[Part 7A can be found here. The rest of the series is located by clicking on the category “A mind is a difficult thing to change: my story” on the right sidebar.]
The last thing I was thinking about during the buildup to the Iraq War were those two Vietnam-era photos. I was busy reading online about Iraq, trying to understand the situation there and to predict what might happen if we invaded or what might happen if we didn’t invade.
I no longer remember where, how, or why I came across the two Vietnam photos again. It was probably a random thing. Perhaps I found a link to them on a blog, perhaps somewhere else.
No matter. I saw something that caught my attention and clicked on a link that led to a piece about them. Just one of many articles I saw every evening as part of my online reading.
Here were the familiar images—the field execution, the napalmed girl. I hadn’t seen them in decades, but I remembered them well. I felt the shock and sadness again seeing them once more, even after all these years.
But the story told by the article accompanying them was different. I no longer remember the specific website I encountered that day, but what it said about the first photo was essentially identical to this. The man being shot was alleged to have been “a Captain in a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon responsible for the killing of South Vietnamese policemen and their families.” He had just been captured—wearing civilian clothing—after killing a South Vietnamese officer and his entire family, an officer who had served under the South Vietnamese general wielding the pistol in the photo.
Eddie Adams, the AP photographer who took it, later made this statement about it:
I won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a photograph of one man shooting another…The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I’m not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position.
As Adams said, it’s not that what Loan did was right—although apparently, because of his civilian clothing, the Viet Cong had unlawful enemy combatant status and was subject to summary field execution under the South Vietnamese law of the time. It’s that the whole story, which would have enabled the Americans who saw it to put the photo into context and to have understood the circumstances surrounding General Loan’s act and to have evaluated it for themselves, had not been told—or had been so de-emphasized that most people didn’t catch it. What we saw instead was the brutal slaying of a small defenseless man, shorn of all history and looking like an innocent Vietnamese peasant.
And then there was the other photo. The story I now read about that one was also different than I remembered. My recollection was that the girl in the photo had been burned by our forces, or by South Vietnamese forces under our direction. The details weren’t clear (and probably never had been), but the message delivered was that the killing and burning of countless young Vietnamese children was our fault, that we regularly bombed innocent civilians indiscriminately and perhaps even purposely, without motivation or justification.
But now I read that the incident had involved no US military at all. It occurred after Viet Cong troops had attacked and captured a South Vietnamese village, setting up headquarters among civilians in the marketplace and driving them from the scene. South Vietnamese warplanes trying to protect the village from the invaders and wrest it back—bombing not the village itself, but the perimeter—had mistaken some of the fleeing people for the Viet Cong and napalmed them. This was how the little girl got hurt.
This was not a good thing, but it was the sort of thing that was unavoidable in a war of this type, in which the enemy hid among civilians.
And this was beginning to sound vaguely familiar—not to events in the past, but to events in the present. Bombing errors in the Afghan war, for example. Few and far between compared to successes, but covered heavily by the media.
And Jenin. Palestinian terrorists had callously hidden among townspeople there, and the inevitable civilian casualties had been blamed by the media on the Israelis, who had actually exercised every possible diligence to prevent them.
All of these details about the photo of the napalmed girl had apparently been reported in a “Stars and Stripes” article back in 1972, when the incident had occurred. But who read “Stars and Stripes?” Certainly not me.
As far as my memory of contemporaneous mainstream media coverage went, it was the photo, the photo, the photo that had occupied center stage, with only a cursory description of a firefight, and nothing about the enemy and what they’d done. To most readers, it had been as though the enemy didn’t exist; just US soldiers and their South Vietnamese victims. Even the leading role of the South Vietnamese military had somehow receded into the background.
How had this occurred? Part of the mechanism was that photos tend to affect people on a visceral level. They “read” a certain way, but the deeper story behind them is far more complex, and is not always clearly told. Even if told, however, it’s not always read. That takes time and effort, but it only takes a moment to glance at a photo and to think you understand it.
In the case of the photo of the girl, there was further confusion, some of it perhaps deliberate:
Other journalists who were not there, through assumption, sloppy work, or malice, have since reported that the attack was by US aircraft, and have further embellished the story with time.
As I read the article about the photos, I felt a sense of disbelief. I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading was correct. Surely, if this information about both photos were true, I’d have heard about it before this. After all, thirty years had passed.
I spent the next few hours searching the subject online and found quite a bit more information, but no serious or credible refutation of the stories I’d just learned. The facts therein did not appear to be in much dispute. I read the original article again, and then again, in a tensely concentrated state.
Then the strangest feeling came over me. I don’t even have a word for it, although I usually can come up with words for emotions.
This was a new feeling. The best description I can come up with is that it was a regret so intense it morphed seamlessly into guilt, as though I were responsible for something terrible, though I didn’t know exactly what. Regret and guilt, and also a rage that I’d been so stupid, that I’d let myself be duped or misled or kept ignorant about something so important, and that I’d remained ignorant all these years.
I sat in front of my computer and put my face down on the keyboard. I stayed in that position for a few minutes, energyless and drained. When I lifted my head I was surprised to find a few tears on my cheeks.
The experience was something akin to being married for thirty years, thinking your husband loving and faithful, and then by chance coming across evidence that he’d been living a double life all that time, with a wife and kids in another town. A sense of deep betrayal of a basic trust.
Photos are inherently emotional, and there’s no doubt that these were powerful photos, deserving of every prize they’d earned. If the point of publishing them had been to convey the idea that war entails violence and suffering, they succeeded admirably. And maybe this was what the photographers who took them were trying to say.
But that’s not a good enough message in and of itself. Killing is awful, yes. But not all killing is equally awful. And the press during the Vietnam War had been charged with the task of providing that all-important context.
Why did I only remember seeing photos that portrayed what we, or our allies, had done—photos stripped of all context and meant to maximize our feelings of wrongdoing? Photos that emphasized the victimhood of a Viet Cong terrorist, or made it seem as though we were targeting civilians when the civilians were actually being put at risk by the aggressive actions of the enemy in attacking and occupying a village?
And how was it that it had taken me thirty years to become aware of any of this?
If this knowledge had come to me prior to 9/11, I doubt it would have affected me so much. I’d always known on some level that the press was using the photos as antiwar propaganda. But I’d also felt that the cause for which the propaganda was being shown was just, and that the facts we were told were correct and essentially complete. This new knowledge of the way the press had actually used these photos and failed to properly convey the stories behind them during Vietnam had far greater significance that it otherwise would have, because there were now harmonic vibrations with a host of other incidents such as the reportage on Jenin that had already partially eroded my faith in the press.
To continue the affair analogy, this wasn’t just similar to learning of a brief and one-time fling on the part of a husband, something that was an anomaly that might be forgiven. It seemed possible that this was a pattern of deceit and/or purposefully misleading omissions, one I could no longer deny.
This idea reached critical mass during the process of reading and assimilating these articles, although it had actually been brewing for quite a while. The components were cognitive and emotional, and both were extremely intense. That synergistic effect accounted for the power of my response, the idea that this was a life-changing moment and that there was no going back. A bunch of unrelated pieces of information that had previously seemed disconnected and chaotic had suddenly fallen into place like the pieces of a puzzle and formed an image I could now read.
This image said: beware the press with an agenda. Some elements of the press seem to have had one then. Perhaps they had one now, as well.
And I found, to my surprise, that the agenda appeared to be substantially the same: to magnify our wrongdoings and those of our allies, to downplay those of the enemy, to simplify matters that were really complex, and to sensationalize.
[To be continued—soon, I hope.]