Thursday, June 30, 2011

The "he was a good guy" perspective.

I think, of all the things I have read, heard, and seen regarding February 1st, 1968 when General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's shot Nguyen Van Lem point blank at An Quang Pagoda in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, the one that perplexes me the most is the statement by Eddie Adams about General Loan:
"He was a good guy.  He was fighting for America with Americans.  I think he was a goddamn hero."
I am not perplexed that he said it, for I think I understand Eddie Adams pretty well and I can accept the various issues in play that formulated it.  I don't even think it was inappropriate for him to say, however, the only man that could be accorded the appropriateness to make such a statement was Eddie Adams.

What perplexes me is how Eddie Adams allowed himself to make it.  It is not an objective statement borne out by facts, facts which he should have known or at least had questions about regarding General Loan.  It is easy to understand Eddie Adam's guilt over what happened to General Loan after the photo was taken.  One need only read these quotes to see why the aftermath the photo wrought weighed so heavy on his mind.
"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths ... that's only one side...." Adams said. "He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and ... all the blame is on this guy." (NPR)
"He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while," Adams said. "And I talked to him on the phone and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said, 'Let it go.' And I just didn't want him to go out this way." (NPR)
"He never blamed me for the picture. he used a cleche that we here all the time.  Eddie, you were doing your job, and I was doing mine.  I guess the picture...I'm told it did good things...but I don't want to hurt people either...I really dont..  It really bothers me.  thats not my intention in other words, being a photographer, thats not what I want to do." (Newseum
Nevertheless, Eddie Adams was amiss in stating that General Loan was a "good guy."  He wasn't wrong to say it, per say, because that's how he saw it.  He was wrong to hang the title of "good guy" on General Loan, because he was not a good guy, and not simply because of what he did in that photo.

First of all, is one a "good guy" because he is on our side?  If so, that would make those involved in the My Lai Massacre good guys. Were the Japanese good guys for what they did in Nanking China?  Or because they were are enemy at the time, they must be seen as "bad guys."  Or, are they only bad guys to the Chinese and neutral to us? Assuming "goodness" is a result of what side of the fence you are on, nothing can be viewed as fundamentally bad.

Does one's side play anything of importance in determining what acts are morally bad or debased; corrupt; perverted?  Two members of the House of Representatives, Harold Sawyer of Michigan and Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn worked feverishly to have General Loan deported for what they called his "moral turpitude."

What they contended was that General Loan's actions that day was "conduct that shocks the public conscience." Now we can split hairs on how the law views moral turpitude, but that places a definition as what is important and not the actions of General Loan on February 1st, 1968.  In this case, can my conscious be shocked without having to claim moral turpitude?  Or, does that fact that I find this shocking make moral turpitude the only logical conclusion for General Loan's actions?

Regardless of my conclusion, what side of the fence I am on should play no part in how I derive the outcome leading to that conclusion.  If it does, then "shocking" is in the eye of the beholder.  It is subjective.  It's based on external and environmental factors....well. come to think of it, it is!

There was a documentary on TV a while back (I can't recall the name or station) which showed identical twins watching the same movie but not together.  It looked at how each twin reacted to different disturbing scenes.  As expected, they both showed similar reactions.  Except when one of the twins was a nurse and the other was not.  Scenes of an operation elicited no reaction from the nurse, but uneasiness for her sister.

What does that have to do with General Loan?  Does perception play a part in how an act should be perceived?  Was the film of the operation in and of itself something that should be seen as distasteful and bring about a feeling of revulsion.  Or was it simply another act that should be viewed as nothing more sickening than any other acts that came before it?  In this case, can we condemn one twin's non-reaction as depraved or a perversion? Should the other twin be more deserving of the title caring and sensitive...more humane?

