The Vietnam War was unusual for many reasons, one of which was the detail of the reporting and journalism. Telecommunications and jet travel made reporting on the war easier than other conflicts like the Korean War. The Vietnam War was not the most vicious war of the era, but it was the most visible to Americans. That visibility was one of the causes behind the protests that are now historically associated with the war.
This is a Pulitzer winning photograph taken on June 8, 1972. It is informally known as “the napalm photo” or “napalm girl” and is one of the most haunting and iconic images of the Vietnam War. At the instant of capture, a South Vietnamese army has instigated a napalm attack on the village of Trang Bang. A nine year old girl named Phan Thị Kim Phúc has been burned by the attack and flees the scene alongside her neighbors and a handful of American soldiers. The evocative moment was captured by a photographer who took the children to safety in Saigon. Kim Phúc survived and today is a recognized philanthropist and writer.
Undoubtedly one of the most memorable photographs of the twentieth century, it goes beyond the capture of that horrible moment to highlight the disparity between the image of the war established by the government and the reality. Moments like this have been occurring for thousands of years, but to have such personal coverage of a current event was new for Americans. Even President Nixon doubted the authenticity of the image.
This photograph is known as the “Saigon Execution” or sometimes by the name of the man being shot, Nguyễn Văn Lém. It was also a Pulitzer Prize winner, in 1968. Linked below the photograph is a brief video of the same event. A journalist named Eddie Adams captured it on February 1, 1968, more than four years before the photo of Kim Phúc. The shooter is the Chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police and the victim, Lém, is a member of the Viet Cong. Lém was shot because of “suspected guerilla activity and war crimes,” but it would be reasonable to consider his death the result of a wartime mentality and a braggart general.
Like the first photograph this image had a galvanizing effect on the anti-war movement in America. The major war before the Vietnam War, the Korean War, received less public attention because of its associations with World War II and its relative inaccessibility due to relatively undeveloped reporting technology. The adult Americans at the time were a decade too early for the social changes and youth empowerment of the 1960s. The wars after the Vietnam War, especially the war in Afghanistan have enjoyed the next generation of photojournalism and reporting in wartime. We do not have the sweeping social changes that made the Vietnam War protests so iconic, but we do have access to images and footage that history will remember as vividly as the two photographs presented here, like Abu Ghraib prison and the rending of Kabul.
For excellent images of the wars abroad and other current events, follow the blog on Boston.com called The Big Picture. Below is a link to a post of photographs in Afghanistan from January 2011.