April 22nd, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4B (Vietnam–photographic interlude)

[Previous posts in the series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Interlude
Part 4A]

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.

loan3.jpg

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.

napalmgirl.jpg

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.]

44 Responses to “A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4B (Vietnam–photographic interlude)”

  1. jacko492 Says:

    I started a Blog about Vietnam from some pictures I had taken while over there. Stopped at your page to get some ideas and see how others did their blogs. Stop by, take a look, leave a comment. —Jack— vietnam war memorial

  2. Michael B Says:

    Editors have power but the two stories are quite different, and obviously so. No one believes war is a game, people, again obviously, understand the consequences. That’s why the debate is so labored, so prolonged, so far reaching and cautious; we don’t enter that decision with a blase regard for the consequences.

    By contrast, the picture alluded to in the primary post is one that was used to deceive, to convey an impression that was falsely sustained for decades. One may question the impact of a single photo, but by any standard it was iconographic nonetheless and in point of fact was used, knowingly at times and unknowingly at other times, to deceive. Here’s how one journalistic report describes it:

    “First, the executed man was nearly always identified as a ‘Vietcong suspect.’ (He was later confirmed to be a Vietcong officer.) In short, he was the enemy — one of the people who was killing Americans.”

    Even Eddie Adams, the photographer himself, was often wont to describe this context, a context all too often elided or occluded from the framing of this renown photo.

    Further, concerning photos of war dead and other tragedies of war in German and other publications. Did they similarly picture the dead that resulted from Rwanda, when European powers turned their heads? (Rwanda was a German colony before it was a Belgian colony.) Are they showing photos of Darfur, and the results of inaction by EU, the UN and other powers? Are they showing photos of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the results of the failure to do anything there? Did they show photos of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, such as those reflecting on stories that, for example, were only belatedly told by CNN bureau chief Eason Jordan, various stores as the wikipedia reference demonstrates, but primarily this one in Hussein’s Iraq? Or those told in Kanan Makiya’s accounts in Republic of Fear or Cruelty and Silence?

    The consequences of not doing something that needs to be done can’t be captured in photos precisely because the action or responsibility was not undertaken. Yes, editors have a degree of power, but they can’t print photos when they permit themselves to be coopted, as Eason Jordan and CNN did in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

  3. kung fu Says:

    Neo,

    I’ve read an account somewhere of the execution photo in which the editors of the newspaper who ran it (sorry, I don’t recall the newspaper) decided to run shots of civilians victims of the Vietcong on the same page because they thought the execution photo was just to inflammatory. Have you ever heard of this account? It was years ago that I read it. In any case, it gets me to consider all kinds of uses of photos in journalism. I made a brief visit to Germany during the outbreak of the the War in Iraq in 2003 and was astounded by the images of civilian carnage running in the German press, but when I got home a week later neither my local paper nor any of the major periodicals were running those kinds of images. So this led me to ask, who is doing the editing? Are the German editors picking photos because the majority of Germans disapprove of the war, or are the American editors picking photos because at the time 70% of Americans approved of the war? Are they picking what ever most reinforces the general population’s feelings at the moment? One day I was looking at the NY Times online and they had this AP photo of this Iraqi kid with missing arms, legs and massive burns on his chest. The caption said he had lost his parents and two siblings due to an American bomb. That day and the next I checked my local paper, and although the ground war was raging at the time, there was no sign of this photo, nor any other photo of dead or injured civilians, Iraqi soldiers, American soldiers/ marines. Nothing but burning Iraqi military vehicles, American marines storming a bridge, etc. What do you think? Something tells me editors have a lot of power.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Very interesting blog, neo-neocon. I have to congratulate most of the commentors, as well, for behaving like grown-ups while discussing this contentious subject. Very refreshing.

    FYI, Loan didn’t end up running a hot-dog stand in California. He ran a restaurant (or two) in Northern Virginia. I saw him once, years after the war ended, leaning against his lunch counter, looking very old and using crutches. No, I didn’t ask for his autograph. It was just a strange moment – realizing “That’s the guy…”

  5. Michael B Says:

    Karlo, your post typifies many of the rhetorical ploys of the Left along with other proximate leftish confines, hence is worth addressing as a general rhetorical insinuation.