"But an operation performed by a doctor and nurse is not the same thing as firing a bullet into the head of a bound man at point-blank range" you might be thinking.  Or is it?  In both cases the need to perform an act in a way that many of us would find distasteful at having to watch is present for both.  I can't bear the thought of slicing into a man's stomach no more than I can see myself pointing a revolver and releasing a bullet into another man's brain.  Should I condemn the doctor and nurse for doing that thing I would never allow myself to do?

Well, that's a no-brainier (no pun intended) because the doctor is just doing his job.  He desires the stomach no harm and the means should justify the end.  But what about General Loan?  Wasn't he just doing his job that day?  Didn't the means justify the end he hoped to bring about as well?
"I respect the Vietcong in uniform.  They are fighting men like me.  People know when they are wonded 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." (1)
"What do you want us to do?  Put him in jail for two or three years and let him go back to the enemy?" (2)
So maybe perception does play into it.  Maybe which side of the fence you are on will allow you to see the same thing differently than how the person on the other side views it.  But that brings was right back to square one.  If perception dictates "goodness" then there is no fundamental idea of what is "bad." And more to the point, what is bad enough to be classified as "morally bad or debased; corrupt; perverted."

When Eddie Adams called General Loan a "good guy" he obviously based that classification on a lot of factors other than one lone event captured on film.  Those factors, however, significantly biased his opinion of General Loan, making the statement of "good guy" inappropriate.  Without his connection to the man, the photograph, and the aftermath, would Adams have made that same statement?  I think not.  If Adams looked at General Loan under a "veil of ignorance" he would have seen him for what he was.

So maybe it's not that I am perplexed that he made this statement.  What perplexes me is the many dynamics in play that formed the words Adams said to describe General Loan.  It's not as simple as folks think it is.  It's not about good and evil, black and white, patriot or enemy.  Of all the things said by Eddie Adams, this was the most untenable statement of them all, all things considered.

Without his guilt over what the photo unleashed, and with full knowledge of the kind of man General Loan was, I am pretty sure Adams would not have called him a "good guy."  He would have seen General Loan as no different than any other person in a war situation; neither a hero nor a villain; simply just another victim of the circumstances they found themselves in.

Of course I am speculating here.  But from my side of the fence, that's how I see it.

(1) As reported in Harper's April  1972 article "Portrait of an Aging Despot" page 72:
(2) As reported in Harper's April  1972 article "Portrait of an Aging Despot" page 72

Next Post" Why General Loan is not a "good guy"


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

But a photograph is absolute.

Note: I have been neglecting my blog.  I noticed that this was never posted.

My head hurts.  We had a snow day today and work was canceled.  So I spent the whole day looking up anything I could find on Eddie Adams, General Loan, Vo Suu, Howard Tuckner, and Nguyễn Văn Lém.

Believe it or not, there is a not a lot of information out there.  There's a lot of crap too, especially crap that does nothing but reprint what somebody else has said - word for word.  Can't understand that one, I mean, why bother?

There is also a lot of crap designed to present information as factual but in no way shape or form is it real.  For example, the Wikipedia page on Nguyễn Văn Lém, the guy General Loan shot has the following blurb
Though military lawyers have yet to definitively decide whether Loan's action violated the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war (Lém had not been wearing a uniform; nor was he, it is alleged, fighting enemy soldiers at the time), where POW status was granted independently of the laws of war; it was limited to Viet Cong seized during military operations.
This one sentence - in a very professional sounding paragraph - is attributed to Major General George S. Prugh (1975). "Prisoners of War and War Crimes". Law at War: Vietnam 1964-1973. Vietnam Studies. United States Army Center of Military History. Retrieved 2006-10-24.

Well I went to the link listed.  This statement was not there.  I even went to the actual document referenced...nothing.  So where did the Wikipedia author(s) get that bit of information?  Do a search for it and you will find it used a lot, but no where will you find it referenced in any academic or governmental websites.  I even searched the Texas Tech University's Vietnam database.  Nothing of the sort was said by General Prugh that I can find.

