By Mike Thornton, NJVVMF Curator of Collections & Interpretation
As You Were: Stephen Warner – Words & Images from Vietnam is on display now at the Vietnam Era Museum. Get your tickets today – https://njvvmf.ticketspice.com/tickets.
Walking with Stephen Warner
Stephen Warner lived and practiced big ideals. An open critic of the war, Warner was drafted from Yale Law School in 1969 and was assigned as a writer and photographer for the Army Information Office in Vietnam. He could have enjoyed relative safety, yet he consistently sought out combat units believing only through total immersion could he explain the trials of his generation. In doing so he recorded heartfelt observations of himself and the American soldier in Vietnam in 1970.
Warner’s images are rich with telling details of the era. Men sport scruffy haircuts. Love bead necklaces and paracord bracelets abound. Most men wear an iteration of the ERDL pattern camouflage jacket, that slowly but never completely replaced standard-issue OD green fatigues. Looking closer, one also sees many men wear a single dog tag laced to their boot – a practice among combat soldiers born from the need to identify remains.
In Vietnam, Warner’s work was censored. The haircuts stayed, but love beads and unit insignia were painted out. In our exhibition, visitors encounter 25 images as taken in the field by Warner. We do not know who these men are, but their individuality is immediate and earnest. One soldier’s Boonie hat is embroidered “Linda.” Another’s helmet cover is graffitied “Illinois”, and boldly carved into the plastic stock of one soldier’s rifle we find “The Fugitive.”
I’m left to wonder what Illinois or The Fugitive thought of Stephen as he briefly wandered in and out of their lives. I want to believe he made an impression. Soldiers like them certainly made an impression on him. Warner likened
himself to WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle – who hated wars but loved the men who fight them. In a letter written in January of 1971 Stephen wrote “…you asked 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 have been richer for the experience.” Stephen Warner was killed in action a few weeks later, just shy of his 25th birthday.
As a curator, I deeply empathize with Stephen Warner’s commitment to preserving the humanity of his brothers in arms for both his generation and all those that followed. There is picture of Warner that hangs over my desk left by former curator Greg Waters. I have no intentions of taking it down any time soon.