Monday, December 23, 2019

The truth about that Saigon execution, five decades on

Everyone has seen the picture of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive. It’s one of two photos that became emblematic of the Vietnam War, the other being Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s shot of the naked nine-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing with other children after being burned in a napalm attack.

Pictures like these helped turn American public opinion against the war. The execution of Nguyen Van Lem, especially, looked like a callous and casually sadistic act. It’s hard to look at the picture without wincing. It conveys almost viscerally the impact of a pistol shot at virtual point-blank range. Americans seeing it wondered, understandably, whether the American military should be propping up a regime that permitted such barbarism.

The impression given in the accompanying news stories at the time, and repeated over and over again since, was that Lem was merely a Vietcong suspect. But what wasn’t made clear, and is still little known, is that there was a back-story to the picture which revealed that the barbarism in Vietnam wasn’t one-sided. I learned of it while reading Max Hastings’ exhaustively researched book Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, which I started months ago and recently picked up again, determined this time to finish it.

According to Hastings, Lem, who led one of the many groups of Vietcong insurgents that infiltrated Saigon at the start of the Tet offensive, had earlier slit the throats of a captured South Vietnamese army officer, Nguyen Tuan, his wife, six children and 80-year-old mother.

It was Lem’s misfortune that he was subsequently caught and brought before Loan, who administered immediate retribution. Hastings, who is admirably even-handed in his acknowledgment of atrocities by all participants in the war, flatly asserts that “the murders committed by [Lem], who was dressed in civilian clothes [so was not covered by the Geneva Convention], justified his execution”.

Hastings also reveals that Eddie Adams, the AP photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the picture, regretted that its publication caused enormous harm to the image of the South Vietnamese (and Americans), and lamented that he couldn’t also get a picture of Lem cold-bloodedly murdering the Tuan family.

Hastings’ account certainly casts the execution in an entirely  new light. As he told me when I interviewed him about his book for The Listener:

"Everyone has seen the pictures of the South Vietnamese monk burning himself in the street; everyone's seen the picture of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting dead a Vietcong prisoner; everyone's seen the picture of the naked girl running for safety after being caught in a napalm strike. But no one sees pictures of all the ghastly things that the communists did to their own people, because the pictures don't exist." Quite so.


Unknown said...

"Quite so", Karl. But so what?? To Hasting's mind Lem's crimes justify his execution. We are confronted here with the age-old question whether the end justifies the means. Ethical, civilised, humanistic, people do not think so. Of course, Lem deserved to die - but the way he is killed makes all the difference. Yes, the end-result is the same - but decent fair-minded folks just don't behave the way Nguyen Ngoc Loan did it (except perhaps if he, at his own personal risk, had infiltrated the Vietkong and assassinated Lem).

GH said...

As a response to the pertinent question above (from Unknown): when you dress with civilian clothes to commit acts of war (even assuming killing an entire family, woman, children and elder could be somehow accepted as "an act of war") the rules of war grant immediate execution.
Yes, war is brutal, but those are the rules. You have similar cases (on both sides) in WW2 where soldiers dress as partisans are executed on the spot.
In a more general sense: I do agree the end does NEVER justify the means. But I do disagree on the moral relativism that puts some undeniable crimes committed by western forces (in all wars) at the same level than the atrocities every communist regime has committed, where wholesale murder was the norm and the execution of thousands of people for their ideas or "class" was the actual objective, not just a "mean" even less a "collateral damage" but the end goal itself.
Best regards.

Dicky said...

Quite so. Our desire for retribution often prevents us from taking a far more humanistic viewpoint. That man committed a heinous act in killing that family. But can we honestly say that, had we been given the same upbringing as he, endured years of propaganda and coercion, we would’ve behaved any differently? To blithely state that we would be “above all that” is nonsense. He didn’t choose his upbringing and more than he chose his genes and environment. We should recoil at the thought of killing him.

Trev1 said...

The Vietnam War was a terrible tragedy (such an overused word these days) in every respect. I admit at the time I wavered between support and opposition. The ambiguities were everywhere. How good it is that we now have a President of the US who cautious about going to war unlike some of his immediate predecessors, and has tried to make peace, perhaps clumsily, with North Korea. Perhaps that is why he is being impeached?

Max Ritchie said...

Murdering 6 children and their 80 year old grandmother requires a bit more than upbringing and propaganda. Also, General Loan was the godfather of the children. Both sides did awful things to each other - all wars do that to people - but Loan did what most of us would do in similar circumstances. Great pity the photo became an anti-war icon.

GH said...

Dicky, justifying what that psychopath did by mentioning his upbringing and/or genes is a dangerous move. It'd mean none of us has any moral responsibility for our actions, and therefore nobody is really guilty of anything (rapist, pedophiles, murderers, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.... all get a free pass). The ensuing moral vacuum would be the end of the world as we know it.

This is precisely the point (I think) of this article: it's not the same for a State to intentionally set out to exterminate a "class" (in international socialism, aka communism) or a "race" (in national socialism, aka nazism) than individuals committing a crime. Individuals can be brought to justice precisely because they are responsible for their actions.

