Iconic Photos from The Vietnam War Revisited
Writing in Time magazine in 1998, photojournalist Eddie Adams reflected, ‘Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.’
Everyone knows the picture, but few the story behind it. Loan’s men had captured the Viet Cong captain near a mass grave filled with the bodies of 34 civilians, and the Viet Cong, Nguyễn Văn Lém, admitted that he was proud to carry out the orders he had been given to execute them. In the heat of the moment, and in front of AP photographers and a rolling film camera, Loan summarily executed him.
Eddie Adams – AP – 1967
Adams’ picture, taken during the opening days of the Tet Offensive, won him the Pulitzer Prize and a World Press Photo award. However, these garlands hung heavily on him. As Adams pointed out,
‘Photographs do lie, even without manipulation…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 people?’
Adams also admitted that he would rather be known for his pictures of Vietnamese boat people, which had helped to convince the US government to grant them asylum. ‘It did some good, and nobody got hurt,’ he explained.
Loan fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon, and a guilt-ridden Adams testified on his behalf to persuade the US Immigration and Nationalization Services to allow him to stay in America. The General ran a successful restaurant in Virginia until his death in 1998.
Few pictures can be said to have changed history, but this could be one of them. On publication, it shocked the American people and undermined both the idea that the US was fighting a ‘just war’ and that they were winning. President Johnson and General Westmoreland kept assuring the public that the war would soon be won, but here was the enemy in the streets of Saigon. Loan’s impulsive act of barbarity, possiibly in breach of the Geneva Convention, evoked total chaos.
The picture has also become a touchstone for discussions of ethics in photography. To what extent should photographers involve themselves in a situation, and what do they have the right to photograph? Susan Sontag in On Regarding the Pain of Others, even accused Adams and other journalists of inadvertently causing the execution, saying that the general would never have carried it out ‘had the press not been available to witness it.’
Colm Pierce – Vietnam in Focus – 2017
The exact spot where Adams captured the picture takes some finding: not a single sign or memorial plaque marks the place. A small furniture shop stands at the address, on a street just like any other in bustling downtown Ho Chi Minh City. It seems like everyone here would rather forget. Or maybe, like many aspects of ‘the American War’, different people remember it differently.
Day after day, traffic honks blithely up and down the road where Loan and his soldiers once frog-marched the defiant Viet Cong captain, Nguyễn Văn Lém, to his death.