    What is telling – though by no means revelatory since it’s so common as a rhetorical ploy – is the blanket dismissiveness you’re forced to use in order to avoid any and all thought that conflicts with your preconceptions, similarly in order to avoid any and all specifics. The “simple” fact is Vietnam is far from simple and certainly does not lend itself to very many uncritical and unreflective generalizations. That’s transparently so when those unflective generalizations are coupled with ad hominem sniffs at an entire class of persons deemed to exist below any level wherein their concerns need to be so much as acknowledged, much less addressed. In the social/political arena that is tantamount to assigning them a status of non-persons, non-existents. That too is telling, for it renders the otherwise latent interests of the putative “liberal,” the faux “liberal,” in a completely transparent manner.

    Various posters within this thoughtful and critical retrospective and re-evaluation offered by Neo-neocon, myself and others, have in turn offered very specific and even highly detailed historical reflections concerning the era in question. Additionally this has often been done with links provided to supportive documentation and histories of the Cold War in general and Vietnam episodes more specifically. When posters put that level of detail, those types of specifics, on the line, they do so, in part, so that others can refute the historical account or the argument being offered if they so choose.

    Yet instead of addressing specifics, you – in a manner that in fact is emblematic of the rhetorical initiatives and ploys so often in evidence from Left and leftish precincts – instead recline in the safe haven of sweeping generalizations and an equally generalized ad hominem dismissiveness.

    And tellingly so.

  6. Karlo Says:

    The re-emergence of the Vietnam War as the latest cause célèbre requiring right-wing revision is telling. The only conclusion I can come to on this is that no American can be troubled to pick up a simple history book describing the basic facts of the era. A fact that every rightwing apologist for the war seems to ignore is that the ORIGINAL American involvement in the war was the bankrolling of the French effort to recolonize Vietnam. Now help me out here, people! How in the hell is the recolonization of an Asian country by a Western power a sacred cause? If any of us were Vietnamese and had an ounce of virtue or valor, we’d be out in the swamps fighting with any of our comrades who would fight with us (using whatever weapons we could get our hands on) to kill every last Frenchman or American we could get our hands on. If you want to throw away the history books and create a beautiful psuedo-history of America as the virtuous force running through world history, you might choose a less public forum to do so. Such fantasies always have a tendency to implode as they bump up against the facts of history.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Tom Grey,

    You have a GREAT Grandma. Watching Walter Cronkite everynight and still immnuned to his biased reporting. With grandmas like yours, America will be fine.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Lichanos said:

    Normally, I dislike hearing experts, especially academics (don’t know if you’re one) say things like, “If you haven’t read so and so, you can’t talk about this…”

    Except when said academics agree with you, eh?

  9. George Warburton Says:

    Outstanding blog – I look forward to more

  10. Tom Grey Says:

    I remember living with my Grandma watching the Vietnam body count with Cronkite every night.
    My Grandma thought we should mine Hai-phong, and nuke Hanoi.
    And win.

    I certainly believe, strongly, that the USA should NOT fight in wars they are unwilling to win — unconditional surrender by the enemy.

    Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon — all were lousy at “Vietnamization” of the war. But war is always “evil” — YOUR side will inevitably kill innocent civilians. Still, as I wrote on MJ Totten’s blog, we owe the Vietnamese people an apology for NOT winning.

    Change. Policy. Results.
    The Left is critical of Bush because of neo-torture, and even some real torture, at Abu Ghraib, among other places. Such abuse is to be expected by any and all pro-war folk. Like me. Supporting the Iraq invasion means I’m stuck with the results, good and bad.

    Nobody wants to put a number on an answer to the important question: how many would have to die before it is a “mistake” to invade Iraq? I say Bush gets an ‘A’ if it’s less than 2500 American soldiers. Because regime change in Iraq is very very good — and it’s worth something, it’s worth a lot.

    But those anti-War Leftists who criticize Bush for the bad results of his invasion policy are intellectual hypocrites. Their double standard allows them to excuse the results of following the 1971 Kerry policy — leave Vietnam (and let thousands be murdered).

    The USA left, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians were brutally murdered by the evil commies. Commies the US Army had been fighting against.

    Anti-war Leftists who refuse to accept responsibility for the murders are a moral rot in civilization. How evil do the commies have to be to justify continued fighting, with minimal but real evil done in the fight?

    How many must die in the Killing Fields before it is SO many that it shows the decision for the US to leave was a mistake?

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Richard Aubrey–you ask an excellent question: so, what happened between the end of Vietnam and 9/11? Where were you, neo-neocon?

    My answer is to ask for your patience. I’m going chronologically here–from childhood, through Vietnam, to 9/11, to the present. It takes me a long time to write these things, so it’ll be a while before I answer your question. But I have always planned to tackle it as part of this series. The answer is neither a simple nor an easy one.