As I mentioned before, summary execution is legal in war under certain circumstances (ie. dressing as a civil while being a combatant, or fleeing the battlefield, etc. ) and therefore doesn't contradict Geneva conventions.

Max Ritchie said...

For some background to this and other aspects of the VN war see the documentary Frontline by Australian journalist Neil Davis, later killed in Bangkok when he got too close to the action during a coup. Frontline is wonderful journalism and a film which every soldier (and civilian for that matter) should see, along with the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

Dicky said...

Great points GH. I don’t disagree. But I think you misunderstand my point. I am not justifying his actions in any way. Not am I saying that we have no moral responsibility for our actions. Or, heaven forbid, excusing the ghastly actions of that torrid list of yours.

All I am saying is that we are all humans. We don’t choose who we are and how we got here. We should be held utterly responsible for our actions in so far as it stops us and others performing such heinous actions. That is only right. But we shouldn’t kill people matter of factly for these things. I know this is not what Karl was suggesting in any way either.

It’s a great article (as usual). It provides much needed balance to an otherwise one sided piece of history. So my point was definitely not taking issue with anything said there. I Am just no fan of retributive justice. And in that regard I was trying to agree with the original commenter about humanism...not trying to object to the original article.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Perhaps the most infamous episode of violence against non combatants/civilians during the Vietnam war was the My Lai Massacre of 16th March 1968 when american soldiers slaughtered a reported 500 men,women and children in and around the hamlet of My Lai. Many women and young girls gang raped before being shot by the gallant GI's.
Only one soldier was ever convicted of a crime associated with My Lai and he was Lieutenant William Calley. Calley who became a bit of a media celebrity as a result of the killings, was eventually convicted of killing 22 civilians and sentenced to life in prison. He served 3 years under house arrest before being released. The photos of the massacre are as distasteful as the ones karl describes in his article.

Of course the killings in My Lai were a teaser for the big production yet to come when President Richard Nixon ordered the secret bombings of Cambodia. During a 4 year period between 1969-73 it has been suggested 2.7 million tons of bombs fell on Cambodia killing as many as 250000 civilians and maiming hundreds of thousands more. The winners from all this death and destruction were the makers of bombs and bullets, who, like their bombs, saw vast profits fall from the sky.

I participated in several anti Vietnam war protests in Wellington in the early 70's and while not being of their political persuasion, I worked and marched alongside communists and anarchist's as we wove our way down Lambton Quay toward Parliament in an attempt to cause as much chaos as possible while supposed S.I.S agents ran around taking photos of the assembled trouble makers. Fond memories of youthful anti social behaviour.

Max Ritchie said...

Where do you get the 250,000 figure? I've read as low as 4,000 (improbable) and as high as 50,000 but nowhere your figure.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Max, I confess my 250000 figure was taken from memory and may be subject to criticism But having said that the "rabble" site suggests the figure of 500000

Whereas this ohiohistory central site suggests 100000 were killed. Whatever the true number, both are at odds with the figures you quote. What is true is the bombing was designed to kill as many people as possible and it didnt matter if they were soldiers or civilians. there is no number which anyone can claim to be an acceptable death toll on either side.

Max Ritchie said...

Yes, I've read the Ohio entry. It's not authoritative- when I read "Most experts-----" I look for the sources and in this case can't find them. I've been to this part of Cambodia, in 1970. It is sparsely populated. I think even 50,000 Is a bit high. To say the bombing was designed to kill as many as possible implies that that was the aim. It wasn't. If you want to kill Cambodians then bomb the capital. They were trying to kill North Vietnamese using the HCM trail. Bombing does not discriminate but that's war.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Max I dont wish to engage in semantics with you and unlike yourself I haven't been to Cambodia, but logic suggests one cannot carpet bomb half a country and not expect people to be killed and injured. I offer another opinion in the argument.Feel free to dismiss it.
While its not Cambodia, Mum said she will take me to Bluff after Christmas if she can score some petrol money from WINZ.

" Kiernan, Ben; Owen, Taylor (26 April 2015). "Making More Enemies than We Kill? Calculating U.S. Bomb Tonnages Dropped on Laos and Cambodia, and Weighing Their Implications". The Asia–Pacific Journal. Retrieved 18 July 2017. The evidence of survivors from many parts of [Cambodia] suggests that at least tens of thousands, probably in the range of 50,000 to 150,000 deaths, resulted from the US bombing campaigns"

Max Ritchie said...

"Half a country" is a figure of speech? Of course people were killed who were not part of America's target - "Bombing does not discriminate but that's war". The question is: was it so indiscriminate that it was a war crime? I emphasise that this started with me questioning your unqualified 250,000 figure. 50 to 150 K is quite a range. Bluff a bit cooler than Cambodia. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of interested parties (some are experts) accept that the situation became so affected soon after by the Khmer Rouge atrocities that the true figure of civilian deaths is impossible to determine. It is certainly a lot of people. Poor Cambodia still suffers. I returned a few years ago as part of a UN NGO inspection - demoralising.

Karl du Fresne said...

As they used to say in the newspaper correspondence columns when everyone except the writers had lost interest: This correspondence is now closed.