Monday, February 21, 2011

The problems of the how's and why's

Note: I have done a lot more research on this topic since I started the particular post.  So I am going to continue with the theme I originally started with.

I have been doing a bunch of research on General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's assassination of Nguyen Van Lem (aka: Bay Lop) which was caught on film by NBC and still by Eddie Adams.  I am trying to answer a couple of questions that have made themselves apparent during this quest.
  1. What did General Loan say to the reporters?  Which version is closest to the actual statement?
  2. What did General Loan know about the man he was going to execute?  Was Lem guilty of everything you read about him?
I am also trying to put into context Eddie Adams' statements regarding the photo he took and the path it lead both him and General Loan down.  Although I had seen the photo before, I knew nothing about what took place February 1st,  1968.  It's not like I'm some teenager bored in history class.  I missed the Vietnam war by three years.  I should know more, but I don't.  So this has been a history lesson that I have enjoyed, although it deals with a pretty gruesome topic and a very costly war in terms of humanity.

What I have found in this short time is that I like Eddie Adams.  What I have also found is that we, as a society that has used his photo to add to our own individual and collective narrative, have misused it to suit our own needs.  In addition, by not fully understanding - accepting really - the context, we have made it into something that sounds good but has no legs to stand on to support that description of what it really shows.  Then, when we hear Adams talk about this very problem, we take his words out of context as well, all to satisfy some primal need to have our view of what it shows be the one everybody should accept.

But what should we see when we look at the photo or watch the NBC film?  What if - as historian David Culbert contends - all the photo and film showed us was the result and not the cause...the reason?  Without background or context, readers saw a merciless Loan and a defenseless Lop.(5)  What reason is needed to fully understand the photo?

We humans like to categorize things, put them into nice little cubbies like our shoes and lunch boxes.  But this photo presents a different that makes categorizing very difficult.  If you are to be intellectually honest, you realize that it is extremely difficult to give General Loan's actions an unqualified "it was okay" or "it was wrong."  Those two cubbies don't work for this without a bit of morality wrestling.

Is there never a case where executing a man on the spot would be warranted?  And, if it's okay to execute a bound man without a trial because he's a terrorist, then its okay for our enemy to make the same designation.  And if war changes everything making this act acceptable in those conditions, then the Bataan death march and the massacre at Goliad would be acceptable as well.

You see, it gets complicated.  So somewhere between never and always there is point where we shift from one side to the other.  But does that shift make it acceptable or does that shift make it only understandable?  Does knowing the reason why the man on the right side of the photo was shot change our perception of the man on the left?  What reason to you have to be told to make this acceptable?

What if the reason the man in the photo was shot was because:
Minutes before he was captured, Bay Lop had killed a RVN policeman's wife and all of his family members including his children. Around 4:30 A.M., Nguyen Van Lem led a sabotage unit along with Viet Cong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After communist troops took control of the base, Bay Lop arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Bay Lop killed all members of his family including his 80-year-old mother. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy. (1)
Or would it matter if the reason was:
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. Lem was in his shorts and shirt. His arms were tied from the back. The pistol was still in his possession. General Loan executed Nguyen Van Lem on the spot. (1)
Or what if the reason hit close to home for General Loan?
Lem commanded a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers' families; Lem was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of General Loan's deputy and close friend. (2)
 [He] had killed some Saigon civilians, many of them relatives of police in the capital." (5)
[I]t was at this point that Loan summarily executed, in the presence of a wire service photographer, a VC captured after killing the entire family of one of Loan' s senior officers. (9)
The prisoner was identified, accuraetly probably, as the commander of a Vietcong sapper unit.  He was said to have had a revolver in his possession when he was captured and to have killed a policeman. (From Harper's April 1972 Tom Buckley "Portrait of an Aging Despot")
 Or what if Eddie Adams, the photographer, gave the reason as:
Well, we found out later, it wasn't 'til about a couple days later, that we found out that the guy was a  Viet Cong lieutenant, and he had killed the policemen  from  the second story  of the building [i]n the area where we were, and they had grabbed  him  immediately.  And he supposedly had  papers saying that he was a lieutenant in the Viet Cong. (6)
[T]he victim had just murdered one of Loan's best friends and knifed to death his entire family.(7)
[T]he man he shot had just murdered a friend of his, a South Vietnamese army colonel, as well as the colonel's wife and six children. (8)
 Or what if he wasn't Viet Cong, but someone else of importance in your enemy?
The prisoner had not been in the Viet Cong military but was ''a very high ranking'' political official. (4)
Or what if you had to shoot him there on the spot to retain leadership in a time of war?
[I]t had not been the rash act it might have appeared to be but had been carried out because a deputy commander he had ordered to shoot had hesitated. ''I think, 'Then I must do it,' '' he recounted. ''If you hesitate, if you didn't do your duty, the men won't follow you.'' (4)
Or what if the reason was mistaken identity?
"They tell me he had a revolver, that he wonded one of my policemen, that he spit in the face of the men who captured him.  They say that they know this man.  He is not a namelss civilian, as the press says. He is Nguyen Tan Dat, alias Han Son." (3)
Or what if the reason - as Vice President Ky eluded - so what?
The foreign press made a lot of news about this death, but none of you wrote about the Viet Cong.  Why worry about one damned V.C. terrorist when they are killing thousands of Vietnamese officers, men, women, and children?" (6)
Or what if the reason was a difference in how a foreign culture looks at life?
[A] typically corrupt oriental official who obviously has neither concern  for human life nor respect for public opinion.(7)
Or what if the reason was simply that it was an act of war?
So, the fact that if you captured a man in that tense, urban civil  war  context and shot him, in that  highly  irregular, and  tense circumstances did not strike me as an act of wickedness--it's  an act, a very sad  act, but  it's an act of  war, in that context.  Now without knowing who the one was or what the police were up against at that particular time in the Battle of Saigon I can understand that it could be interpreted  by others, but  that was my judgement. (8)
Or what if it was the heat of the moment?
"I am not a politician." Loan said.  "I am not a cheif of police.  I am just a soldier.  When you see a man in civilian clothes with a revolver killing your people...when many of your people have already been killed, then what are you supposed to do? (From Harper's April 1972 Tom Buckley "Portrait of an Aging Despot")
Does the context matter here?  Does the reason change how we should perceive what the man on the left did to the man on the right?  Does it matter that Loan was a General?  The guy in charge that day? The man that had the power and ability to have sent him to jail for the courts to decide his fate?  The Saigon was being attacked since 2:00 am on Wednesday?  That there were snipers, and death all around?  All of these dynamics were in play that morning of February 1st, 1968.

And if you are intellectually honest, you will conclude that the reasons given for General Loan's actions that day have moved from fact to distortion, and in some cases, to tall tale.  We need a reason so we can put General Loan in a cubby and move on.  Hero or villain, good or evil, rightness or wrongness.

So what reason do you need to be told?

And although this action took place on a Thursday, what if General Loan had simply turned to Eddie Adams and the other reporters and said simply; "I don't like Mondays?"

And the lesson today is how to die
And then the bullhorn crackles
And the captain tackles
With the problems of the how's and why's
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?

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