  12. Richard Aubrey Says:

    As regards the little girl: There was a US officer, I believe, who had made a bit of an amateur stir for years apologizing for dropping that napalm. It was only in the last few years that he was outed as a really weird kind of imposter.

    Question for neo: Have you considered what it means that an educated person failed to think that there may have been backstories to the pictures you mention?

    Jakita made the point that Viet Nam needed to be looked at in the context of the borders between Communism (its geographic manifestations) and our side. Absolutely true, as anybody who bothered to read a map should have known.
    In his “This Kind of War”, T. R. Fehrenbach used the example of the Korean War (by the way providing a thumping history of it including its origins)as an example of the particular requirements of war in the modern, nuclear world. He foreshadowed Viet Nam. His view of the proper kind of military, especially ground forces, has not quite come along, although I don’t think he’d be disappointed.

    I still haven’t seen an explanation of why those who didn’t get right with reality until 9-11 were wrong until then. Older folks might point to their age during The Movement as the point in life where one’s world-view sets up like plaster of paris. But I haven’t heard that.

    Did 9-11 change the world? Or was that what it took to finally get through to some about how the world had been for some time? If the latter, what is your guess about how you’d missed it until then? Too busy? If you’re right now, you were wrong then. Any ideas about why?

    Lichanos is not quite right. The VC officer executed on film had been in charge of a group of VC who had assaulted a police station where the cops’ dependents, including the shooter’s godchildren, had been slaughtered. There is a reason for that story not to be emphasized (it would make the VC look bad) although it was known almost instantly. And there need not be a conspiracy when everybody thinks alike.

    Richard Aubrey
    raubrey@sbcglobal.net

  13. TmjUtah Says:

    You have written a wonderful series of essays here, neo.

    We aren’t “privileged”. We are successful as a society. Materially, politically, technologically. The people in China or Nigeria may not understand us, but that doesn’t stop them from dying trying to get here.

    People debate politics. They live life, and do first what they must do to make it to the next day. Here in the evil USA we don’t live in fear of the state or tribe or religion every waking moment (unless you are an Uncle Joe, of course), and the mental space provided by that simple reality has made all the difference in the accumulation of wealth and the amount of energy expended by individuals in search of better ways to do things.

    War is a horrible thing. By definition it is state directed killing to achieve a goal.

    We get back to the predeliction of individuals to just do what they need to do as individuals again; in a nation of free citizens going to war must mean that a majority of those citizens recognise the necessity for the action. This is why democracies so rarely fight wars of aggression. Dictatorships or theocracies lack this mechanism.

    Our anti-war minority is not the victim of an out of control government, merely their minority status where this issue is concerned.

    I’m a Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh listening conservative. For the record, I believe that Democrats/liberal progressive rank-and-file are WRONG about how they go about dealing with issues. Evil implies malicious intent. Failure to recognise basic tenets of human nature and attempting to impose unrealistic statist solutions isn’t evil – just ineffective.

    I don’t think that I’ve ever heard Limbaugh call liberals “evil” – but he’s been speaking off the cuff for fifteen years so I might be wrong. Soundbites are a price we pay for the information age. He calls the situation as he sees it against the backdrop of history, which is exactly how I arrived at my political identity. Wealth transfer doesn’t work as a remedy for poverty. Moral relativism warps the fabric of society and community – if there is no good or evil, just what are laws for? And why is it that the last bastions of institutional racism in this country are liberal institutions?

    People are people. Free citizens who accept a role as perpetual victims are wilfully denying themselves the potential for success inherent in a market society. But since people ARE people, after a certain amount of time passes with no improvement in status or condition as victims, they start to look beyond the promises of their patrons.

    That’s why Republicans have the presidency and majorities in both houses of congress. People go with what works best for THEM… and as long as elections decide who gets the power to write and enforce law here the better ideas will eventually float to the top.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Interesting comments on the Pentagon Papers in their abridged form, Michael B. I certainly haven’t done the reading you’re talking about (reading the unabridged version and comparing to the NY Times version). It sounds interesting, and, in retrospect, unsurprising.

    Many of the comments here mention the “story behind the story” of the photos, which I only discovered about two years ago. I will be writing some more about that in future segments of the series.

