May you rest in peace, Major Timberlake. I had the honor of having been with you. You went through many long days struggling with the myth.... --Linh
The Myth Of The Girl In The Photo
by Ronald N. Timberlake
© Copyright November 1997
Anyone who read a newspaper last Veterans Day weekend is likely to have seen one of the many articles about the American bombing of the village of Trang Bang, Viet Nam, with the naked and terrified little girl running toward the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Again this Veterans Day, at least one network aired a documentary on the story.
It is a heart-wrenching photo, and is published with a heart-wrenching story, but if a picture speaks a thousand words, most of the words associated with this photo are false or misleading.
What is not true is the story itself. It is a gross misrepresentation that has become a myth that is repeated each Veterans Day.
Myth: Americans bombed Trang Bang, Viet Nam, and burned Kim Phuc, the girl in the famous photo.
Fact: As stated by the photographer himself, Nick Ut, and clearly shown on film, the Viet Nam Air Force (VNAF) dropped the bombs that hurt Kim. This was witnessed and reported by UPI television correspondent Christopher Wain, and also reported correctly at the time, by noted correspondent Peter Arnett.
Other journalists who were not there, through assumption, sloppy work, or malice, have since reported that the attack was by US aircraft, and have further embellished the story recently. Most of the commercials for the recent A&E documentary, and indeed, the host on the broadcast, said that the documentary would show "the American commander who ordered the bombing". That statement is not true. No American commander had anything to do with the bombing.
Myth: The bombers attacked the village of Trang Bang.
Fact: The fighters were actually striking outside the village, hitting the fortifications of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops that had been prepared just before and during the three day battle. The village itself was not the target of the air strike.
Myth: Kim and her family were hurt when the Buddhist pagoda in which they took refuge was bombed, and took a direct hit.
Fact: Kim herself has stated that they left the pagoda, to run along the road, when they were hit. The pagoda was not targeted, and was not hit.
The "colored markers" she has mentioned were smoke grenades, used to identify the friendly positions, and were not target markers. They were used by the South Vietnamese ground troops to show the location of their own positions to attacking South Vietnamese pilots, not to indicate where the bombs were to be dropped.
When Kim and the others, including ARVN soldiers, ran from the pagoda and away from the village, the pilot of a Vietnamese fighter spotted them. The pilot saw people running toward the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) positions, where the journalists and photographers were also located, and he saw weapons. In a split-second decision to protect the ARVN troops from what he saw as a threat, the Vietnamese pilot diverted from his target and dove to attack the group, as reported by eyewitness UPI television correspondent Christopher Wain.
Myth: The fighting was conducted by or included American forces.
Fact: Trang Bang, in June of 1972, was an all-Vietnamese fight, with ARVN troops fighting their former and future countrymen, and requesting support from their own air force. American aircraft probably assisted with air support at some time during the three-day battle, but Vietnamese were fighting Vietnamese at Trang Bang, and when Kim was burned, it was they who called for help from Vietnamese flown aircraft. Even the photographer was Vietnamese, although he later became a US citizen.
The only Americans involved were two advisors, one an infantry officer with the troops at the scene of battle, and the other in an assistant coordination assignment more than 80 kilometers away. Both officers were in positions with no command authority, and absolutely no authority over Vietnamese troops or aircraft.
Myth: A recent report stated that nerve gas was used in the attack.
Fact: American or South Vietnamese forces never used nerve gas. The canisters dropped by the VNAF fighter that injured Kim and her countrymen were napalm, a type of jellied gasoline bomb that was developed by our British allies in WWII, to knock out enemy troops in trenches and fortifications.
Myth: The bombs killed Kim's two brothers and two cousins.
Fact: Two of Kim's cousins died from the bombs that injured Kim, but her brothers were not killed. The same bombs that burned Kim, also hit and burned ARVN soldiers. It should be pointed out that only one sortie, one single bombing run of many those three days, was involved in the accidental bombing.
Myth: The American commander ordered the bombing.
Fact: There was no American commander at the scene of the fighting, no American commander involved in supporting the battle, and no American commander in the entire country who ordered that strike. It was an all-Vietnamese fight, conducted and controlled by Vietnamese.
