This photo from February 1st 1968 is one of the most famous photographs of the Vietnam War, and at first it seems to have a clear message.
It’s hard not to feel shock and disgust and guilt when you watch what you think is just a South Vietnamese soldier shoot what appears to be a defenseless civilian and when you know you are looking at the exact moment of death. Ballistics experts say the picture shows the microsecond the bullet entered the man’s head. Considered one of the most influential images of the Vietnam War, the photo was reprinted around the world because it symbolized for many the brutality and anarchy and futility of the war. It also sparked the growing anti-war sentiment in the U.S.
In reality, however, nothing on the photo is as it seems. The “soldier” is actually South Vietnam’s chief of National Police, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. The civilian wasn’t a civilian either. he was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a captain in the Viet Cong Army and he was caught red-handed leading a Viet Cong hit team tasked with killing National Police members or, if they couldn’t find any, their families instead.
On the morning of that day, Lém’s death squad had just killed 34 innocent civilians – and they may have been looking for Loan himself.
General Loan shot and killed Lém for having ordered the massacre. Apart from several police officers, the Viet Cong had cut the throats of a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, his wife, their six children and his 80-year-old mother; after that, he had taken off his uniform and wanted to run away in civilian clothes. It was day 10 of the Tet Offensive when the Viet Cong had overrun many South Vietnamese towns.
Legally, Lém was in a bad position. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, he wasn’t fighting a battle, and he had obviously committed a major war crime. As a war criminal and terrorist, Lém had no protection under the Geneva Conventions and was eligible for summary execution when caught.
General Loan was the Godfather of the murdered children, by the way.
There was also video shot by an NBC cameraman of the execution:
The photographer Eddie Adams later regretted having released the photo because it had caused big trouble for General Loan. In his opinion, the photo had been misinterpreted. In an interview he said: “Everyone would have pulled the trigger at that point.”
Adams and Loan stayed in touch and even became friends after the general, who had had a leg amputated from an injury, fled South Vietnam for the United States at the end of the war. But after his arrival, the Americans wanted to deport him again because of the photo. They turned to Adams to testify against Loan, but Adams testified in his favor instead. Adams even appeared on TV to explain the circumstances of the photo. Congress eventually overturned the deportation and allowed Loan to stay and opened a burger restaurant in suburban Washington, DC.
He died of cancer in 1998.
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