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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Who, what, where, why and when?

As part of a marketing course I once took, everyone in the class was asked to give a lecture on how a completely accurate, un-retouched photograph could be used to sell a point of view contrary to what was actually being shown.

To this day, I'm not entirely sure what the professor was looking for, but when it came time to give our lecture, most of the class used cigarette and liquor ads to demonstrate how it was possible to make something demonstratively harmful appear pleasurable and even attractive.

I took my lecture in a completely different direction.  And to this day, when I'm confronted with someone waving a picture or film in my face to 'prove' Israeli wrong-doing, I trot out that lecture.  For the sake of time-saving, it occurred to me that I might as well enshrine the lecture here so that it can be easily accessed for future reference:

Most of you are likely familiar with the following Pulitzer Price winning photograph, which is one of the most famous images in the history of photo-journalism:

Nguyen

This photograph, taken by Eddie Adams on February 1, 1968 in Saigon, was not staged, retouched or in any way manipulated.  In fact, the photo is doubly remarkable for the fact that the scene - the summary execution of a handcuffed prisoner -  took place in full view of, and close proximity to, a still photographer from the Associated Press, and a TV cameraman from NBC, both of whom documented the event.

What the photograph shows is General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the Republic of Vietnam's (also known as South Vietnam) Chief of National Police, the instant after he pulled the trigger of his personal sidearm, sending a single bullet through the head of  Nguyễn Văn Lém, a captured Viet Cong fighter (I use the word advisedly instead of 'soldier' since this man, like many in that, and subsequent conflicts, is not wearing a uniform or any insignia)..

Careful study of the photo actually reveals the fired bullet exiting the other side of the prisoner's head, and the dying man's features are contorted in an involuntary grimace of pain.

The photo, along with the footage filmed by the NBC TV cameraman, was transmitted and viewed around the world, and is widely considered the turning point in American public opinion against the war in Vietnam.  By most objective standards, the photograph perfectly demonstrates the brutality of our South Vietnamese allies, as well as the gratuitous violence inherent throughout that particular conflict.  It made Suburban America begin to wonder what place we had in such a war.

But let's talk a little bit about the back-story - the five W's of the picture.  Every photograph has a back-story, but some are less obvious than others... making it hard to trust one's first impressions.  For instance, unless a photograph happens to capture a calendar, a bank clock or say, a famous newspaper headline, it is hard to know 'when' a picture was taken.

And while we think we know 'what' is happening in the photo (an execution), and if we managed to read a paragraph or two of the news article, we might even know the 'who' in this case (South Vietnamese Police Chief kills a North Vietnamese fighter).  However the less known 'when' and 'where' are not only significant... but almost universally forgotten/ignored:

You'll recall that I mentioned earlier that the picture was taken on February 1st, 1968 in Saigon.  This information is significant because the Tet Offensive, a well coordinated countrywide North Vietnamese attack, was launched the day before, on January 31, 1968.

The offensive was named for Tết Nguyên Đán, the first day of the year on a traditional lunar calendar and the most important Vietnamese holiday.

In previous years, both sides in the Vietnam conflict had observed a period of relative calm in honor of the Tet holiday.  But in 1968, the north made a strategic decision to try to use the holiday to catch the US and south Vietnamese off guard and spark a countrywide violent uprising that would quickly win the war.

Although coordinated attacks were taking place throughout the country, the focus of the Tet offensive was Saigon, where in less than 24 hours, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan saw his capital city go from holiday quiet to unrestricted attacks by armed Viet Cong insurgents against both military and civilian centers.

So now we are pretty sure we know the 'who', 'what', 'when' and 'where' related to this famous photo.  But what most people don't know is the 'why'.   And once you learn the 'why', it might make you stop to wonder if you really had all of the information about the other 'W's.

As impossible a request as it may seem, try to put yourself in the position of the South Vietnamese National Police Chief 18 hours after the start of the Tet Offensive.  You are tasked with trying to protect the lives and property of Saigon's citizens in the midst of unprecedented country-wide attacks.  You are getting reports from all quarters that fighting is raging out of control, and that atrocities are being conducted against military, municipal and civilian targets throughout the capital.

Not only are city and government officials being targeted by roving death squads, but their families are also being slaughtered (think Baghdad on a bad day or Mogadishu on a good one).

A contemporary report, which was corroborated by the photographer at the time, states:

"Nguyễn Văn Lém [the executed man] commanded a Viet Cong death squad, which on that day had murdered South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers' families; these sources said that Lém 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 Nguyễn's deputy and close friend, and six of whom were Nguyễn's godchildren."

