It was spring, 1968. I was 17 years old, a high school senior who would register for the draft that coming June. The unfolding war in Vietnam had become an obsession as I considered a future that might take me there. I also was an aspiring journalist, so I spent considerable time staring at the Tet Offensive photos that had appeared in Life magazine in March 1968. I especially remember the center-spread photo — a wounded Marine, unconscious, on a makeshift stretcher, being evacuated from the battlefield on the back of a tank, surrounded by other wounded Marines, being treated by a medic.
It is one of the iconic photos from that most-photographed war, when reporters and photographers had more freedom to document combat in any war before or since. Fifty years later, I still remember the young man I was then, staring at that photo — fascinated, horrified, scared.
I never did serve, obtaining conscientious objector status in 1971. The photograph itself faded from my memory — until this last February, when Michael Shaw, writing in The New York Times Magazine, set out to identify, once and for all, the wounded, unconscious Marine in the photo.
Shaw is not a journalist by training or profession. He is a photo forensics specialist and publisher of the nonprofit site “Reading the Pictures,” which analyzes news photos as part of its media literacy focus.
But he spent nine months reporting on a 50-year-old story to write “The Story Behind an Iconic Vietnam Photo Was Nearly Erased — Until Now.” The magazine piece, published Feb. 19, 2019, had a provocative dek hed:
“A celebrated book and a major museum exhibition revealed the harrowing tale behind the image of a wounded Marine. Their version was wrong.”
… there are a couple of reasons it does matter, and one reason is very current: Truth really is at a premium these days. ~ Michael Shaw
That’s because, in the end, Shaw concluded that the wounded man on the makeshift stretcher was Marine Pfc. James Blaine, a rifleman with Charlie Company Third Platoon, who died the day the photo was taken. There are others — a respected war photographer, John Olson, and a best-selling author and war historian, Mark Bowden — who dispute that conclusion, and continue to maintain that the wounded Marine was not Blaine, but Pfc. Alvin Grantham, who survived Vietnam and whose name has been linked to the famous photo for decades.
Blaine was born in Moscow, Idaho, and raised in Spokane, Washington. I teach at the University of Idaho in Moscow and live in Spokane. I retain some of my obsession with the Vietnam War, and a complete obsession with accurate journalism. After reading The New York Times Magazine piece, I felt I had to talk to Shaw.
The interview transcript that follows, edited for length and clarity, covers a great deal of ground in trying to address a controversial story. And it might help to know the key players:
- John Olson: Stars and Stripes war photographer who, at 21, took the photo of the wounded Marine. He freelanced the color photos of the Hue battle to Life magazine. As the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive approached, Olson worked in partnership with Stars and Stripes and the Newseum to create Tet 1968, an online project featuring photos from Tet and seeking the public’s help in identifying or locating people Olson had photographed.
- Mark Bowden: Respected reporter and author (“Black Hawk Down”) whose 2017 book, “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam” re-establishes an original identity for the wounded Marine as Alvin Grantham.
- Don McCullin: Famous British photographer whose images taken in the minutes preceding Olson’s more famous photograph, published for the first time with Shaw’s story, support the James Blaine identification.
- Alvin Grantham: Marine infantryman identified by Olson and Bowden as the wounded Marine. Grantham survived the war, spending nearly 18 months in a military hospital recovering from wounds he suffered at Hue.
- Anthony Loyd: British author and New York Times correspondent who writes about war and who suggested Shaw be brought in to complete his own investigation into the iconic photo.
- Marine Pfc. James Blaine, the mortally wounded Marine whom Shaw asserts was pictured in the Olson photo.
Shaw pulls no punches in declaring Blaine the wounded Marine, though he is careful to acknowledge Grantham’s own heroism and service. It is not the intention of this interview to resolve the debate. But Shaw’s unanticipated introduction to reporting is a reminder that good journalism is always based on meticulous reporting, deep eyewitness interviewing, and consideration of documents and records. As he says below, at this time, in this world, attention to the facts is a nearly sacred mandate.
Storyboard’s conversation with Shaw has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your personal and professional background and explain the nature of your organization, Reading The Pictures,) and what you are trying to accomplish through it.
I’m a clinical psychologist and I’ve been a political junkie for most of my life. I’m also extraordinarily left-brained — I think in images. When the political blogosphere came into existence I started looking at news photography, and particularly, I was looking at the 2004 Bush-Kerry campaign. Karl Rove, at that time, was really a genius in terms of how he was marrying slogans to visuals. So I started writing about news photography and spin and context, and everyone else was saying, ‘We’re all doing the words; you’re doing the pictures.’ It took on a life from there.
