War is Hell. Still.

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 22, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

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Review of The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, Penguin, 2001.

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Let's see. What's in the newspaper today? Washington Post, January 4, 2002: "The United Nations said it had an unconfirmed but reliable report that the airstrike on the village of Niazi Kala, in Paktia province about 100 miles south of Kabul, had left 52 civilians dead."

Wow. 52 people. That's about the size of my extended family. Must have been a lot of injuries too. Well, that's a damned shame. But war is war and they'll just have to live with it, because better them than us, right?

Rewind. Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, June 10, 1972. Headline: "A Misplaced Bomb...And a Breath of Hell." A photo shows a South Vietnamese girl running down a street. She is naked and screaming. A "friendly" napalm attack (South Vietnamese pilots, American involvement) has set her skin on fire and burned her ponytail away. But she does not die. She refuses to die. She chooses instead a life of constant emotional distress and physical pain hidden behind a smile. Her name is Kim Phuc. She is The Girl in the Picture.

This one photograph almost single-handedly ended the Vietnam War. When it appeared, a number of Americans sent toys, money, and notes of condolence to Kim. Your poker-faced reviewer nearly wept upon reading that "some community firemen in New York had raised three thousand dollars which they wanted to spend to bring Kim Phuc on a holiday there." A holiday in New York was about the last thing she needed (medicine was the first.) But those New York firemen, God bless 'em.

Despite occasional acts of generosity on the part of individual Americans, foreign journalists and doctors, Kim Phuc and her family were swallowed by poverty. Destroyed by war, the Vietnamese economy only worsened once the war was over. Freewheeling American aid was replaced by wholesale American sanctions. Inspired by the doctors that saved her life, Kim ended up in Cuba with the goal of studying medicine. But her injuries caused her studies to suffer. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the miracle of Communist Cuba more and more resembled the disaster of Communist Vietnam.

The regime in Hanoi helped Kim but little. It realized that she was a valuable tool of anti-imperialist propaganda, but only grudgingly allowed her to travel to spread her anti-war message. Worse, the regime regularly harassed Kim's family in the misguided belief that it was now basking in foreign largesse. Kim herself was constantly looked after by the regime's "minders" - half escorts, half spies - and ultimately the regime's influence became oppressive. In Cuba, Kim married, and her friends raised the funds to send the newlyweds to balmy Moscow for their honeymoon. On the return trip, the plane stopped over in Canada, where Kim and her husband made their escape to the West.

Chong's account is remarkable in its juxtaposition of world history and personal history. The effect is subversive: never again will a casualty statistic be merely a statistic. Chong extends the same sympathy toward American veterans, especially to the man originally blamed for ordering the napalm strike: Captain John Plummer, whose remorse led him to meet Kim and offer her a weepy apology.

Not that all Americans were so penitent. As part of the peace accord, the Nixon administration promised to pay Vietnam some $4.5 billion in war reparations. But the MIA lobby effectively forced Hanoi to drop the demand. Only recently have relations between the two countries begun to "normalize." "To Americans," Chong writes, "Vietnam was not so much a country as a war." Indeed, just last year, revelations of war crimes committed by now Senator and war hero Bob Kerrey tended to elicit pity for Kerrey rather than for his victims and their families. Thus does nationalism blind the soul. Groping about for a meaning to her suffering, Kim embraced Christianity, that victims' religion par excellence. This in part explains Kim's astounding ability to forgive though she cannot forget. Speaking at a Veteran's Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, Kim said, "I do not want to talk about the war because I cannot change history. I only want you to remember the tragedy of war in order to do things to stop fighting and killing around the world." This is noble. This is rational. This is the very meaning of Christian forgiveness, and would that more so-called Christians were capable of it: the world would be a far better place.

On the other hand, there is the matter of justice. Chong notes that when America pulled out of Vietnam, so too did American concern, even though Vietnam would be at war (with itself, Cambodia, and China, among others) for some time to come. "The American public was sick and tired of hearing about it," Chong writes, and Vietnam's subsequent devastation "did not weigh heavily on [America's] conscience." This is all the more true today, despite Vietnam's continuing struggle to erase the war's awful legacy of UXO, Agent Orange, abandoned Amerasian children, etc. Reconciliation has often taken the form of business deals spearheaded by American companies eager to make a buck in Vietnam's increasingly capitalistic economy, and the tone of reconciliation is sometimes smug.

Chong's book is valuable not so much as a document of the Vietnam War - "ancient history" to many Americans - but as a document of all war. War destroys. It destroys people, minds, economies, environments. It also sows the seeds of future wars, unless war's victims can learn Kim's lesson. To decry war is one, and a rather easy thing. Working toward peace is quite another. A good first step is to read this excellent book, pass it on, and keep "the girl in the picture" forever at the back of your mind, if not the picture itself before your eyes.

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