An-My Lê’s Small Wars

Today, we are taking in some works from An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain, on view at the museum now! The show features seven distinct series from Lê’s career, including the focus of Tour Tuesday which is Small Wars (1999–2002).

A forest scene with smoke, a person in uniform is facing away from the smoke and into the woods
An-My Lê; Ambush II, 1999–2002; Carnegie Museum of Art: Gift of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © An-My Le.

The Vietnam War reenactments in this series took place in Virginia and North Carolina and were performed primarily by civilians with little to no military experience. Lê’s access was contingent on her agreement to participate in the reenactments. This became a way for her to understand the personal histories and associations the reenactors brought with them to their performances, and it helped her better understand what it might have been like for the North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in the war.

Despite focusing primarily on the action of the reenactments, Lê always returned to landscape photography. Though the deciduous forests where most of these images were made didn’t resemble the tropical jungles of Vietnam, Lê was still able to create convincing scenarios.

Two people in uniform sit talking together between two trees in a forest, a backpack and boots sit below another tree nearby 
An-My Lê, Lesson, 1999–2002 © An-My Le. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

One of the conditions for Lê to photograph the reenactors was that she also had to be an active participant in some of the scenarios. Here, she plays the role of a “Kit Carson” scout aiding an American soldier. Kit Carson scouts (alternatively known as Tiger Scouts or, later, Force 66) were Viet Cong defectors recruited by the US Marines to provide intelligence about their enemy. The scout program was first piloted in 1966 and was eventually adopted across the military. At its peak in early 1970 there were more than 2,000 scouts serving in the force, many of whom were credited with supporting key US missions to disrupt the Viet Cong and capture enemy combatants.

A cage in a forest scene 
An-My Lê, Tiger Cage, 1999–2002 © An-My Le. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Bamboo cages such as this were used to detain and torture captured soldiers. They were also portable enough to be used to transport captives from one location to another. Too small to stand up in, and too small to lie down, the dimensions of the cages required prisoners to crouch in uncomfortable positions for days, weeks, or even months on end. Reports of inhumane treatment emerged on both sides of the War, but some statistics have shown that the North Vietnamese Army spent more money to feed and care for US prisoners than they did on their own troops, while the opposite was true of the Americans. Stories about POWs loomed large in the American psyche, particularly after films such as The Deer Hunter (1978), much of which was filmed in this region, were released.

People dressed in soldier uniforms surround an aircraft and smoke is filling the image 
An-My Lê, Rescue, 1999–2002 © An-My Le. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

The Vietnam War reenactors were committed to creating scenarios that were as authentic as possible. This meant that every element, from their uniforms to their weapons and even their encampments, was meticulously researched and purchased from approved sources or carefully fabricated. In an effort to further heighten the realism of their scenes, the reenactors gained access to Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, where a Vietnam-era jet was grounded. After the end of World War II, the Fort began to be used as a training site for amphibious combat exercises. With nearly 1,500 acres of beaches, dunes, cypress swamps, and forests, Fort Story continues to be used by the Army for land and shore training to this day.

Come see these works in-person in An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain, on view until January 18, 2021.