  15. bill barnes Says:

    NeoNeo, I hope it causes you at least a moment’s hesitation, a twinge of discomfort, to note how many of those who love what you’ve been saying appear to be firmly in the camp of Newt Gingrich and Russ Limbaugh — insisting that all elements of the left, all liberals, the Democratic Party, the “mainstream” media are all either idiots or evil, one big undifferentiated “enemy of normal Americans.” Your failure to make any critical, distinguishing interventions makes you the host of what not so long ago your were disdaining as “dancing in a circle.”

  16. Huan Says:

    not that it matters now, but General Loan was fully in the right to execute that VC. By the geneva convention, he was a spy (no uniform) and was not protected and in fact can be subjected to immediate execution.
    What Minh Duc Phan posted is also correct. Numerous personal accounts (including that of my father who knew General Loan) confirm that the prisoner recently did kill many in the area.

  17. Robert Schwartz Says:

    “the photo of the little girl running down the road, shrieking,”

    The photo was not the end of the story. The little girl was taken to a hospital, healed, she grew up, left vietnam for cuba, got married,
    defected to Canada, became an evangelical christian, had children, gave a speech on veterans day at the vietnam memorial in 1996, meet Queen
    Elizabeth.

    Her story did not end in Vietnam in the 1960s, neither should ours.

    Read More:

    The Kim Phuc Story

    Veterans Day Speeches November 11, 1996 TRANSCRIPT

    Woman who fled Vietnam napalm as a girl sees herself, camera in exhibit

    Forgiveness can be more powerful than vengeance

  18. Michael B Says:

    To be clear, the distortion taken from the June 14, ’71 edition of the NYT was particularly critical in and of itself since (if it would have been true instead of a fabrication by Sheehan, et al) it would have reflected an early and critical decision to dramatically intensify the war, almost unilaterally on the part of the U.S., in addition to reflecting a putative deceitfulness on the part of Pres. Johnson during his campaign for the presidency.

  19. Michael B Says:

    “I found [it] both interesting and sad that the Vietnam war is still alive and well only in the minds of the Boomers here.” Warrior Scholar

    Not an unreasonable point and nice post in general. Still, some of those Boomers are still entrenched in the halls of power in D.C., the MSM, academe, etc. The primary reason this remains a crucial issue that yet needs to be redressed on various fronts has recently been emphasized at Chrenkoff‘s blog. The ideological war, on the home front, in some ways is equal in importance to, even tantamount to, the military conflict itself. The highly distorted propaganda, Tet and post-Tet in particular, is emblematic of that ideological war which continues apace to this day.

    Many, many specific examples could be offered, only one follows. The Pentagon Papers (go to bottom for links to all sections thereof), previously alluded to herein, is a case in point. The link provided points to the std. scaled down version of the original 7,000 page document. The NYT and WaPo reporters (Neil Sheehan, et al) who provided a highly abridged (paraphrased and quoted) version to the public of that era (’71) distorted the originals in sundry and fundamental ways in order to imply or more directly state that Pres. Johnson and others employed deceptions at critical junctures in the conflict when in fact (as stated in the original document as well as the scaled down version) they did not. A specific example (and a critical one in that era) taken from Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War:

    The June 14, ’71 NYT edition of their edited version of the Pentagon Papers indicates Pres. Johnson had virtually concluded his decision to initiate a bombing campaign against the North by Nov. 3, 1964. (If true this would have made Johnson out to be deceitful toward the American public at an early and critical stage in the conflict.) However the Pentagon Papers itself states: “… the President was not ready to approve a program of air strikes against North Vietnam, at least until the available alternatives could be carefully and thoroughly re-examined.” That quote, reflecting November, 1964 circumstances, can be located via a search in this section of the Pentagon Papers.

    This single distortion may not appear to be dramatic in and of itself, but there were other overt and more subtle distortions in the NYT’s and WaPo’s paraphrased versions of this document. In sum they always and consistently distorted the picture in a manner which eroded Pres. Johnson’s (and others) reputation, broadly characterizing him as being willfully deceitful; that general mischaracterization is what proved to be critical at the time rather than any single aspect of the paraphrased report.

    Read the historic Pentagon Papers, the scaled down version thereof (the Senator Gravel edition), but don’t necessarily rely on the storied, distorted version propagated by the NYT and WaPo unless it can be verified in the original itself.

  20. jakita Says:

    neo-neocon . . .

    I see we’ve been taking a similar intellectual journey. Those photographs were horrifying because it seemed that we were killing innocents. I don’t remember seeing the newspaper accounts–just seeing the photos.

