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"


No comments: