Prescott’s War

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William Linzee Prescott already knew a lot about war when he went to Vietnam. Born in 1917 and the descendant of the Colonel Prescott who told his men to hold their fire until they saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes on Bunker Hill, he studied art at Chouinard in Los Angeles, joined the Army at the outbreak of World War II, and jumped into Normandy with the 82d Airborne. Captured and held for ten months before he escaped, Prescott documented his POW days in brisk sketches and the Normandy invasion with a mural at West Point. In 1967 he was sent to Vietnam as the first civilian painter with the Army Combat Artist Program. At the time of his death in 1981, he was planning a book of his Vietnam drawings; but work had not gone far, and Morley Safer, a correspondent who also put in time in Vietnam and who recently wrote a fine book about it, has expanded on the hastily penciled identifications the artist left behind on his watercolors. Safer believes that Prescott’s vibrant paintings show that war with an urgency and an intimacy that the camera often misses.

The artist at war is a unique character. Unlike the correspondent, he has no artificial deadline imposed by editors—only the much harsher deadline of movement to be captured, complicated by that dreadful monster that people politely call the muse. Unlike war photographers, he has no technical help, no motor drive to catch images almost faster than they occur; his equipment has not changed much since early man. And yet the artist in war, like the artist anywhere, is forever on the edge of something new. What he sees is only part of it; the agility of hand is only part of it. The main thing is what the muse, the monster in his head, makes happen. When it doesn’t happen, it is just so much paint on paper. These next few pages are anything but that.

I did not know Linzee Prescott. I wish I had. If a man’s paintings are an exposure of character, then Prescott would clearly be the kind of man any correspondent would want to share a few glasses with. For the truth of war is that as tragic as the whole awful panorama may be, it is also very funny. And Vietnam was more absurd than most, with its combination of imperial arrogance, boyish innocence, its whoring and dying in the span of a day, and all without any purpose anyone could rationally explain. Prescott captures it all in a few bold strokes.

Vietnam Rhapsody is a rush of images that has haunted me since the day I first saw Prescott’s portfolio: the garish and sacred, the profane and the deadly. I can smell the rot and scratch the imaginary bug bites, hear the din of Saigon traffic drowned out by the whap-whap of the Hueys. To anyone who was there, Vietnam Rhapsody is an old postcard to oneself, rediscovered in the attic of memory.

 

The Saigon River in Asia’s two golden hours—just after dawn and just before sunset—offered moments of serenity. The place seemed to move back in time and became again a sleepy backwater, sending out rice, sisal, rubber, and some opium and bringing in bicycle parts and questionable French plumbing. The daydream ended upriver. Saigon Harbor was a hustler’s paradise when Prescott painted this view in 1967, at the height of our build-up. People may forget how rich so many Americans and Vietnamese became; the more troubled the place was, the more money there was, for black marketeers, import-export businesses, shipowners, brokers, and dopers. Much of it was made in the port of Saigon. Out of curiosity, back in the mid-sixties, I inquired in the black market if it was possible to buy a tank. The dealer, who traded mainly in American Army fatigues, said, “No problem, maybe take one week. If you want APC (armored personnel carrier), I get for you right now.”

 
 

When America goes to war, much more than “beans and bullets” are expended. This port was the landing place for billions of cans of beer, hair spray, and vials of antibiotics to cure both the infections of the battlefield and the inevitable results of more peaceful encounters in the streets of Saigon. The stevedores—men and women—were a tough bunch of rascals who worked to their own rules and at their own speed. Like almost every level of Vietnamese society, they included probably hundreds of Vietcong agents. Saigon Harbor was as much a resupply point for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese as it was for the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and its American allies. Barges of rice imported under a U.S. AID program would routinely be sent upriver under the command of Vietnamese naval officers who would hand it over to the Vietcong in exchange for drugs or cash. The drugs would be distributed through a Saigon network or be exported to Hong Kong. The cash would find its way to Switzerland.

Saigon Harbor was as much a resupply point for the Vietcong as it was for the South Vietnamese and their American allies.

Prescott’s sketch of the port may fairly be described as reportage. The painting of the woman driving a fork lift, which he calls Abstraction, is one of those lovely caught moments when the rusty plate of a tramp steamer seems to frame her with some barbarian’s hieroglyph.