    Which is why I am so contemptuous of the supposedly “innocent” MSM who are responsible for spreading antisemitism to distant corners by routinely showing out-of-context photographs of beautiful Palestinian children being oppressed by the demon Jews. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est le meme chose. *spit*

    But, to get back to the subject…one reason why kind-hearted people like you and me opposed the Vietnam War may have been that we grew up during the Cold War, when the division between the communist and non-communist world seemed normal. I don’t think we were really aware of the great effort it took to keep those boundaries stable. I remember thinking at the time that “so what if Vietnam went communist–they could vote for democracy in the future.” Remember also that the South Vietnamese government didn’t seem very democratic either. At that time, neither Taiwan nor South Korea had democratic governments.

    In other words, the significance of a country turning communist wasn’t all that obvious to people of our ages and backgrounds.

    That’s why, even though I now think I was wrong, I don’t condemn myself too harshly in this area. However, after 9/11, when I recovered from my personal case of Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), I saw that Bush was a good war leader who had a decent plan for fighting global Islamic fascism. So many of my contemporaries, unfortunately, have been unable to adjust to the new world we live in. They are either hopelessly ignorant or in deep denial about the dangers that the world now faces with WMD-armed Islamic maniacs. The Vietnam War will always be the template for them because their self-image demands an anti-American, antiwar stance.

  21. PatCA Says:

    Excellent post, neo. I’m a few years behind you but still remember where I was when I first heard the word “Viet Nam” and what the weather was like on my first protest march. It felt dangerous and idealistic; it was a seduction. Children leading the world to peace! Intoxicating!

    But the world and its reality interrupted our dream on 9/11. Those who cannot acknowledge that will be trapped in a loop of adolescent disappointment forever.

  22. The Warrior Scholar Says:

    Excellent blog – and it really does bring out the importance of recognizing that time does not stand still. I was in Vietnam a couple of years ago, and was treated extremely well by the Vietnamese. My “handlers” were fairly embarrassed that the Communist government still had the “Museum of American Atrocities” in Saigon. What was more entertaining was that advertisements for Coke, Pepsi, and Ford almost blocked the signs for the museum. The sounds of Ricky Martin and Gloria Esteban floated out from the stores on the way, and Vietnamese rooting for their team in the World Cup were everywhere. The Vietnam war was not. I found both interesting and sad that the Vietnam war is still alive and well only in the minds of the Boomers here. However, time moves on. It is common to believe that one’s experiences are both universal and unchanging – but the veracity of our experiences decays over time because the world is not frozen in amber and unchanging – we “know” what something is for that moment. That does not mean it is an universal truth. Fast forward to today: I went to war against Bin Ladin because it was the right war. I was both frustrated by and felt pity for those that could not climb out of their Vietnam PTSD. When I see the “young” protesting against the War on Terror, they are inevitably led by a greying “intellectual” that still pines for the “heady days of protest” in the 1960s. How sad is that? I am not a Boomer – I am a Gen X’er. Therefore, I don’t have the reflexiveness built into me that “all war is bad, the US is the font of all evil, etc..” We have an amazing and incredible society – one worth defending. One only needs to spend some time in the “socialist paradises” to see what horrifying crimes have been inflicted in the name of “social justice.” There are wars that are worth fighting – the difference is knowing the difference. To neo-neo: Keep up with your writing! It’s great!

  23. Neo Says:

    A decade after these pictures where made, a political consultant was heard to say .. turn off the sound and just look at the pictures. Sure enough, scathing political reporting with images developed by it’s target, looked like beautiful endorsements.
    You and so many others got to see Viet Nam with the sound turned down. Only in this case, the images didn’t look nearly as good without the sound.

  24. Steve_Jobs Says:

    You need an RSS feed.

  25. Steve_Jobs Says:

    Should have added. Your two selections were “popular” ones at the time and were quite good but look at the work of Adams (not just his Pulitzer) and others. Some of the video footage was outstanding and is available.

    Those are two incredibly good photos which deserve all the credit they’ve receiverd. But there was more to that war. There are photos of demonstrators. There are photos of counter-demonstrators. There’s the blank face of Lyndon Johnson announcing he won’t run for re-election. You can’t get a picture of the war without a photo of the war outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. You can’t get the full picture without a photo taken at the Memorial. You need a representative photo of some Marine who volunteered to serve three hitches in Nam. There are many pictures needed to portray that period of our history.

    Some remarkable photos have already come out of Afghanistan and Iraq but no two or ten photos will tell those stories which are not yet complete.

