There were two widely-circulated and iconographic photographs taken during the Vietnam War. If you were around then, I can almost guarantee that you saw them, and that you remember them. They are so famous that you may have seen them and remember them even if you weren’t around at the time.
The first photo shows the February 1968 field execution of a Vietcong. Amazingly, the picture appears to have been taken at the very split-second the bullet is exiting his head. The prisoner is young-looking and slight, even boyish, dressed in a plaid shirt. He is facing the viewer and we see his face clearly and frontally, wincing, although the shooter is seen only in profile. The Vietcong’s hands are tied behind his back, and he seems terribly vulnerable. The entire photo conveys the idea of an innocent victim put to death by a ruthless and almost faceless executioner, as well as the brutality of war in general. There is no question that this photo, presented without much context, shocked people and engendered the belief that the South Vietnamese we were defending and dying for were no better than the Vietcong in their brutality.
The other photo came a few years later, towards the end of the war, in June of 1972. It is the photo of the little girl running down the road, shrieking, her clothes blown off with the force of the blast (or burned off? torn off? who knew?) her burns visible on her naked flesh. She is surrounded by other children, some of whom are shrieking, mouths open as in the Munch painting , conveying wordless horror. The children are without their parents; the only adults in the photo are severak blurry and helmeted soldiers in the background (in some versions the photo was cropped to take out the soldiers on the right). The sky is dark with smoke. It’s a terrible evocation of the anguish that war inflicts on its most innocent of victims, children. A photo you couldn’t help looking at, and then you couldn’t help looking away from, and then you couldn’t help but remember it. By the time the photo was published, it was near the end of a war which had lost most of its support, but support eroded even further as a result of its wide dissemination.
The photos tugged at people at a deep emotional level, screaming, “War is bad. Stop it. Stop the madness.” Furthermore, they induced a deep feeling of guilt, making the onlooker somehow conspiratorial with the executioner and with those who had dropped the bombs—doubly conspiratorial, both as voyeur to unspeakable violence, and as a citizen of the country, the US, seemingly responsible for both acts.
It never occurred to me at the time that there might be more to learn about these photos than what I already knew. That there might be a whole other “story behind the story,” one the media wasn’t telling. After all, one picture is worth a thousand words—right? Pictures don’t lie—right? What more could there be to tell? What more could there be to know, and what difference could it ever make?
And yet, it turns out that there was more. Lots more. That “more,” when I finally learned it, didn’t change the fact that bad things happen in war—lots of them. But that “more” made a difference in the way that some viewers (including me) saw those photos, the South Vietnamese military, the US, and the press.
But I didn’t discover what that “more” was until about two years ago, around the time of the Iraq war. So I’m going to need to wait until I get to that point in my tale to tell the story behind the photos, and how learning the truth about them, after so many years, was one of many steps I took that swept me along the path of change, post-9/11.
[Next post in series here.]