The photograph that changed a war

Not surprisingly, PBS’ documentary, “The Vietnam War” is getting more and more difficult to watch from episode to episode.

Sunday night’s episode — Things Falling Apart — focused on the Tet Offensive and the siege of Hue. It included a discussion of this photo:

“It’s the only moment in the film in which we get truly meta,” Burns tells the Washington Post’s podcast that is accompanying “The Vietnam War.”

Burns and his colleague, Lynn Novick, used rarely seen NBC video of the shooting, including the beer the executioner — Nguyen Ngoc Loan — had afterward to celebrate.

But more importantly, the way Lem falls. The way the blood gushes up 8 or 10 or 12 inches from his head for a moment. The way a pool of blood — and NBC, to their credit, insists that we only use exactly what was being shown. No more, and more importantly no less for those of us uncomfortable by that sort of stuff.

We had an internal screening of this episode a few years ago and we had at that point a young intern named Frank, and Frank came down, as is the case in every screening everybody has a chance to say something, and he was clearly upset and he said: I’ve grown up with violent images. I’ve watched TV shows and movies and comic books and graphic novels, and mostly the video games that young boys of his age have played all their lives, violent video games that as a father of a daughter I thank God everyday that they have not had that.

And he said, “But that guy’s really dead,” and he started to cry.

And at that point I just sort of said, “This is a real film we’re making.” We all nodded and comforted him and said, “Yes, he is dead,” and I just thought, as we wring our hands with safe arguments without any empirical data that our kids are different and they’re numbed and enured, that somehow that footage in that photograph got through to one kid. And I’ve seen it in other places, not as profoundly as our Frank, but it made a big difference.

Burns says — correctly — that the image is one of the very few still photographs that changed the war. This is the other one:

“It’s easy to distance yourself from a dead body,” Novick tells the Post of the execution photograph. “Although you shouldn’t, because one should think about who was that person and what happened to them and how did they die. Out of respect we should never not think about those questions of the humanity of a corpse. But here’s a living person who’s dying in that moment. So they’re not dead yet, so you can’t just walk away. You can’t just look away.”

The accompanying video is gruesome enough. The photograph, she says, doesn’t go away.

“I think you have a chance to really contemplate what’s happening and what happened before and what’s happening in that moment, what’s going to happen after, in a different way because it’s a still photograph. And there’s no better or worse, it’s just, they’re different,” she said.

  • MrE85

    I was just a kid during the Vietnam War, so I didn’t realize how many different leaders (to use the word very loosely) South Vietnam had before it fell. Of course, I remember this image. It’s burned into my brain, as is the photo from Kent State.

  • Barton
    • Jerry

      edit: deleted after it was pointed out that we were not talking about the same photo.

      • Barton

        today, sure. But back in the 70s? I don’t think so.

        • Jerry

          There are 2 killers in that picture. Which one gets your sympathy? The handsome young man who had just killed an officer, his wife, and their children, or the general who looks like a villain out of central casting who executes him on the spot? If the two were reversed, would it have had the same effect?

          Edit: this is a response to the first photo, not the one Barton posted.

          • Barton

            I am looking at a photo of a child burned and screaming in terror. What are you looking at?

          • Jerry

            My mistake. I completely missed that link. I thought you were talking about the first photo.

          • Barton

            Jerry, I am not talking about the photo Bob posted, but the one I have a link to on the comment you responded to.

          • Jerry

            I missed that. I think some people did see her as “the other” but some did not. There is a reason that is one of the most famous photos in history.

  • MrE85

    I’ve watched every episode so far. I feel I owe it to myself, and to Tommy.

  • AL287

    Both of these photos are burned into my consciousness as well as the photo of the young girl burned by napalm.

    So are the pictures of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots in Chicago and all the other leading news stories of that year.

    Vietnam was horrible, heart wrenching and extremely difficult to watch because I had so many friends whose brothers had to fight.

    I recommend people watch “Last Days in Vietnam” on Netflix as well as the Ken Burns series.

  • kevins

    Media was also allowed to show pics/vids of body bags, coffins being unloaded from cargo planes, etc…something we were not exposed to, by government policy, during OIF and OEF. All of the images are striking, sobering and remarkable. I often wonder what would happen to public policy if (leagl) executions were made public.. as the one in ‘Nam was..

  • Mike

    Given that the U.S. government is still committing atrocities abroad, I wonder why we rarely see images of current bombings, shootings, and such in mainstream media. You’d think with the proliferation of recording devices these days, it would be easier than ever. I don’t know why that is, but I think today’s media engages in a lot more self-censorship than it did during the Vietnam Era. The absence of a draft also has an effect.

    • Today’s media is a lot smaller than it was back then. Foreign bureaus have been closed and reporters and editors have been sent to the unemployment line in record numbers.

      The self-censorship is by the non-journalist owners of these publications and networks who have no interest in the mission of journalism. Their job is to maximize profits of shareholders.

      You don’t do that by covering a war.

      • Mike

        Good perspective. You don’t maximize profits by showing people things they don’t want to see.

      • Jim in RF

        I remember (I think) that WCCO-TV sent Al Austin to Vietnam.

  • One of the interesting aspects of the series is how important “the body count” was and how many soldiers died because U.S. soldiers were sent into the confirm the count.