    In fact Nam is not yet complete. I still have a POW sticker on my car………

  26. Steve_Jobs Says:

    I must agree with others. You and I both lived through the Vietnam war based on our ages. But an historical perspective is also important. I certainly didn’t know what was going on at the time as a student and later when I was in Vietnam.

    Regarding the photo of the VC being killed in public in such a detestible manner I was (best guess) lying in a comfortable bed, air conditioning, personal bathroom, officer’s quarters (main) about 3 clicks away at the time. I was either taking a nap or reading a collection of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.

    That I do remember. Historically important? It was to me. I’ve seen all of the Pulitzer photos that came out of Nam. They’re all burned into my brain. You could have made several other choices that were better. My opinion only. Those photos DO give insight into the state of the state, if you will, which is why we recognize them as great photos.

    But more is required and I’ll continue to read the series you presently have posted. The only problem, of course, is knowing what “scholarly” works to read. There’s a lot of trash out there written by renowned scholars whose politics lean to one extreme or another. Finding the good scholars whose interest is in sorting through the facts is NOT easy. But the fact I was on the ground, had advanced college degrees, paid attention (if only to stay alive) to what was going on does NOT mean I’m a Nam expert.

    Neither are you. Take it a bit easier before you draw conclusions and in a photo gallery get ALL of the Pulitzer and other great photos. There must be 3 or 4 great books purely with photos in them (among many) on Amazon. It IS true that the current generation generally doesn’t have a clue what was going on at that time. It was a unique time in history with more than mere facts that were important, but it was no different in that respect than the world at present or the world prior to WWII. All periods of history are unique in some way and not as easily understood as too many think.

    Those who lived through the ’60s and those of the present tend to be equally screwed up in their perspective of what happened there and here. It IS worth a look. There are many things worth a look. I work it in as I can. I’m more interested in the present.

  27. Goesh Says:

    Neo-necon, the positive attitudes many Vietnamese have towards Americans should not be surprising if you look at the demographics. A large hunk of that population was born 1975+ and would have no direct experience with the war. We withdrew in 1975. It would be safe to say the age group of 35 and younger have no awareness of it. Also, The standard of living and medical care over there is nowhere near ours, so there are fewer people our age group and older living there in comparison with our memories of the war. We have proportionally more people actually remembering the war than in Viet Nam. Secondly, Saigon and Danang are huge urban areas that were not bombed and did not experience as civilians much fighting as compared to rural areas. Their experience of Americans was much different than rural counterparts. These folks got jobs and their economy benefited directly from the US presence. There was significantly more interaction and mingling minus the weaponry. Sadly, the children of some of the ‘mingling’ have not fared so well, or so I have read from time to time. PTSD does ease with time and many Vets have returned extending good will. There has been diplomacy too and of course there is the material lure of our culture. All things tallied, I am not at all surprised of the favorable view they have of us.

    Minhduc Phan’s statement about the execution picture is enlightening to say the least and it puts the brutality of war in full and proper persepective. I found your country to be beautiful, Minhduc, and your people to be warm, very family orientated and polite. I was up by the DMZ, Quang Tri and Dong Ha, and I spent some time in the Danang area too, 1969-1970, USMC.

  28. Justin Kardel Says:

    Just so y’all know, that was indeed a napalm strike (it leaves a rather tell-tale signiture, many times greater than an RPG). The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese Pilot; the explosion was not caused by US armed forces or the North Vietnamese. Its terrible that the South Vietnamese weren’t careful enough with their close-air-support missions that stuff like this happened, but most of the South Vietnamese military was pretty haphazard and undisciplined and this picture displays carelessness that was fairly tipical of South Vietnamese Military operations.

  29. Minh-Duc Says:

    Lichanos,

    You have been deceived on numerous occasions – so have I. Only recently did many accounts by Communist officials came out. There is a famous story about a Communist hero name Le Van Tam who poured fuel over himself and used his own body as a torch to destroy a French ammunition depot. The writer of the story just recent came out and say that it was a complete fabrication, both the event and the personality.

    The famous picture of General Loan executing an enemy has a story behind it and no one seem to pay any attention to it. The photographer, after the event, spent most of his life trying to explain the context of the picture but nobody want to hear him. The executed person was an NVA/NLF captain. He was responsible for that area where he was captured. In his area of operation lived a closed friend of General Loan. This friend and his whole family was masacred by the NVA captain. The background story should not excuse General Loan of his behavior. Neither should the masacre of a family be excused. However if one story is told but not the other. Interestingly, the killing of one man made the headline, but the killing of a family was burried. Just draw your own conclusion.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    I recall both those pics. But the one seared in my mind is this one.

