Friday, April 29, 2005

Can You Picture Vietnam?

"A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words." Ansel Adams



There are pictures and then there are pictures -- especially those taken of war. All of us who lived during the Vietnam era remember the draft, the protests, the songs -- and especially the pictures. It was truly the first war to assault our sight as well as our souls.

Some of the images are so engraved in the public consciousness we don't have to see them at all -- they appear in a flash behind our eyes at the mention of "the little girl screaming from napalm burns" or "the marine holding a gun on a mother and child." Or "the helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the US Embassy."

All the countless pictures of death and destruction and pain in Vietnam bore eloquent witness to our outrage. They were the hooks on which we hung our grievances at the injustice of an abominable war. Journalists with unprecedented access took life-threatening chances to bring us photographs that would define a disastrous chapter in American history. And become a chilling reminder of the impact "freedom of the press" could have on our collective psyches.

So how would we feel today to learn that one of the most emblematic photos of the war in Vietnam was not what it purported to be? Today in the New York Times, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es tells us:

THIRTY years ago I was fortunate enough to take a photograph that has become perhaps the most recognizable image of the fall of Saigon - you know it, the one that is always described as showing an American helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the United States Embassy. Well, like so many things about the Vietnam War, it's not exactly what it seems. In fact, the photo is not of the embassy at all; the helicopter was actually on the roof of an apartment building in downtown Saigon where senior Central Intelligence Agency employees were housed.
The CIA? Not innocent embassy employees? We've been cheering all these years for a bunch of government spooks? Well, not exactly. There were American CIA clerks on that roof, but there were also Vietnamese citizens. And in the end, what does it matter? Clinging to a makeshift ladder begging for freedom, all were justifyably desperate to escape the same hell.

Whether atop a Saigon apartment building or the US Embassy, with the world crashing around them, their fear was no less authentic. And while the place and the names may be different, the picture -and the horror- remain undeniably real.


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