Which begs the question: why go to all the trouble to write a very scholarly sounding paragraph, attach a real person's name to it, and then link not one, but two different documents, from the guy, as where this information came from?

It's a hoax.  And yet again a hoax that uses someone's real name to perpetuate a myth needed for approval.  I think I know why it is used in this case, and it goes back to Eddie Adams statement:
Words and pictures have a continuing struggle for primacy. In my mind, a person can write the best story in the world; but a photograph is absolute.
His photo showing General Loan shooting Nguyễn Văn Lém (aka: Captain Bảy Lốp) was absolute.  I wrote about this a few posts back.  There is a difficulty rectifying what you see with what you feel; with what you believe; and with what you hold sacrosanct. If he is a good guy then he can't be doing a bad thing.  So either you make him a bad guy or you make the thing he did a good thing.  Those that can't accept that he was wrong to do shoot him in that manner, work to find ways to justify General Loan's behavior.

One of those ways is to argue over the "right" to carry out the assassination because Lém and Loan were not under the Geneva convention.  Hence the argument over Lem's POW status.  They also bring up the fact that Saigon was under Marshall Law and shoot to kill was warranted.  It goes on and on.

Even the simple "well he got what he deserves" justification falls short because we are a nation of laws, and what Loan did was against any law.  Period.  It cannot be justified if you believe that our behavior is either morally based or we are a "nation of laws, not of men.”  Nothing, short of a belief in anarchy or misanthropic leanings, would allow for behavior such as this.

What is needed, in my opinion, is to stop trying to justify it and start trying to understand it.  It is not about good and bad, saints and devils, or heroes and villains.  It is about how easily humanity can be pushed aside and the constant vigilance need to ensure that it does not.

As another humanitarian put it: Beware the thief in the night.


Nguyen Van Lem; He's just a plain vanilla V.C.

Note:  I have been neglecting my blog while I worked on other things.  I just noticed that I never posted this.

My last post focused on how the deeds of Nguyen Van Lem (aka: Bay Lop) - the man shot by General Loan on February 1st, 1968 during the Tet  offensive - have been exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous.  Yet they persist and are spread from one book to another and from one website to another.

So lets look at "former Judge BAI AN TRAN, Ph. D. Professor of the National Police Office Academy, Vietnam." full accounting of what Nguyen Van Lem had done right before General Loan shot him:

Now I suppose one could argue that Nguyen Van Lem may have been the one who killed the Lt. Col, and his six kids.  But that happened in Go Vap according to President Nguyen Van Thieu.  The execution took place at the An Quang Pagoda which was on the other side of town from Go Vap:

That's a long way to go from start of the attack at Go Vap to the An Quang Pagoda where he was caught.  And if my time line is correct, Nguyen Van Lem was shot by General Loan about 32 hours after the start of the Tet Offensive.

And what about the reason for killing Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan attributed to Nguyen Van Lem?

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 other. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.
Here is what the Combat Operations After Action Report (RCS: MACJ3-32)(K-1) has to say about what took place in Go Vap.

So now we know that Nguyen Van Lem could not have forced anyone to drive a tank since there were no tanks there.  Unless you don't want to believe the AAR - then you should probably stop reading because all I will be doing is supporting my thesis with data I believe has not been manipulated in order to better tell the Adams/Loan/Lem story.

The story of Nguyen Van Lem is just that, a story.  Propaganda designed to take the sting out of what was shown to the world in that photo and news footage of General Loan shooting him. 

Even Eddie Adams was was taken in by it:
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. (1)
And I didn't find this out much later, but the prisoner who was killed had himself killed a police major who was one of Loan's best friends, and knifed his entire family.  The wife, six kids...  the whole family.  When they captured this guy, I didn't know that.  I just happened to be there and took the picture. (2)
And with Adams unknowingly, or unwittingly, or reluctantly on board with it, the remaking of General Loan from a "villain" to a "godamn hero" was now on its way.