Now, to review... the city for which you are the paramilitary commander is under armed attack from within.  Police stations are ablaze, the normal chain of command is disintegrating around you and there is little or no possibility of apprehending and detaining the enemy, even if you can catch them.

You've just come upon the slaughtered bodies of your friends, colleagues (including your second in command) and their families, and the leader of the group that perpetrated the massacre has been captured in the act and brought before you.  There is nowhere secure to take the prisoner, and the chances of reaching a secure destination with the prisoner is in doubt, even if one existed.  You are armed.

What do you do?

I'm not saying that executing the prisoner is the right call.  As much as I've asked you to put yourself in the Police chief's position, it is an impossible request.  Without having been that person at that time and place, we can't know what we'd do.

However, having more information at our disposal and using it in an attempt to understand the motivation behind an action captured on a single frame of film, suddenly muddies the whole 'good guy' 'bad guy' aspect of the photograph, no?  In fact, it makes us go back and want to pick at some of the other 'W" questions, especially the 'who?' aspect of what we thought we knew.

General General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was a widely respected both as a soldier and as a police chief.  He was an outspoken advocate of building more hospitals for Vietnam's rural provinces, and was considered by his countrymen to be a Vietnamese patriot... so much so that the (then US president) Johnson administration viewed him as a thorn in their side for not allowing US officials under his jurisdiction autonomy of action in criminal and civil matters.

A few months after the famous photo was taken, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was photographed again, this time being carried by an Australian foreign correspondent after having been hit by machine gun fire (the general lost a leg due to his wounds).

For his part, the photographer who snapped the award-winning shot of the execution has been quoted as saying, “Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan”    Having personally witnessed the motivation for the General's actions, Adams was devastated by the nearly universal condemnation of the man afterwards.

Adams went on to say later:

       “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…This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. I had kept in contact with him; the last time we spoke was about six months ago, when he was very ill. I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears."

When Saigon fell, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan managed (without official US assistance) to escape and ended up being the proprietor of a pizza shop in Virginia.  He died of cancer on July 14, 1998.  Adams, died in 2004 of Lou Gehrig's Disease

The New York Times, which was one of countless publications to have printed the iconic picture of the execution without even an attempt at context, offered the following in the way of an obituary:


Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner

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, died on Tuesday at his home in Burke, Va. He was 67 and had operated a pizza parlor in nearby Dale City.  [source]

What we take from this story are the words of the photographer himself:  "Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. ... [they] do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths."

[Source of other information here and here]

Posted by David Bogner on July 3, 2011 | Permalink

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What a powerful blog post. Espesialy with another flotila on the horizon.

Posted by: Henya | Jul 3, 2011 12:01:58 PM

This is one of the most impressive blog posts I have ever read, David. I had never known the story behind the photo. Thank you so much for sharing this!

Posted by: Russell Gold | Jul 3, 2011 2:08:19 PM

This post should be required reading in every high school history class, as well as every college-level journalism class... a powerful examination of how our perceived narratives are amplified by images.

I've known the backstory behind this photograph since it was taken; it was, IMHO, a righteous execution. But I do remember the impact it had on many Americans, bringing home to them the brutality of the war. That message was even more effectively conveyed by another photograph, that of a young girl running down the road, wailing in pain after having been doused with burning napalm. It was the other blow in a photographic one-two punch that knocked the wind out of the U.S. citizenry's support for the war in Vietnam.

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 3, 2011 2:46:27 PM

Great blog post and fascinating backstory, but the names are throwing me off. I thought Nguyen Van Lem was the Viet Cong fighter? I might be getting confused, but are you getting the names mixed up? I thought the shooter's name was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, but then the following sentences throw me off:
"General Nguyễn Văn Lém was a widely respected both as a soldier and as a police chief."
"A few months after the famous photo was taken, General Nguyễn Văn Lém was photographed again, this time being carried by an Australian foreign correspondent after having been hit by machine gun fire (the general lost a leg due to his wounds)."
"When Saigon fell, General Nguyễn Văn Lém managed (without official US assistance) to escape and ended up being the proprietor of a pizza shop in Virginia."

