Vietnam veteran Bill Laurie of Mesa deserves some space for his response to my Sunday column regarding last week’s ghastly photos from Fallujah.
To illustrate how photos can define our perception of events, I cited a couple from Vietnam: One of a South Vietnamese officer executing a POW in 1968, and the other of a little girl fleeing a napalm attack in 1972.
Both photos were exploited by opponents of U.S. intervention in the war, but Laurie writes that their context has never been widely explained by the American press. By that, he means context in terms of immediate surrounding events, and in terms of the overall war itself.
He notes that the man executed by Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan had just murdered one of Loan’s officers, the officer’s wife and their six children during the Tet Offensive.
“In his escape attempt,” Laurie writes, “he and his team pushed civilians out in front of them as shields from allied fire. War was boiling all around Loan when the prisoner was brought to him, and after hearing what the man had done Loan dispensed of the time and effort to haul him off to a POW marshaling area.”
When Loan died in 1998, The Associated Press quoted photographer Eddie Adams as saying the execution was justified. "The guy was a hero,” Adams said.
As for the napalm photo, Laurie said South Vietnamese planes, not American, were involved. They were defending a village from Communist attack when an errant napalm cannister dropped among friendly troops with whom the girl had sought refuge.
This military accident, Laurie writes, pales in comparison with the frequent, deliberate incineration by Communists of villagers who did not welcome North Vietnam’s style of “liberation.”
Laurie also said many “defining” pictures of the Vietnam War were never taken.
“Where,” he asks, “are the photos of the over 36,000 South Vietnamese assassinated by VC (Viet Cong) hitmen?” These in turn were but a small percentage of those who died at Communist hands in Vietnam.
“Victims of VC assassination often died slow and very painful deaths,” Laurie writes. “Some were burned alive, others impaled on bamboo stakes running from anus to mouth, others were disemboweled. Photos of these atrocities would indeed be ‘defining,’ yet even bland text mentioning VC assassinations is not found in high school history books.”
Laurie is right. The more gripping the photo, the more journalists face a moral imperative to tell what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”
Adams, who took the famous Tet Offensive photo, was well aware of this. “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world,” Adams later wrote in Time magazine. “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?’ ”