Monday, February 21, 2011

The man on the left had to shoot the man on the right

In Eddie Adams' iconic and infamous photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's assassination of Nguyen Van Lem (aka: Bay Lop) and the NBC film capturing the whole event, one thing shines bright; we know very little about what really happened that day other than the man on the left shot the man on the right.

In my last post I questioned whether a reason was necessary to view the photo and film correctly.  As you can see, there are a lot of reasons given, some plausible, others far fetched.

What one should come away with is this; for such an iconic - event changing - photo, why is a truthful rendition of what took place and what was said so hard to come by?

The answer, me thinks, is what context is all about.  Like I've said, I have spent the last couple of weeks researching this topic.  I have a few more documents on the way that might help better understand it, but I think I have a pretty good take on what took place and how we got to this point of convoluted truth and tall tales.

I have the benefit now of 43 years since the event took place.  I have access to the Internet - which helps and hurts, a great library system where quick access to archival data is relatively easy to obtain, plus I have something Eddie Adams, Dave Culbert, Tom Buckley, Peter Rollins, George Bailey & Lawrence Lichty, Howard Tuckner, and the New York Times didn't have when they wrote on this topic; declassified military and CIA briefings and memos.

There is a bigger story to all of this than what has been offered in the books, journals and blogs dealing with Adams and Loan.  A bigger story that still is incomplete.

So with that in mind, I will offer a thesis on the possible reason for shooting the man on the right, who - consensus seems to conclude - was named "Nguyen Van Lem (aka: Bay Lop).

The reason he was shot, I contend, was simply because he was the man on the right that day - at that time.

What he did that day, who he was, what he was connected to, his name...none of that mattered except for the fact that he was caught and he was wearing civilian attire.

It is my contention that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan - the Chief of Police of the South Vietnamese National Police - in Saigon that day responding to the incursion that started the night before, had given the order that there would be no prisoners for men or woman who were caught and not in the khaki uniform of the Viet Cong.

There is good reason to suspect this:

First, it is consistent with US orders to General Westmoreland:
"attrite, by year’s end, VC/PAVN forces at a rate at least as high as their capability to put men into the field." (1)
Second, Loan told Buckley about "a month or so after the killing" (as reported in Harper's April  1972 article "Portrait of an Aging Despot" page 72):
"I respect the Vietcong in uniform.  They are fighting men like me.  People know when they are wounded I take care of them.  I see they get to to the hospital.  But when they are not in uniform, they are criminals and the rule of war is death."
And thirdly, Loan tells Buckley (as reported in Esquire, June 5, 1979 "The Villain of Vietnam" Page 64):
Vice President Ky "had broadcast a warning that persons in civilian clothes found with arms would be subject to summary execution."  (Buckley had not heard about this order till then)
So based on these three points - documented - The man on the right was to be killed that day for wearing civilian clothes and carrying a weapon.  Whether he was guilty or not did not play into it.  There was a war going on all around him.  The time it would take to process the prisoner and transport him to jail was most likely not worth the small chance that the man was indeed innocent -  a wrong place at the wrong time kind of thing.

And fourthly, it's how Loan clearly and bluntly stated his position on this type of matter:
"What do you want us to do?  Put him in jail for two or three years and let him go back to the enemy?" (as reported in Harper's April  1972 article "Portrait of an Aging Despot" page 72)
For Loan, it is my contention, he drew a fine line between a soldier and a terrorist.  Soldiers followed orders, they had an on-off switch.  But these sappers...these terrorists...these communists...they had no such switch.

So on that first day of February, 1968, the man on the left was positioned perfectly to shot the man on the right.  It was probably supposed to be done in the building where they found Lem, but the guy in charge lost his nerve.  So they brought him out to Loan, NBC, and Eddie Adams.

And the rest is a distorted bit of history surrounding a very clear and telling photograph and film,

Next post: What was said after General Loan killed Nguyen Van Lem?



Jason said...

I was 9 in 1968 when I saw this played on the evening television news in New Zealand. I can honestly say I didn’t care about the semantics of the issue, I saw an unarmed bound man summarily shot in the head. It gave me the impression that, it could have been me in that predicament, which being 9 I found quite disconcerting and baffling all at the same time. In retrospect, with the explanations, context and internet, it is still the same.

viet_myths said...

You conveniently left out that Lem's own admission of guilt when captured. From many accounts including from Bui An Tran which you cited, " Nguyen Van Lem was captured near a mass grave with 34 innocent civilian bodies. Lem ,admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader’s order to kill these people."