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re: 1968 Viet Cong photo
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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Something I never knew

So the photo above has a history.  When I saw it for the first time I was horrified - as should we all be - at the apparent casual fashion one man killed another.  I thought the man on the left, an army man of some sort in his uniform - was a monster, killing civilians.  It's a terrible thing to see, and it still makes me very sad. 

But the photographer who took the image believed the man on the left - General Loan - was a hero.  He always regretted this photo and the way it damaged Loan's reputation.  

The true story behind this image is very different: the man on the right was Viet Cong, and he had no right to a trial or humane treatment according to the Geneva Convention because he was an unlawful combatant.  Basically, because he was attacking and killing the families of the enemy, and because he wore no uniform, his enemies were not required to afford him the leniency they'd have granted a legal combatant.

So he was being executed by 'the good guys' in full accordance with the Geneva Convention.

Quoth the photographer, Eddie Adams:
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.


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[...]?

From another article (1999):
Just moments before that photo had been taken, several of his men had been gunned down. One of his soldiers had been at home, along with the man's wife and children. The Vietcong had attacked during the holiday of Tet, which had been agreed upon as a time for a truce.

From the same article:
Loan fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon for the US. He eventually moved to Burke, Virginia. He tried to open a restaurant in Northern Virginia, but when the identity of its owner became known, it closed down. Protestors circled the establishment venting their fashionable, safe, outrage.

The two men stayed in touch, and Adams tried to apologize many times.

"He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while," he told NPR. "And I talked to him on the phone and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didn't want him to go out this way."

General Loan died a year and a month ago. He left a wife and five kids. Most of the obituaries were, like the photograph that ruined his life, two dimensional and unforgiving. Adams sent flowers with a card that read, "I'm sorry. There are tears in my eyes."

I'm glad I know the story behind this photo.  Its meaning has changed for me.

But it still makes me sad.
This post was edited on 2008-02-05, 16:29 by NFG.
Author name #2
Member since Oct 2007 · 316 posts
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It's a dangerous game to play. If you remove the nuance and take the thought process simplistically, then you've gone from 'that guy didn't deserve to die' all the way to 'that guy deserved to die.'

But it's possible to analyze this in a way that doesn't dilute the original impression of the photo. What is it that made that person become an unlawful combatant? What made the situation of the Viet Cong so desperate and so untenable that they felt they had to resort to killing the families of their enemies? What injustice did the government of South Vietnam inflict in the first place, during the time that it was run by corrupt panderers?

Yes, international law at the time recognized two Vietnams and all the usual rules of war were supposed to apply. On the other hand, international law also said that the United States isn't supposed to install puppet governments in places where they feel like communism has to be held back. The more layers you peel back, the less human everybody looks.
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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Very good points. 

I don't feel that the image is any more or less humane, it's just shifted the 'bad guy' in the image from the left to the right.  There's nothing about any kind of war, legitimate or not, that I find attractive.  The back story for this image has changed how i think of the image, but not what I feel about it. 

Fact is everyone who chooses to fight in a war does so because they believe they're right, their cause just and there is no alternative.  Both of these men were probably fighting for something they believed in.
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