W. Joseph Campbell

40 years on: The ‘napalm girl’ photo and its associated errors

In Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Photographs on June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

‘Napalm Girl’ image (Nick Ut/AP)

Nearly 40 years have passed since an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled, naked, from a misdirected napalm attack.

In a recent retrospective article, the AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

There’s no denying the stunning quality of what often is called the “napalm girl” image. But whether it helped “end” the Vietnam War is improbable: That’s an exaggeration, a case of locating far too much significance in a single image.

By mid-June 1972, after all, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For American forces, the ground war was quickly winding down.

The “napalm girl” image figured in a recent New York Times obituary about Horst Faas, a gruff, German-born photographer who spent years in Vietnam, covering the conflict for the AP.

Faas won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work in Vietnam and, later, in Bangladesh. And he was instrumental in making sure the AP moved the “napalm girl” photograph across its wires.

The Times quoted Faas as saying in an AP oral history: “The girl was obviously nude, and one of the rules was we don’t — at the A.P. — we don’t present nude pictures, especially of girls in puberty age.” Even so, the Times wrote, Faas “set his mind on ‘getting the thing published and out.’”

Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

The Times’ obituary described the photograph as showing “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

Except that the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American.

It was South Vietnamese (as the AP correctly notes in its recent retrospective, stating: “As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end”).

By referring to “American planes,” the Times‘ obituary insinuates that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph — and I pointed this out in an email to the Times.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied by email, saying:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all central or relevant.

I said as much in replying to Keepnews.

“I think you’re too eager to avoid a correction, or a clarification,” I wrote. “The manufacturer (or ownership) of the aircraft is inconsequential; far more important is who was flying the planes. And the obit’s wording (‘bombings in the countryside by American planes’) clearly suggests the aerial attacks were carried out [by] Americans, and that Americans caused the deaths and injuries. And that wasn’t the case. The aircraft were American-made, but flown by South Vietnamese pilots.

“A clarification seems in order,” I wrote, “to make the distinction clear.”

Keepnews sent this brief, dismissive response:

“Thank you for your feedback.”

In reply, I pointed out to Keepnews that the brief bios the Times published of the Pulitzer winners in 1973 correctly said that Ut had taken the photo “after South Vietnamese dropped napalm on own people by mistake.”

Keepnews sent no response, and the Times has neither corrected nor clarified the erroneous reference in the Faas obit to the aircraft that dropped the napalm.

The Times should.

After all, Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s executive editor, asserted in a column last year that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

It’s advice worth following.

WJC

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