Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once delivered a speech in 1880 in which he said the following: “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!”
It doesn’t get any more stark than that. The picture I included with this blog post illustrates the hell of war. It is pure and it is evil. There need be no further description needed.
In just a few days, PBS is going to begin airing a landmark series on the Vietnam War. It’s produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who teamed up on a project aimed at helping a nation come to grips with a conflict that tore at our soul. It ripped our hearts out.
Scenes such as the one depicted in the photo played out throughout Vietnam during that war. A photographer, Eddie Adams managed to capture this scene in all its horror.
Adams won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for the photo, but he would say later: “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'”
The shooter in this picture was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the head of South Vietnam’s police force. The fellow he shot was a Viet Cong officer. The moment was frozen for posterity. It’s gruesome, but as Adams said, it tells only part of the story.
The VC officer had just led a mission that had captured a colleague of Loan, along with his wife and six children. The VC officer, Nguyen Van Liem, ordered the execution of his prisoners. All of them had their throats cut.
Nguyen Ngoc Loan knew about the mission when he took Liem into custody. He was filled with rage in the moment. The Viet Cong had just launched its Tet Offensive in early 1968 and had brought havoc throughout South Vietnam.
Loan pulled his pistol out and executed his prisoner. As a result, he became the face of war’s cruelty. He became a human metaphor for the terror Americans were feeling at home about what was happening in a faraway land.
Loan would flee the communist victors at the end of the war. He came to the United States. He would die of cancer in 1998 while living in Florida. It’s been said over the years that Loan never recovered fully from the scorn and recrimination he suffered for acting in response to the most hellish circumstance imaginable.
Burns and Novick’s documentary likely will be able to shed some additional perspective on this act of horror, this moment when hell presented itself in a time of war.
The first five episodes of “The Vietnam War” will air nightly on Panhandle PBS from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 7 p.m. with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere.