Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Media Icons

[posted by Callimachus]

It is the iconic image of the Vietnam War. At noon on Feb. 1, 1968, on a city street, Saigon police chief Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan fires a bullet into the head of Nguyen Van Lem, who is dressed in civilian clothes. It is the image more than any other that "started to change the American public's views on their involvement in the Vietnam War." Loan's obituary in the "New York Times," thirty years later, begins: "Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the quick-tempered South Vietnamese national police commander whose impromptu execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street in the Tet offensive of 1968 helped galvanize American public opinion against the war ...."

AP photographer Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for that. According to one of the first journalists to see the negatives, it was the image they all had been seeking,

the perfectly framed and exposed "frozen moment" of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War.

Like "People" magazine, the journalist still finds his heart goes out to the victim, to his widow:

Thirty-two years later, I met his widow, who still lived in their home in a southern Saigon suburb and mourned him. In a corner of the living room, behind plastic flowers, was a heavily retouched photograph of Nguyen Van Lam, who, as a Viet Cong, had the "secret name" (alias) Bay Lap. Yes, he had been a member of the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong. He just disappeared shortly before the Tet Offensive, and never came back.

Eddie Adams' photograph made him a martyr.

At almost the same moment that picture was taken, North Vietnamese forces that had overrun the ancient city of Hue at the other end of South Vietnam were massacring thousands of innocent civilians and dumping their bodies in mass graves. It was routine policy for the North Vietnamese; politics as usual for Ho Chi Minh. No AP photographer was there to take pictures.

But this photo was taken afterward. Nobody won a Pulitzer for it. You might have seen it. Probably some people remember it. They probably think it shows a victim of some American atrocity.

And what about Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan and his "martyr" victim?

Lem commanded a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers' families; Lem was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of General Loan's deputy and close friend.

He had been killing police officers and slashing the throats of their wives and children.

Nobody took pictures of them. Nobody won a Pulitzer for the image of their bodies sprawled in the bloody, dirty street. But people remembered Loan. Including his nominal allies in the West.

When General Loan was severely wounded while charging a Viet Cong hideout three months later and taken to Australia for treatment, there was such an outcry there against him that he was moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he was repeatedly denounced in Congress.

... At the fall of Saigon his pleas for American help in fleeing were ignored. But he and his family escaped in a South Vietnamese plane.

After his presence in the United States became known there was a move to deport him as a war criminal. But the efforts fizzled, and Mr. Loan, whose right leg had been amputated, settled in northern Virginia, where he eventually opened his pizzeria, which he operated until 1991 when publicity about his past led to a sharp decline in business. As a message scrawled on a restroom wall put it, "We know who you are."

Eddie Adams came to realize who was the martyr in this story. It wasn't the "insurgent" who had been out killing cops' children. Adams wrote:

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.

When the general died in obscurity and exile, Adams praised him as a "hero."

America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.

But by that time, no one was listening to the photographer, either.

Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself as I was, on the spot--
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this ... You wouldn't hang me? I thought not."