The Associated Press photographer who took the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is retiring this month, a development that prompted yet another exaggerated claim about the image and its supposed effects.
The photographer is Nick Ut, who in June 1972 made the photograph of a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village in what then was South Vietnam. The image is regarded as among the most memorable of the war and won for Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Over the years, the photograph has become embroidered with media myths — notably the erroneous notion that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes. As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the attack at Trang Bang was carried out by the 518th Fighter Squadron of the South Vietnamese Air Force.
How did Ut’s black-and-white photograph — emotionally powerful though it was — change “us and our stomach for war”?
The report, by KABC TV, didn’t say, didn’t back up what was a sweeping and dubious claim.
Instead, the report reviewed Ut’s career, much of which was spent in Los Angeles for AP, after the Vietnam War.
To direct attention to the blithe KABC claim is not to be excessively fastidiousness. Indeed, calling out the assertion that the photograph “changed us” is to underscore how “Napalm Girl” has, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “become invested with mythic qualities and suffused with power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can realistically project.”
The myths and exaggerations that have taken hold about “Napalm Girl” also include claims that that the photograph hastened an end to the Vietnam War and that it galvanized American public opinion against the conflict. Those claims are inaccurate; neither can be sustained by dispassionate assessment of the relevant evidence.
The war went on nearly three years after the photograph was taken, ending in April 1975 with North Vietnam’s military conquest of South Vietnam. And U.S. public opinion had shifted against the conflict long before 1972.
As for having little “stomach for war” after 1972 — the United States has been engaged in numerous conflicts since Vietnam, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions or air strikes in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.
So why does it much matter to confront and debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” a photograph taken nearly 45 years ago?
Debunking those myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “is vital for a number of reasons, not the least of which is insisting on a more complete understanding of a prominent visual artifact of a bitter and prolonged war.
“Confronting the myths [also] serves to puncture the post hoc causality commonly associated with the image, and to deflate the notion that a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict. To assert such an argument is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- ‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures
- 40 years on: The ‘napalm girl’ photo and its associated errors
- NYTimes ignores former senior AP journalists seeking correction on ‘napalm girl’ context
- A sort-of correction from the New York Times
- Arrogance: WaPo won’t correct dubious claim about Nixon ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam
- Trump, Nixon, and the ‘secret plan’ media myth
- WaPo, Bezos, and owning up to errors ‘quickly and completely’
- NYTimes flubs the correction
- After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’