Posted by: Caro | Jul 3, 2011 4:27:34 PM

Caro... Thank you. Because of the special characters in the two men's names, I was doing a lot of copying and pasting. As a result I made a few unfortunate errors. Typepad seems to be blocked right now. Will fix when I get home.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 3, 2011 4:58:28 PM

You'll notice that I didn't even try to duplicate the special characters. :-)

Seriously, though, this is a fascinating story. I would love to read a book or see a documentary about it. I always wonder what I would do if faced with a similar situation. I often wonder if I would be capable of unthinking heroism in the face of adversity.

Similarly, whenever I read about war crimes, including the atrocities of the Holocaust, or some of the really despicable things that individuals have done in the former Yugoslavia--I wonder if, given the right circumstances, I'd be capable of that sort of horror as well. To be honest, as much as I'd like to think otherwise, I'm not sure what I would do.

Why is it that some people exhibit great heroism, while others show great depravity, when faced with the same conditions?

Posted by: Caro | Jul 3, 2011 5:44:07 PM

This photograph is one of a handful in my mental shock cabinet. The events took place before I was cognizant of politics -- which means they were SERIOUSLY before you were politically aware; so kol hakavod for taking it out of the cabinet and actually studying it, something I have never done. Like your post "A difficult lesson," this one needs much exposure, especially given current events, and the ease with which too many of Israel's critics go straight to knee-jerk interpretation. Thank you for giving those of us who want to be fair and balanced another "how to" lesson.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jul 3, 2011 5:44:20 PM

I knew the backstory, being a Vietnam-era soldier myself.

The power of the photo was enhanced by a national media all too happy to suppress the rest of the story in order to push forward the opposing viewpoint. Had a choice NOT been made before the photo was published, the impact could have been different.

Lies are much easier to sell when the audience wants to believe them.

MC

Posted by: mostly cajun | Jul 3, 2011 6:18:12 PM

Thank you for posting this. Somehow, in between claiming that all Vietnam vets were insane and all, this kind of detail never got mentioned.

I'm not saying that executing the prisoner is the right call. As much as I've asked you to put yourself in the Police chief's position, it is an impossible request. Without having been that person at that time and place, we can't know what we'd do.

I'm pretty sure I know what I'd do. Pretty much what the General did-- what I'm not sure of is that I'd have that much self control.

Basically a Christmas day attack, where they slaughtered innocents, including my godchildren, and one of them is caught? You'd have to shoot me to stop me from killing the scum.

Having a rank doesn't make you less human.

Posted by: Foxfier | Jul 3, 2011 6:40:50 PM

I'm with the majority on this one - great post. I think I vaguely remember the story behind this, and definitely remember seeing the video of it and being completely shocked by it. Media manipulations will be the end of us all.

Posted by: nanaloshen | Jul 3, 2011 9:14:17 PM

I agree with Elisson. What is needed for our younger generation is to teach the art of critical analysis, and not just with photos. Agendas in the media are EXTREMELY subtle, and listening/reading critically is a dying art. Let's face it - how many people stand back from the BBC's coverage of Israel and ask "Now wait a minute, what about.....???"

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jul 3, 2011 10:10:25 PM

It was a photo with no context (so one was falsified) that prompted the creation of Honest Reporting. Morey just suggested that someone should put together a book of these photos, with their backgrounds. There are so many of these kinds of stories, where we attribute something to a photo that just doesn't apply.

This was powerful; I've seen this photo more times than I can count. Being an Army brat, the daughter of a Vietnam Vet and friends with many others, I'm a little more philosophical about the nature of war, so not knowing the background, I made no assumptions about who was who in the photo. The General's story is quite moving, and the photographer's admission of his role in the General's life due to the photo is touching. It's too bad today's photographers don't realize how their photos affect the lives of their subjects.

Thank you for this.

Posted by: Alissa | Jul 3, 2011 11:43:59 PM

You didn't say - how did your classmates/professor respond to your lecture?

Posted by: Alissa | Jul 3, 2011 11:44:41 PM

The deliberate effort to costume someone to appear either guilty or innocent is similar to movie making. In "Psycho", Alfred Hitchcock had the challenge to show Martin Balsam as an innocent man going up the stairs of the old house so he can look for clues to the disappearance of Marion Crane. Hitchcock discovered that aiming the camera on Balsam's feet as he climbed the stairs made him look like a guilty man.

One of the first photographs of negative publicity for Israel was the one of an Israeli officer threateningly holding a night stick as a bloodied young man stood dazedly in front of him. The injured man was incorrectly identified as a Palestinian Arab who was being clobbered by an Israeli. Actually, the bloodied man is an Israeli Jew whose injuries were caused by Palestinian Arabs (their actions are usually described as "non-violent") and the Israeli was rescuing him.