The Methodist minister who came forward to accept Kim Phuc's forgiveness at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day 1996, is a former American officer, but was NOT a commander, and had no command authority. He was a low level staff officer on the staff of the US Army advisors, in an assignment without authority even to directly coordinate actions with VNAF, much less command, order, or direct any activity.
As the battle raged, he was working in a bunker more than 80 kilometers from the fighting. His own Commanding General and the Operations Officer of the unit, both now retired General Officers, have been questioned about the event. They clarified that he had no authority, capacity, or capability to order any Vietnamese aircraft to do anything, and say it would not have been possible for him to do what he has claimed.
In fact, no one on the staff, or even the General commanding the unit, could order the VNAF to take any action whatever. The minor staff-officer-turned-preacher so publicly grasping responsibility for the air strike was involved in only a superficial manner. His participation consisted of no more than administratively releasing some sorties of VNAF aircraft back to VNAF control. This was essentially a clerical response to the VNAF command. His action included absolutely no command or control, nor did he have the authority not to release the sorties back to VNAF control, once the need had been established, and safety checks accomplished.
Myth: That famous photo stopped the war.
Fact: While it became an icon for the peace movement, by the time of the photo in June of 1972, almost all US ground forces had already been brought home from Viet Nam. By March of 1973, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, all US combat forces were out of Viet Nam.
The photo was embarrassing
to the US government, but extremely damaging to the South Vietnamese
government. It was a great propaganda tool for the Communists, and may
have done more than any other photo to prevent the US Congress from
allowing assistance to the South Vietnamese government when North Viet
Nam launched the full scale invasion of that country, in 1975.
WHY DOES THE MYTH CONTINUE?
Because it is a dramatic photo, but for more than any other reason, because the handlers of the woman whom the little girl has become, arranged for her to go to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial on Veteran's Day of 1996, "to forgive". Did she know that the pilot who bombed her was one of her own countrymen, and not an American? Yes, she did.
Did Kim herself say that the pilot was American? She does not have to.
She was introduced on Veterans Day by Jan Scruggs, the impetus behind the Memorial, as having been burned in "an American ordered air strike". If you listen to her words, she is careful not to say the pilot was American, but most people assume that since she went to our nation's capitol to forgive him, the pilot must be American. While she herself never says that Americans bombed her, she is careful not to correct the impression given by introductions, or narration during the documentaries, or previous interviews and broadcasts. The audience is encouraged to assume that her injuries are from American action.
Even so, her trip of forgiveness to the Wall, would have been a one-time story, if not for a man who has managed to insert himself into the tragedy.
The story of the Methodist minister, who tearfully passed the message, "I am that man.", certainly encourages The Myth Of The Girl In The Photo. Indeed, most of the stories since that day say far more about that minister, with his guilt and forgiveness, than they say about Kim. With his claim to be the man who ordered the strike against the village of Trang Bang, his subsequent self-admitted Godlessness and guilt, and his salvation to become a minister of the Methodist Church, he has almost replaced Kim Phuc as the central figure in the myth. It would seem that it is not for lack of trying on his part.
This "feel good" message of peace and forgiveness plays well to the American willingness to forgive and forget, and it justifies and soothes the collective conscience of those who were against American involvement in that war.
It appears to be a politically sound strategy, which has resulted in Ms. Kim Phuc being appointed an ambassador of goodwill for UNESCO, and the formation of a foundation in the United States, to solicit money in the name of this new Canadian citizen.
One might do well to ask for the rest of the story, before sending a check of gratitude for her forgiveness. Ms. Kim's statements may be lovely, but must be viewed with the realization that while she is free to insinuate anything she pleases about the countries which give her refuge and support, she cannot freely criticize the Communist government of her former homeland. While she lives in Canada, some of her relatives still live under the Communist regime in Viet Nam.
Because of that, Ms. Kim and the Kim Foundation cannot place blame for the misplaced bombs on the Communists, who assaulted the village, and used civilians for cover. The words of the man who took her famous photo - that if the Communists had stayed in the north, none of this would have happened - will never be seen in a documentary about Kim. Nor would the Communists donate money, for they care little about this kind of forgiveness.
