Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Horror of War

There is no time in my memory of my childhood when the war in Vietnam was not an ever–present fact of life.

When you thumbed through a newspaper or a magazine, you were bound to see articles about it. If you switched on your TV or your radio, you were almost sure to see or hear something about the war. All the prominent people of the time were talking about it.

It was everywhere.

As young as I was, I got the sense that most people still thought of war casualties in military terms. I know I did. When the nightly or weekly casualty counts were given on the network news, I thought of soldiers.

I guess the folks who had served in World War II and Korea should have known better than that. They had seen first hand the pain that had been inflicted upon civilians in those conflicts.

For that matter, I guess, the people of my parents' generation — who were too young to serve in WWII, too young even to get away with lying about their ages — should have known better, too. They had seen the footage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They knew that soldiers weren't the only ones who got hurt or killed in war.

Nevertheless, non–veterans seemed to know nothing about the human face of war during the Vietnam era.

I was as naive as any, I suppose — until June of 1972, when the attached photograph was taken by a young Associated Press photojournalist named Nick Ut.

The photo showed a group of South Vietnamese children running from their village after a napalm attack on June 8, 1972. A young girl could be seen running naked along the road, her face twisted in pain.

Just from looking at the photo, it wasn't really possible to determine how extensive the girl's injuries were. Only if one read the caption that accompanied the photo — and usually made a vague reference to a napalm attack on the children's village — could one begin to get an idea of just how badly she had been hurt.

The girl in the photo had torn off her burning clothes, which allowed her to survive, but the damage had been done to her tiny body.

For many, this photo truly was worth a thousand words — at least. It was a haunting image that came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong in Vietnam — in large part because a South Vietnamese village had been napalmed by South Vietnamese forces. That was no accident. North Vietnam had captured the village earlier, and the South Vietnamese were trying to drive the North Vietnamese out of it.

The villagers were simply, as Timothy McVeigh put it a couple of decades later, collateral damage.

I remember vividly seeing that picture on the pages of my hometown newspaper a few days after it was taken. I had never heard of the village — Trang Bang. But the little girl in the photo was about my age, give or take a year or two, and that put a human face on the war for me.

I could look at her and see just about everyone I knew, everyone with whom I went to school, everyone with whom I played on a daily basis. That picture gave me nightmares for weeks.

There was no question it was a powerful photograph. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has become an iconic image of that time.

President Nixon, who was running for re–election, doubted the authenticity of the photo, as a tape of a conversation with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, revealed.

Nixon had been elected president four years earlier in large part because of criticism over the way the Democrats had handled the war. His suggestion to Haldeman that he suspected the photo had been "fixed" may have stemmed from a fear that the photo could damage his political prospects.

(As it turned out, Nixon was more gravely wounded by something that happened a week later and much closer to home — the Watergate break–in.)

It wasn't until after the children had been examined at a Saigon hospital that it was concluded that the girl, whose name was Kim Phúc, had been burned so badly that she was not expected to survive. But she did.

I can only imagine the nightmares she must have lived with — that she may still be living with.

Today she lives with her husband and children in Canada. In 2008, she told NPR that she had forgiven those who hurt her.

"Forgiveness made me free from hatred," she said. "I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days. But my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful."

Her words are as powerful as the image from decades ago.

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