigger."
Letter - June 15, 1970
"Vietnam is rapidly ceasing to be places and events for me and instead becoming faces and individuals. How utterly wonderful. If I can continue in this direction all year I may yet have something worth publishing. Strange but it looks as though my most meaningful protest against the war will be becoming totally immersed, wallowing in it so I can tell it through the men themselves. If they can do it for a year, I can do it for long enough to at least glimpse what their year is like from the inside."
Notebook - June 30, 1970
"I've located someone to use approximately as a model of the kind of stuff I want to turn out. Ernie Pyle of WWII fame. All personal kind of stuff on the little soldier - the forgotten man. What sold me on Ernie Pyle was a book by him. The inside of the cover. It said 'He hates the war but loves the men who fight them.'
That about sums me up too."
Letter - July 2, 1970
[Ernie Pyle was a journalist and war correspondent who gained fame during World War II for his accounts of the ordinary Americans that served in the armed forces. He was killed by enemy fire in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa.]
"It feels good to be off again... for the GI in Vietnam the key is to make time go fast, not make the war end fast.
No one thinks in terms of accomplishing things to end the war but rather in terms of staying alive for the one year the war is his war."
Notebook - August 2, 1970
"I've been gathering photos from all over for a Thanksgiving day picture essay for the theme of the simple things that a grunt in the field is thankful for. Well, obviously some of the photos have fellows without shirts on. It looks like our Lt. Col. will [reject] them for that reason, which kills the whole project. Such utter stupidity."
Letter - October 30, 1970
"I started to defend my walks by saying you can get a feel faster from humping with them that you can't get elsewhere. And then I hung it up and guess I told him the truth. I just plain love to walk with these guys.
You are free in a way you are free nowhere else or at least I have never been elsewhere. Besides if it's my time to die I can think of no group I'd prefer to die in the midst of than a group of 11Bs [infantryman] in the field."
Notebook - October, 1970
[Stephen's fellow information officers and superiors began to question why he spent so much time in the field. This was his response to them.]
"I asked for the party line at the moment on giving statistics on casualties and reporting booby traps, ambushes, mines, and things like that blowing up Sam Pans [wooden boats] from the air. He assured me all were valid and always had been. I looked surprised and mentioned my troubles back in July. The whole affair smacks of Animal Farm where the rules kept changing but the poor donkey could never prove they were changing since there was no record of how the ruled had formerly been.
I realized now the promotion board was correct when they called me flippant. I've become flippant in my attitude toward a lot of stuff here."
Notebook - November 13, 1970
"[The colonel] asked me why I wanted to stay through March and I told him I had places to go and things to see - because at heart I'm a social and cultural historian and find Nam a fabulous laboratory to observe my generation."
Notebook - December 20, 1970
"In the language of the war I'm getting short - be home in less than 90 days. I hope you can take me. Frankly I'm warning you I'm pretty jazzed up and it's going to take me a while to settle down - so if your 'vetran' son and brother acts a bit peculiar at the beginning, can't sit still, uses overly blunt language, and appears totally disoriented and lost never fear - he'll come out of it after a while and just hang tight and try to be halfway open-minded when I want to keep moving and seem to have no plans or orientation.
Frankly at this point, I'm sort of scared about coming back. I just don't want to settle back into the old ho hum, office school, proper routine for a while. That's why I'm leaving the rest of 1971 wide open - don't know what I'm going to do but I just need some time."
Letter - January 3, 1971
"How can one get nostalgic about Nam? I don't know but I have. Do you know what it's like to be in the field with a dozen others and to know death could be in every next step. The cost of admission is fear, but the price almost seems worthwhile - for in the bargain you get brotherhood, yes brotherhood, you're so close - close like two five year-olds are close out alone in the dark. Somehow knowing you'd do things for the other guy that you'd never do anywhere else. For me, it's knowing that if I am to die, I can't ask more than that it be among a bunch of grunts. Why? Because grunts are the ultimate in humanness.
And so you ask me how I can be an optimist about humanity, well it's because I've walked with Johnny and Joe and I've laid my life in their hands and been richer for the experience."
Letter - January 7, 1971
"I've changed plans again. I just happened to be up along the DMZ when this big push west began last week and being bored I decided to go along for the ride.
Don't worry about me. I'm having a ball and believe it or not the stuff I'm involved in really isn't that dangerous."
Letter - February 8, 1971
This was the last letter that Stephen wrote to his parents before being killed in action on February 14, 1971.
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