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How a Powerful Image Can Shape a War

November 09, 2001|JAMES ZUMWALT | James Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars

There is tremendous potential in a photograph to inflame emotions. The images of Sept. 11 of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were of sufficient emotion to cause few of us to object to the ensuing executive order that Osama bin Laden be taken "dead or alive." The option of killing Bin Laden and denying him a fair trial causes me no concern. Extreme problems dictate extreme solutions.

At the same time, I cannot help but reflect on another famous photograph, taken more than three decades earlier following a terrorist attack. Interestingly, this famous photograph had a much different impact upon the American public than did the Sept. 11 photographs.

In early 1968, during the Tet offensive, the Viet Cong launched a coordinated assault against military and civilian targets throughout South Vietnam. Scores of innocent civilians were killed or wounded. One of the terrorists involved in the attacks was quickly apprehended in Saigon after murdering seven unarmed civilians in cold blood.

The director of South Vietnam's National Police, Loan Ngoc Nguyen, unilaterally became judge, jury and executioner, enforcing his own executive order.

With hands bound behind him, the terrorist was led away by Nguyen to a street corner in front of a group of journalists. There, Nguyen drew his pistol and placed it to the head of his captive. The moment before execution was recorded by photographer Eddie Adams in one of that war's most memorable photographs.

As Nguyen stood with outstretched arm and pistol in hand, the Viet Cong terrorist stood grimacing, his head slightly tilted to one side as he awaited the impact of the executioner's bullet. An instant after the photograph was taken, the terrorist's fate was sealed. Retribution had been swift. There now existed one less terrorist in the world to take an innocent life.

As the photograph appeared across the U.S., the American public all too quickly perceived the brutality captured in that one snapshot of the war but failed to grasp its reality. They chose to ignore the brutality of the terrorist's precipitating act to focus only on what they perceived to be the ensuing barbaric act of a Saigon government official.

The photograph fueled opposition at home to the Vietnam War. In a time of innocence, when we were shielded from such rampant acts of terrorism at home, we simply could not understand the passion and anger the precipitating act of terrorism had wrought upon the Saigon citizens who were its victims. It has taken the reality of Sept. 11 to make Americans fully understand what many others have had to endure for a significant part of their lives.

From life's experiences we gain wisdom.

With such wisdom, we begin the process of fine-tuning our perspectives. With such enhanced perspectives, we garner a better understanding of others and what we must do to most effectively accomplish our purpose in life.

Right now, America's purpose in life is to lead the fight against global terrorism. That fight will be long, requiring us to quickly learn more about those determined to do us harm and what must be done to eliminate the threat they pose to our world order--no matter how unpalatable such actions may be. This includes recognizing that what we might theoretically want to do as a democratic society committed to human rights--such as one's right to a fair trial--is not what we can realistically do when our enemy wages war by a set of rules totally contrary to our own.

Perhaps the photograph of Nguyen summarily executing one such terrorist for his violent act against humanity can now serve as a reminder of the resolve we need.

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