A car driven by an Israeli mother with her child was ambushed by rock throwing children and many photographers. The most used picture of the day shows a small Palestinian Arab child being struck by the car and flying high in the air. Then the car drives away. But we know it was not an ordinary hit and run incident because the last photos in the series show the rocks (always described by the media as powerless and non-violent) has smashed through the back windshield of the car. She had to leave or they would have been lynched. (The Palestinian Arab boy was luckily not injured).

Posted by: cendrelle | Jul 4, 2011 7:25:02 AM

You ask us to exercise some critical capacity in our interpretive faculties. So I will ask you this: what are you REALLY trying to say about the images of Israeli apartheid? Are you trying to use this totally unrelated imagery to justify Israeli actions against Palestinians? If so, this is a fallacy because this injustice is documented not only through imagery but through systematic and quite rigorous studies.

Posted by: Khanh Ho | Jul 4, 2011 4:13:20 PM

There's always one in every crowd. [sigh]

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 4, 2011 4:14:56 PM

For the story and picture of the Grossman beating mentioned by cendrelle, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuvia_Grossman

Posted by: Abie Zayit | Jul 4, 2011 5:22:57 PM

Awesome post. I've seen that picture a million times, and never got the back story on it. It really makes you think.

Posted by: psachya | Jul 5, 2011 8:09:17 PM

Like everyone else I have seen this picture many times. Because the shooter is in uniform and the victim isn't, I assumed the photo showed a soldier shooting an innocent civilian, perhaps for some petty offense.

Learningthe executed man was a death squad commander whose troops had just committed atrocities puts it in a whole different light of course.

It also highlights why asymmetric warfare is so prone to misjudgement. It will ALWAYS look bad when men in uniform fight men (and women) wearing civilian clothes. I'm thinking of those scenes from the Mavi Marva.

Had Nguyễn Văn Lém been wearing a uniform the photo would have had much less power, and probably would never have become so famous.

Posted by: Lisa | Jul 6, 2011 10:17:32 PM

This reminds me of the picture "Israeli soldier threatens Palestinian civilian" which was actually a picture of an Israeli soldier rescuing a Yeshiva student from an Arab mob.

Posted by: Sabba Hillel | Jul 10, 2011 8:57:17 PM

This reminds me of the picture "Israeli soldier threatens Palestinian civilian" which was actually a picture of an Israeli soldier rescuing a Yeshiva student from an Arab mob.

Posted by: Sabba Hillel | Jul 10, 2011 8:57:17 PM

It also highlights why asymmetric warfare is so prone to misjudgement.

It actually highlights why the Geneva Convention was written the way that it was. The execution was not in contravention of the GC. (It may have been illegal under RVN law, but that's a different issue.)

Posted by: Mark A. Flacy | Sep 5, 2011 1:10:55 AM

There is no evil in this world, but only upbringing.
-ho chi minh

Posted by: dkr | Dec 24, 2011 6:25:58 AM

Thank you so much for this expose. I could never find the truth behind this photograph. Of course I had formed opinions, based on my limited knowledge of the context and background info. You have taught a profound lesson here, one that I will retain and apply to future photographs I see. (The recent Treyvon Martin case comes to mind). I had always believed that a picture cannot lie. You have taught me, quite solidly, that my belief was just that, a belief, and not based on fact. Now I know that it is possible for a picture to lie.

Posted by: Derek | Jun 6, 2012 3:02:48 AM

What utter twaddle. A handcuffed prisoner can easily be thrown into a locked room, period. There is no excuse for the summary murder of a handcuffed man. If you can excuse that, what can't you excuse?

Your post is authoritarian apologia at its finest.

Posted by: Brusty Brown | Mar 19, 2014 10:13:00 AM

Brusty Brown... I see you are an expert on both the finer points of intelligent debate and on security matters. If you want to have your posts left up, please refrain from attacks. My opinions are not "uter twaddle". You are free to offer your own or attempt to refute mine. But if you insult me (or anyone else here) you're banned. Now, since you hopefully read the full post, including the part which read, "the city for which you are the paramilitary commander is under armed attack from within. Police stations are ablaze, the normal chain of command is disintegrating around you and there is little or no possibility of apprehending and detaining the enemy, even if you can catch them." So, where is this convenient room you speak of?

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 19, 2014 1:52:46 PM

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