Sunday, March 18, 2007

That Famous Photo of a Viet Cong Guerilla Being Shot Through His Head

Photograph by Eddie Adams

There is also film footage of this famous execution. There is a documentary film about the still photographer who took this photo, and there is also a documentary about the TV news cameraman who filmed this infamous scene. I saw each of those documentaries on PBS TV about ten years ago.

In the year 2000, I had a photography instructor, Pat Perry, who had been an MP in Vietnam. At the exact moment when this world famous photo was taken, Pat was about ¼ mile away from the scene, and he was very busily fighting for his life. This was during the Tet Offensive, on February 1, 1968, when the communist Vietnamese were attacking many targets all over South Vietnam from all directions, and those fighters had just about overrun the country.

It may very well be that the South Vietnamese Army officer, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who is seen in the photo shooting a Viet Cong Guerrilla through his skull was justified in doing so. The general had just been given the terrible news that some VC attackers had just cut the throats of three children whom he cared very much about. The person being shot through his head had just been captured right near where the children had been murdered.

The general’s men tell him the kids were murdered; he is standing there stunned and trying to process the emotionally devastating info; several other of his men walk up to him with a prisoner in tow and say exactly where they captured the VC; the officer immediately realizes these facts:

1. The VC could very well have been one of the ones who had cut the children’s throats.
2. If that very VC did not have his hands on the kids as they were murdered, he was still part of the humongous group of Communist attackers who were there to kill as many, many South Vietnamese and Americans as they could. That VC had definitely provided some kinda’ military support to aid the throat slitters in their brutal task.
3. General Nguyen’s whole gahddamned fuckin’ country was being overrun by his enemies at that point in time.
4. The general had no friggin’ way of knowing how long he had to live; he was being effectively attacked from all sides; his prospective remaining time on earth musta’ seemed to be awfully short to him; so there was no way that he could have figured that there would be any future opportunity to give the VC a fair trial.
5. And the general and his men had enough to deal with from that VC’s vicious comrades—it was no time to be screwing around with a prisoner.

The three children’s parents had been murdered at the same time the kids had been. And the way that them VC usually did things was to tie their captives up, cut the children’s throats as the bound and gagged, horrified, parents helplessly were forced to watch, then the parents were killed.

The children’s father had been a deputy police chief under General Nguyen’s command, and the two men were very close friends. The father was in some capacity a long-time, armed fighter and enemy of the VC. The general told
the photographer who took the photo that he understood that the kid’s father was an enemy in a war against the VC, that war is war and he would have let the VC live if it was just the father killed, but killin’ the kids was too much for him to bear. I can understand his point of view as best a non-victim of similar circumstances can.

My memories of the documentaries are that one of the photographers said in the film about himself that the slain father was the general’s best friend and that the children were his Godchildren. Pat said that the kids were the general’s niece and nephews. It does not matter who had the exact facts right, the officer loved those children and their family dearly.

The scene is always described as, “General Nguyen pulled out his revolver and calmly executed the prisoner with a single shot to the right temple.”

I do not believe that the general was “calm”.

I believe that General Nguyen was numb from emotional shock, and that his insides felt like they were beginning to stew inside of him. But he was a trained soldier, a lifelong warrior, a veteran of many years of fighting hard for what he believed in, and he was an Asian gentleman—men who are taught from their youths to maintain control over their emotions and not loose their grip on themselves in a bad situation. General Nguyen was not calm at all during that frozen flash in time when the photo was taken; he was simply doing his best to keep from loosing his grip. He was beginning to broil with justifiable anger beyond what most people can relate to. He was in control of his emotions enough not to break down and loose control of what he needed to do to defeat his attacking enemies.

General Nguyen shot that shit through the head, and then the general moved on to lead his men in helping to win the horrific battle that massive numbers of fiercely fighting American GIs were also engaged in. Any “calm” feelings that the general was experiencing, during the infamous moment when he drew his pistol and dispatched that murdering VC to go greet his ancestors, were necessary for the general’s survival.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan once owned a restaurant in Virginia, unfortunately, he was driven out of business by harassing Americans who had their priorities screwed up. He passed away on July 14, 1998. I wanted to go meet him when he was alive, to shake his hand and tell him that I believe he did the right thing at the time.