Because I’m a psychologist, I was interested in body language and reading character, personality, and motive in imagery. I started talking about how much images were being appropriated ideologically. We’ve done about 30 salons (web-based conversations) where we look at one of the major stories of the day and how it’s being visually framed. We are trying to create a dialogue between citizens and visual academics and photo editors and photographers.
Your site struck me as presenting a sort of photo-visual forensics, trying to break the image down into some pieces-parts that say something more than what the image itself says. I don’t know anybody else who is doing it quite this way, do you?
Surprisingly, at this point, no. But I think there are some reasons for that. We are a nonprofit and our mandate is to educate people in terms of visual literacy and media literacy when it comes to news and cultural images.
I think the reason you don’t (see others) is because there is an enormous amount of money that goes into visual narrative and visual persuasion in our society. If someone is going to spend $1 million, $2 million, or $5 million on a one-minute ad, and then another $5 million to run it, they do not want you thinking about why the woman is hitting the guy over head with a Doritos bag.
Karl Rove said, ‘Politics is television with the sound off.’ He understood how messaging could really bypass critical thinking. The image is the identic nature of our minds. Those images worm right in there. If you can attach a few different ideas to it and link that to something that is happening in the culture or you put a little fear piece into it, you sell a product, or you can get someone to vote a particular way. I think that there has been a real disincentive for the powers-that-be to allow the public to read through what these images mean.
Given that as background and context, what led you to this project? What was it that got you interested that iconic 1968 Tet Offensive photo and the identity of the wounded Marine?
I was contacted by The New York Times Magazine. I knew some of the people there from other work I had done. Anthony Loyd, who is a very accomplished war journalist, was working on this story for several years. He loves images. He started off as a photographer. He was very interested in (noted combat photographer) Don McCullin’s work, and he spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out who the guy was in that iconic McCullin photograph of the shell-shocked soldier, the guy from the Hue battle with the thousand-yard stare, a much more famous photo.
But as we started this project, I realized that not a lot of people knew of John Olson’s (war) photography unless you had seen it at the time. The photo of the wounded Marine on the tank wasn’t that well known, even though it’s an extraordinary photo.
Loyd spent about a year-and-a-half trying to find out who the shell-shocked soldier was but was completely stymied. In the course of that work, he started looking at McCullin’s other images and he came upon McCullin’s photos of the same scene of the tank photographed by Olson, but apparently taken several minutes before.
From there, he’s researching, researching, researching.
Just as Loyd was coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, Mark Bowden, of “Black Hawk Down” fame, had been working on his (Tet Offensive) book for two years, in time to release on the anniversary.
So Loyd, in doing a pretty thorough job of research, started thinking the Marine on the tank was maybe not alive anymore, that he was likely a killed-in-action Marine named James Blaine. But he had not taken the research far enough to believe conclusively that it wasn’t Alvin Grantham, the still-alive Marine veteran identified by Bowden in the concluding chapter of Bowden’s book.
The New York Times Magazine has a feature called “At War” and that is their focus. So, they called me up and said, ‘Look, Loyd has done a tremendous amount of research, this is a real mystery.’ They said, ‘We feel like it has other components to it in terms of cultural questions and memory questions.’ I think my understanding of the psychological aspect — looking at pictures in terms of culture, media, and my understanding of photo forensics — presented the right profile to take this thing on.
Why do we care about the identity of this Marine? Vietnam is the most photographed war in history; there are more visuals out of Vietnam than any war before or since. The photo says something — maybe even powerfully says something — even if we do not precisely know the identity of the wounded man.
That’s what Bowden says, too — that it doesn’t matter, that the soldier is an everyman. I think there are a couple of reasons it does matter, and one reason is very current: Truth really is at a premium these days. Facts and news stories do not exist in a vacuum anymore. Olson’s photo work and Bowden’s book are the basis for an exhibition at the Newseum. And Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down” was turned into a movie. So I think it’s not so innocent when you frame the question that way. These things start to metastasize in terms of media.
How did you approach the challenge of identifying the wounded Marine?
That involved nine months of work. I had to basically verify and redo most of Loyd’s research. I talked to all of the Marines who were eyewitnesses to this (iconic Ted firefight) — Marines in the Third Marine platoon — and it wasn’t very straightforward.
It is about validating their experience. ~ Michael Shaw
When you have the experience of talking to those eyewitnesses — there were five of them — you understand that these guys were traumatized by the war, mentally and physically damaged. They’ve lived with this for years and years, then they all came home, and young people today don’t realize what all happened when they came home.
They basically took the brunt of country’s enmity and denial, so no one talked about the picture. No one talked about the war for years and years and years until it wasn’t an issue for most of us anymore.
But when you have this story and you don’t validate their experiences and what happened in those 15 to 20 minutes before the photo was taken by Olson and who that (wounded Marine) actually is… It is about validating their experience.
Two of the eyewitnesses knew the wounded Marine was in their platoon but they did not know him. But the other three guys (interviewed) knew the guys in the tank and also knew Blaine very well. They knew the wounded Marine was Blaine. To not honor the memory of what these guys experienced on top of everything else is unconscionable. It’s soul-killing. It’s like they lost so much of their identity and their livelihood and a healthy life, and then you take that last piece.
I teach journalism. I’ve been an editor and a reporter for 40 years — meticulous reporting is part of my DNA. As I’ve been talking about this story to others, they think of it in terms of correcting history. I don’t exactly see you committing an act of historic correction so much as an act of journalism. You’re basically writing journalistically about an event that is history, but it’s all about meticulous reporting and research to reveal a truth. Is that how you frame it?
I think again it has to do with accuracy, with truth, with ethics. I’m not a historian, and I wasn’t approaching it so much from a historical standpoint. It made me think a lot about America and about America’s pride and America’s ego, and about winning and losing and all of this stuff that is now kind of come so much to the fore.
You talk about how we choose as Americans to think about and memorialize war in stories of heroism and positive outcomes — that identifying the wounded man as a survivor is one way to validate our Vietnam experience, to validate heroism and resilience. But in reality you seem to have an anonymous Marine who, in a major battle, made the ultimate sacrifice, but anonymously. Fifty years later, you are creating a forensic, photographic headstone for this lost Marine. Talk about your reporting process.
Well, there is a lot of just groundwork that was involved in talking to everybody. And Loyd handed over a lot of documents. He had a lot of his own conclusions. So what’s really interesting is that I started out with a lot of material that someone else would have had to originally source. In a way, I thought that thing was going to be fairly straightforward.
I had no idea that what I was going to bump up against was really something I would probably have more success dealing with because of my psychological training. The five W’s all kind of fell into place pretty easily.
And the turning point…
You take this incredible thing that sort of fell from the sky — 30 pictures from McCullin, 28 which have never been published before, and that show the same tank scene minutes before Olson’s iconic shot was taken. The McCullin photographs allowed us to establish a timeline and create a linkage to the eyewitnesses. I think we almost got there just comparing Olson’s photograph with McCullin’s photograph, knowing what the medic had to say, because then you could just do a comparison of the wound profiles, and you’re pretty much there in identifying Blaine.
But you come back to the rigors of fact-checking. There was confusion over the day on which the Olson photo was taken, Feb. 15th or Feb. 17th. Olson and Bowden were wedded to their story, to their narrative that the Marine was Alvin Grantham.
It was tricky because the Associated Press (which moved the Olson photo) didn’t really want to revisit this. We had the who, what, when, where and how — which we figured out — and then it came down to the why: Why the Marine had been misidentified.
I can understand why Grantham to this day feels that he’s the guy on the tank or how in all these interviews he says, ‘I’m sure I would recognize myself in a photograph.’ That’s a psychological thing that’s easy for me to understand.
Describe the story’s evolution.
There were a lot of drafts of this story and it wasn’t coming together because I couldn’t understand why the thing got so messed up, why no one went back to find the documentation (from the medic treating the Marine), and why no one pursued members of that platoon.
What was fascinating, too, was that everybody accepted John Olson’s scenario so readily — both the Newseum that had worked with Olson a couple years before when he did a Vietnam exhibition, and then also Bowden, who interviewed, he says, 200 people for that book. He’s a respected journalist and I take him at his word that he researched the heck out of this. But maybe he fell in love with the narrative, used to close his book, that the Marine on the tank was a hero who survived the battle.
We all invest in our stories; that’s the human condition. I was struck at how careful you were in dealing with Grantham. You wanted to make clear that he’s a hero, right? He fought and sacrificed, and he came back damaged. So, respecting that while at the same time challenging the central narrative of his war experience, that’s a heavy-duty role to play.
I really don’t do reported stories. I do essays. I’m doing analysis. I’m doing Twitter. I’m looking at pictures. I’m talking about pixels. So, with having to interview so many people and then talking to Grantham, I don’t know — maybe I didn’t do it right. We had a long conversation, and it turned out to be the only conversation that we had because then it went to email after that.