    Fall of Saigon

    I recall thinking:
    Look at that line of people desperate to get on that chopper to get out of Veitnam! I thought: my God how can we just up and leave those people.

    I was only 16 in 75. I had not paid attention to most of the war but this broke my heart!

    Now years later, I am close to a family who came to the states after the war. We have talked about the war. They say in their opinion we left 2 months too early, that we would have won!

    We had sworn to protect the people of South Veitnam. How could we have left them?

    I cry when I think of all those people slaughtered after we leave.

  31. Pancho Says:

    I do know the stories behind those two images….but won’t reveal them before the host does here in this space.

    However I’ll say that Eddie Adams who won the Pulitzer Prize for his “execution” photo says that he wishes he had never taken that shot. He was an honored combat photographer who was sorry that the photo became such a statement of politics. Eddie died last September. Nick Ut took the photo of the injured girl, and won the Pulitzer Prize as well.

    Here are some other equally captivating images by a group of reknown photographers…several of whom I know.
    Piece Unique Gallery

  32. Michael B Says:

    “One of the things that makes this moment in U.S. intellectual history so fascinating is the explosion of heterodoxy and debate among military intellectuals and “conservative” intellectuals(both of whose numbers, institutions, and journals have taken a quantum leap over the last 20 years) – particularly as to Bush administration foreign policy and the war in Iraq.” b. barnes

    Precisely, the object is not to substitute reactionary, revisionist narratives for the (still dominant) essentially Leftist narrative, but to formally flesh out fundamentally better historical accounts and studies, e.g., those noted in your post.

  33. Lichanos Says:

    Bill Barnes remarked:

    “Nobody has any business pontificating on that war unless they’ve read widely in that literature … Otherwise, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re talking through your hats…”

    Normally, I dislike hearing experts, especially academics (don’t know if you’re one) say things like, “If you haven’t read so and so, you can’t talk about this…” Often it is a way to cut off discussion or to enforce a prevailing point of view. In this case, however, I say, “Bravo!” There is far TOO much talking through hats in politics. Nice to hear somebody else say it so forcefully – I would have succumbed to sarcasm.

    As an aside, pontificating is always to be avoided, except by the pope, of course.

  34. neo-neocon Says:

    I read a long article some time back about present-day Vietnamese attitudes towards the US. I was stunned to find that they were relatively favorable. Unfortunately, I can’t find the report of that research. But I did find this, the results of a PEW poll conducted in 2000 and 2002 in many countries around the world:

    And almost three out of four Vietnamese said they had a favorable attitude towards the United States.

    Interesting, and very surprising to me.

  35. Bill Barnes Says:

    There is a huge scholarly literature on the Vietnam war, including by military scholars ande former U.S. intelligence analysts. Nobody has any business pontificating on that war unless they’ve read widely in that literature (including the Pentagon Papers). Otherwise, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re talking through your hats, based on what you want to believe (just as people on the left have often done). One of the closest things to a definitive work is David Elliott’s The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the MeKong Delta, 1930-1975 (it’s 1500 pages long and costs $140). Elliott served in the Army in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965, and later reurned as an intelligence analyst working for the Rand Corporation (which did massive interviewing of NLF and North Vietnamese prisoners of war). You can get a quick take by reading Jonathan Mirsky’s review in the October 9, 2003 New York Review of Books. There’s a fairly recent lengthy refutation of the right-wing revisionist line that the U.S. military was on the brink of winning the war when domestic opposition forced it to give up (“Westmoreland was right,” etc)– this is by a U.S. military officer turned academic and appears in one of the military journals, but I can’t put my finger on it at the moment. For a sophisticated, if somewhat difficult to follow, version of the contrary argument (i.e. that the U.S. military in fact all but won the war), see Timothy Lomperis (another military officer turned academic) From People’s War to People’s Rule: Insurgency, Intervention and the Lessons of Vietnam. One of the things that makes this moment in U.S. intellectual history so fascinating is the explosion of heterodoxy and debate among military intellectuals and “conservative” intellectuals(both of whose numbers, institutions, and journals have taken a quantum leap over the last 20 years) – particularly as to Bush administration foreign policy and the war in Iraq.

  36. Anonymous Says:

    Lichanos, the common perception of that picture of the girl was that it was just another American atrocity happening. Whether or not it was the actual intent of the photographer or wire service that published it, we will never know. It may have been a simple portrayal of the horrors of war for all I know, and if so, then in the eye of the beholder lies the moral message and political expediency of the picture.