    • MrE85

      Even as a kid, I suspected the body count numbers were being inflated.

  • 212944

    And McNamara’s insistence that the war could be explained in numbers to provide the whole story.

    I think it is in episode three that the doc covers a bit of his methodology in putting together a summary of the war (killed, injured, weapons captured, etc. in great detail). And how when he asked a colleague to take look to see if anything was missing from his calculations, the colleagues responded with something like, “Yes, the North Vietnamese’s will to win.”

    Chilling on so many levels.

  • ec99

    How many here eligible for the draft back then remember your lottery number?

    • kevins

      Mine was 11.

      • ec99


    • I was 5 the first year eligible but by then it was winding down.

    • 162 … but it was the first year (1973) when all draft-eligible men (boys?) were given the 1-H (for “holding”) status, and no one was actually inducted.

    • wjc

      181, but like Bob, things were already winding down.

  • Jay Sieling

    These photos are indeed iconic. I will be watching last night’s episode online before tonight’s airs. I already knew that the Tet offensive, and the rest of the fallout from ’68 was going to be gut wrenchingly portrayed. I’d seen much of this footage thirty years ago, getting into a role for a college production of “Still Life”. Time/Life documentary footage and all manner of other media I could access consumed me. That is when I first came across the June 1969 issue of LIFE magazine that included “One Week’s Toll” – a photo of each of the 242 service men killed in one week in Vietnam. That publication was another turning point. It humanized the loss. No longer mere numbers. I’m sure it will be mentioned/featured in the remaining episodes. If you’ve not seen it – here is the link to the current digital archive of that story:

  • Erik Petersen

    I’m not appalled by this. As an incident in a war, it’s merely combatants encountering each other and killing each other in a pretty typical way. And Lem was ‘guilty’ as far as it goes, that is of being an effective combatant. Ya know…. “but there’s gory a photograph”.

    I can understand the reaction.

    More appalled by the judgment of Johnson / McNamara.

  • As small as our church was (maybe 100 in attendance each Sunday), there was a reading of names of members serving in the armed forces (but not necessarily in Vietnam) that numbered between 5-10 each week by the late ’60s.

  • Charlie Hurd

    Of course, we missed seeing the hundreds of civilians killed in Hue by the communists, just because they had some connection to the South Vietnamese regime or the Americans. Many were summarily shot, and some were buried alive. We didn’t see this because the communists completely controlled the media. And there is the fact that the communists moved into a civilian environment because they foolishly thought the public would rise up and join them. Then they refused withdraw, even when they knew that they could never hold the ground. The result was thousands of civilians killed and the city destroyed.

    • Jared

      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Does that make the image of Nguyen Van Lem’s death less impactful or does it make his death right or something to celebrate? Atrocities don’t happen in a vacuum but that doesn’t make them less atrocious.

  • Jim G

    I too remember…
    this picture and others of my youth
    of a divided America,
    a right and left
    unwilling to see the gray
    only one way forward
    growing hate and hardened hearts,
    fearing both the other
    and neighbors alike
    our countrymen no more.

  • Chad Pierson
  • William Hunter Duncan

    What, no one here angling for war against Russia?

    From what I hear, this doc starts with the premise that good people made a big mistake.

    Three million dead is no mistake, it is criminal murder on an epic scale.

    Remember that the next time you are fed some oft-repeated but never proved accusations about Russian meddling in our election, from corporate media or Jeff Bezos’s WaPo voicebox. Just because you hate Trump doesn’t mean you should support the latest in American elite, military industrial, corporate banking complex, attempted regime change in the way of total global hegemony.

    Happy viewing.

    • Multiple mistakes over several decades. And Nixon was not a good person

      • William Hunter Duncan

        LBJ or JFK? Nixon was not alone in this. How about those Dulles brothers? I hear Burns doesn’t mention them, but they were integral. Anyway, the machinations going on now in the name of freedom and democracy are just as ugly, just as criminal, just as much of a lie. How much of this economy now is making war, extending war? The economy would collapse if we actually started talking about peace.

        • Nobody ever said Nixon was alone and if you watch the series, which I suspect you haven’t. But let’s review a few:

          — Nixon, who was only a candidate, used an intermediary to contact the (corrupt) South Vietnamese government to get it to pull out of peace talks after Johnson — the sitting president — had finally gotten them to agree to through the bombing of the north and the buildup of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. Nixon did so because the election was a few days away and he really wanted to win the election.

          — Nixon conducted a secret war of bombing in a neutral country — Cambodia — without telling members of Congress and certainly not telling the American people.

          — Nixon ordered the ILLEGAL wiretaps of U.S. citizens — reporters — and members of the military to determine how the New York Times found out about his illegal war.

          — Nixon’s response to the My Lai massacre was not to investigate it, but to investigate the people who came forward to reveal it. In ordering the investigation he asserted that it likely was the work of “Jews in New York.”

          Amazingly, he wasn’t brought down for any of that.

          You should watch the series. It’s still going and it’s still online.

  • 212944

    Yes … have the analysts throw that into a spreadsheet. And how about no longer than one 8×11 page, single-sided. Hurry up, we have a Six Sigma meeting to attend.