BY Lynne Tillman in One Takes | 14 AUG 20

Lynne Tillman Revisits An-My Lê’s ‘Small Wars’

In Reenacting Scenes from the Vietnam War, Le Upends – and Subverts – Landscape

BY Lynne Tillman in One Takes | 14 AUG 20

An-My Lê, Small Wars (Lesson), 1999–2002.  Courtesy: the artist and  Marian Goodman Gallery, London/New York/Paris
An-My Lê, Small Wars (Lesson), 1999–2002, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, London/New York/Paris

Psychologically, a re-enactment occurs when people unknowingly repeat or imitate relationships and behaviours from the past. A historical re-enactment is a form of mimesis, a planned imitation.

Photographer An-My Lê’s project ‘Small Wars’ (1999–2002) pictures Americans repeating skirmishes and battles from the Vietnam War (1955–75). Lê was born in Hanoi in 1960, and grew up during the war, hearing bombs dropping, gunfire. After Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) fell to North Vietnamese forces in April 1975, she and her family were airlifted to the US on a military transport plane.

Through the repetition of traumatic events in these re-enactments, the war’s history is engaged, and its psychological effects reactivated. Former soldiers and civilians plan manoeuvres and clashes, restaging actual battles. The soldiers act their parts; Lê photographs them, but also performs in some scenes, dressed as a North Vietnamese soldier, enemy of South Vietnam and the US. 

She ‘documents’ a war and acts of violence she never witnessed but might have imagined. Through her lens, scenes based in fact turn phantasmatic and address not only her imaginary but also history’s. The past to the present can only ever be a fictional narrative, more or less accurate.

The photograph Small Wars (Lesson) (1999–2002) is an intricate, formal composition: a landscape of tall, flowering trees frames two relatively small figures in the middle distance. Lê, in uniform, sits on a log close to a US Special Ops soldier. His rifle is at rest as they are. Lê seems to be taking notes. They may be strategizing. She could be a ‘Kit Carson’, a North Vietnamese soldier who turned to the American side. In the foreground, a packed rucksack resembles a slumped-over or sleeping body. The two soldiers, posed against the base of a tall tree, construct the photograph’s vanishing point. The moment is very still, belying aggression and violence. 

Curiously, although war is the norm and always somewhere, it’s said to ‘break out’. But peace is what breaks in. The natural setting in Small Wars (Lesson) is not what it appears to be, unless nature includes human nature. Lê’s photograph upends, even subverts, a landscape and makes peace anomalous.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.