  37. Goesh Says:

    Anonymous 12:59 – Anyone born after 1975 would have no first hand experience with Viet Nam either as an observor at home or direct participant. Starting in 1965 when it really got going, people born then would have been children and would only be reflecting the views of their parents, teachers, etc. The population in the US being age 40 and younger is quite large. Younger people of today oppose the war in Iraq for the same reasons older folks opposed Viet Nam but not from lived experience.

    One dynamic of real interest to me is soliders in Iraq and Afghanistan are not regarded as a villains like we were in ‘Nam. That may be a reflection of 9/11, but then the returning soliders from Iraq 1. were regarded as heroes and we hadn’t been attacked. Perhaps technology plays a part in this collective perception. The video game aura of a smart bomb hitting a bunker is easier to view than a child with her flesh falling off, that’s for sure. Perhaps the perception of being a winner inclines people to be less critical of combatants.

    One respondent mentioned that no Vietnamese had hijacked an airplane to use as a weapon against America. Perhaps all the Islamic fundamentalist homicide and other bombings all over the world combined with 9/11 have made us less collectively sensitive to civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. This may be a dynamic in the conversion from Liberal to Conservative that some have undergone.

  38. Lichanos Says:

    Anonymous said:

    “Lichanos, why the sarcasm? I think Neo-neocon is doing an excellant job.”

    I apologize for my sarcasm. Sometimes I let my self-control slip a bit. Neo-neocon is certainly doing a good job at stimulating discussion in her forum, I agree.

    Regarding:
    “…viewers of the burned little girl assume it was American napalm. It could have been just as easily an RPG fired by an NVA solider …”

    Could have been, but was it? I don’t know, do you? …By raising this possibility, you imply – however delicately – that we are all being deceived. Do you have evidence?

    John Kerry could have lied about his wartime experience, but did he? Not much evidence that he did. Throwing out LOGICAL possibilities without any substance simply muddies the waters. A useful propaganda tool. Reminds me of the report I heard on (so-called Liberal) NPR about the campaign: a reporter from the (liberal) Washington Post intoned that the Speedboat group had not “proved Kerry was a liar,” which implies (though the reporter clearly didn’t mean to) that there is good reason to suspect he was. Honoring the burden of proof means not raising logical possibilities unless you have substantive reason to – otherwise you simply stimulate ranting.

  39. Robbie Says:

    I was born in ’85 and I’ve seen the second photo. I forget where (national geographic?) but the caption said her clothes had been burned off by napalm. If I remember correctly it said her house had just been bombed and now she was running and burning. Possibly the burning was a description of what happened to other people but I associate it with her. I think she was the only person in the picture I saw. I definately don’t remember the soldiers.

    It was, and is, one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen.

  40. Michael B Says:

    “Vietnam” – in quotes because it alludes to a particular take on Vietnam that the dogmatic and obdurate Left continues to attempt to perpetuate – is essentially canonical to the Left and is also a sacral artifact of that Left, to the extent that “sacral” implies that which is not to be questioned, that which needs to be protected with inviolable redoubts.

    A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but all too often a thousand-and-one – or two-thousand words – are needed in order to render the salient truths that need a fuller articulation, a more complete explication.

  41. Anonymous Says:

    I think most viewers of the burned little girl assume it was American napalm. It could have been just as easily an RPG fired by an NVA solider that set her hooch on fire.

    Lichanos, why the sarcasm? I think Neo-neocon is doing an excellant job.

  42. Anonymous Says:

    For some time, I have wondered why some people so blindly oppose the latest war in Iraq and why they oppose it with such intense emotion. I’ve suspected that it’s because they never have “gotten over” Viam Nam. I’m looking forward to seeing if that’s where you are headed with this series and how you will support your ideas.

  43. Lichanos Says:

    Yeah, well as far as the first image goes – the guy being executed was a Viet Cong captured in the city streets during Tet. The man shooting him said, “He was the enemy, he killed lots of my men.” He went on to run a hot dog stand in California, I believe, but he felt he never lived down the bad press from that violent image. The photographer just got lucky – a hundred years from now it will stand as what it is right now, a powerful image of the brutality of war. Doesn’t really matter who they are – people shooting people is pretty horrifying. It happened.

    I wait with bated breath for your unearthing of the secret conspiracy behind the image.

  44. VietPundit Says:

    Can’t wait till the next post …

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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