It made me think a lot about America and about America’s pride and America’s ego, and about winning and losing and all of this stuff that is now kind of come so much to the fore. ~ Michael Shaw
But we talked for some time and we were talking about his experience and the back story and controversy a little bit until we got down pretty deep into the conversation and I said, ‘Well, these are my findings.’ Oh my God, he was just really floored. He said, ‘I got to really process this.’ He’s a genial guy. I think he really in some way feels like it doesn’t matter if it was him. But he did get caught up in this, and I think part of him is very invested and another part is not so invested at all.
Maybe when you live through those experiences there is a certain level of perspective that you and I can never share. It may be important as part of his personal narrative. On the other hand, in the bigger scheme of things, your conclusion doesn’t take away from his going to war as a kid.
He’s got a comfort dog with him all the time. He’s been through so much. He was in the hospital for a year and a half. A year and a half! He felt like he was in that photograph for 50 years. I don’t know. I wish I could’ve done better by him, just in terms of the personal interaction. We ended up having to give him a lot of details by email and then he did not want to talk anymore.
Welcome to our world. No good story goes unpunished. The source who’s still on friendly terms when it’s all over is the rare one.
That’s something I’ve learned. These are unintended consequences in terms of my professional development.
What was your biggest surprise as you’re trying to sort through this?
Just from like the kind of the nuts-and-bolts perspective, the amount of fact-checking. I’ve been writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, so I’ve been working with an editor off-and-on for a certain number of pieces for a year and a half. But this was like the Super Bowl.
Who was your editor on The New York Times Magazine piece?
Lauren Katzenberg — a steady hand. (Katzenberg was the cofounder and managing editor of “Task and Purpose,” a site focused on issues of concern and interest to young military veterans. In February 2018 she became editor of The New York Times’ “At War.”) Then, Chris Chivers. He was a Marine and has written quite a bit about war. He was the one who reached out to me and knew my work. The two of them worked with me. Her proclivities and his — it was a little grinding at times. The fact-checker was really astonishing. He spent a solid month getting down into the deep, deep weeds on things.
There were at least four solid drafts with different approaches. There was a kind of who-done-it, with a reveal pretty much at the end. And then, there was one where the reveal was right up front and it was very factual. Then probably a month before the end — kind of stunning to me how much it changed — Blaine came in as a person with a background. At the same time, Loyd became a character. So it became sort of like a narrative, like with characters in a play.
It’s really important to remind people that in doing this kind of work it doesn’t matter that you’re not a trained journalist. The work requires a level of craft — meticulous and relentless reporting — to produce a defensible conclusion. Your story is a model of that. You are dissecting a story that is 50 years old. What has been the reaction? Have you gotten any substantial feedback from veterans, veterans’ groups, photographers, war correspondents?
The reaction in terms of the people who read “At War” and are really committed to American war and military history, they just thought it was amazing. I was really stunned by that. I think that as of earlier this spring, a half million people had read this thing. In this news space right now, where it’s just the latest Trump thing and there are three different Trump things a day, for this story to break through to the extent that it did, that was pretty interesting.
You search and search and search for sources and information. Then you publish the thing and all of a sudden a guy pops up on Facebook and he goes, “I was an AP reporter. … You’re right, there’s no way they could’ve gotten the film there that fast.” Or there was a woman who wrote to The New York Times, and she was way high up in the Time organization and knew about the photograph. She knew all kinds of things about the back story in terms of the journalism side, but then she went right into the emotional piece of it.
To not honor the memory of what these guys experienced on top of everything else is unconscionable. It’s soul-killing. ~ Michael Shaw
Then there was a military historian I didn’t know about until this thing got published and he runs one the largest Facebook groups — they’re all research types and vets. (EDITOR’ S NOTE: Shaw declined to name the group historian because their conversations were considered confidential.) He identified that tank and then started looking at command reports and verified that the photograph had to have been taken on the Feb. 15th, a key to identifying Blaine as the wounded Marine.
Olson and Bowden have said their piece and are going to move on. (NOTE: Bowden wrote a piece in August, 2017, for the Philadelphia Inquirer after he was first contacted about Anthony Loyd’s argument that the photo had been misidentified. Bowden reviewed his work and did some additional reporting but concluded that his identification of Grantham — not Blaine — as the wounded Marine was sound. The discrepancy seems to center around confusion over the actual date that the photo was taken.) But there may be more of a story to tell. Are you going to do a follow-up for the magazine?
The editors haven’t brought it up at all. I wrote to a number of different photo magazines and journalism magazines about following up. I didn’t get much response, so I don’t know if it’s going to have legs. But even at this point, I think it’s well worth another story.