It is imprudent to offer to forgive the government of South Viet Nam, whose forces conducted the battle to defend the village against the Communists, because that government no longer exists, and cannot contribute anything for the forgiveness.
Only the people of the Western Democracies, and the USA most of all, are in a position to feel enough gratitude for this "forgiveness", because of public perceptions of the myth surrounding this story, to respond with their donations and support. According to the producers of one documentary, A&E, the donations flow in each time the story is aired.
I urge you to "Follow the dollar" on Kim's story, and ask yourself some very relevant questions:
Why would those in charge of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial choose to have Kim come to the memorial on a day that should be set aside to honor Viet Nam veterans? Was her "forgiveness" intended to honor veterans, or advance the cause of certain interests, and elicit sympathy and guilt by making it seem that it was Americans responsible for her injuries? How could her story, especially as presented, reflect well on veterans or our country? Was her story really intended to honor the veterans of the Viet Nam war, or was this entire presentation simply a marketing tool? Would some of these questions be answered if it turned out that some of the same people associated with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are associated with or actually a part of the Kim Foundation? Just how "spontaneous" was the meeting at The Wall between Kim Phuc and the Methodist minister, the two necessary ingredients in this recipe for "forgiveness" and heart-warming publicity? Do you believe this meeting was "God's work", or was pre-orchestrated by someone else?
Follow the dollar, and the trail will lead to answers. Be warned that the answers will not be comfortable for anyone who wants to believe in "The Miracle At The Wall".
Times have also improved for the Methodist minister. During the year since he came forward to share what he grasped as his responsibility for the agony of the little girl, this minister of a small country church has addressed more people than he had addressed in his entire life, prior to that day at The Wall. His public claims have given him a sort of celebrity status within the church, and he is in demand as a speaker for his "ministry of forgiveness".
The minister has stated that he has never sought publicity, but that publicity sought him. That seems odd, since he and Kim were involved in setting up the meeting far in advance of Veterans Day. It would seem that since Kim Phuc knew that she would be meeting him that day, a man not seeking publicity would choose to meet in a less public place than the crowded Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on its busiest day of the year.
Instead, while maintaining he did not to want the publicity, they chose to meet near the cameras and microphones of the media representatives there to record Kim's offer of forgiveness, to the country and the men who did NOT burn her.
Only the Canadian documentary crew participated in the initial meeting of these two "victims", apparently in accordance with their contract with Kim. It was left to the mainstream media to seek out and "uncover" the story later.
The cooperation between the producers of the Canadian documentary, those in charge of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a Methodist minister who seeks "no" publicity, has resulted in a myth of epic proportions. The story that they and the Reverend made from this, has caused pain to the Vietnamese poet who was originally the intermediary for the meeting, and for all who know the myth for what it is.
Personal guilt is something borne sooner by some than others, and few could deny the right to feel whatever personal responsibility one might care to feel for having been even remotely involved in any way with this incident.
Personal responsibility, however, entails a personal forgiveness, and not a contrived public confession that implies that the Myth Of The Girl In The Photo is true.
To some, this seems to be a story where everyone wins. For certain people, perhaps· but not for the memory of the men who fought and died in Viet Nam, and certainly not for the well being of the ones who fought and tried to come back home. For the dead, it is only the memories of their comrades and still-grieving families that continue to suffer unnecessarily. For those yet alive, Veterans Day now brings the reminder that no matter how well and honorably they served their country, they have to continue to live with the myth of the little girl in the photo, and the legacy that widespread belief in the myth still engenders.
The world press once again says, through stories that rely on hyped-up reports exaggerated for a quarter of a century, rather than a proper investigation of easily available fact, that these veterans and their country did that terrible thing to the cute little girl. A small-town minister accepts the blame for all of us, when he cries the statement that is not true, "I am the one responsible for the girl's agony."
Because of that, all veterans have to see her pain, and feel her pain, and know that the people of their own country, and the people of the world, are once again being told, erroneously, that they are the ones who did that terrible deed.