W. Joseph Campbell

What was Rush Limbaugh talking about?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm

The conservative talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, ruminated on his show yesterday about the power of images — and seemed to err in describing an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War.

In response to a caller’s observation that “the Vietnam War changed when somebody got shot live on the air” — an evident reference to Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph — Limbaugh declared:

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ (AP)

“The Vietnam War, I’ll tell you what began the end of the Vietnam War. It was not Walter Cronkite saying that some operation failed.  It was a picture of young children burned by Agent Orange fleeing an explosion in Time magazine.  That’s what did it.  … Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

It’s most likely the voluble Limbaugh was referring to “Napalm Girl,” the award-winning photograph taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. (At least one radio station thought he was referring to that image, too.)

“Napalm Girl” showed a cluster of Vietnamese children, the terror-stricken victims of a misdirected napalm attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of photograph was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, naked and screaming from the burns she suffered.

Except for the reference to chemical defoliant Agent Orange, “Napalm Girl” — formally titled “The Terror of War” — is the photograph that most closely corresponds to Limbaugh’s description: “Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

More problematic than mistaking the details of one of the Vietnam’s most searing images was Limbaugh’s blithe claim of the photo’s power, that the image — any image — possessed such impact as to mark the beginning of the end of the war.

That’s hardly the case.

By June 1972 when Ut’s photo was taken, the war was essentially over already for U.S. military forces in Vietnam. Nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country. By mid-year 1972, about 49,000 American troops were in Vietnam, well off the peak of 549,000 in early 1969. U.S. casualties were lower, too — from 4,221 killed in 1970 to 1,380 killed in 1971. President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” — of turning over the war effort to South Vietnamese forces — was in full flower.

None of that is attributable to the effects of “Napalm Girl.” Indeed, the beginning of the end for the U.S. military in Vietnam came well before the photograph was taken.

Even so, it’s not uncommon to exaggerate the photograph’s influence; it’s as if the image was so powerful that its effects likewise must be profound.

For example, the Associated Press declared in a retrospective article in 2012, 40 years after the photo was taken, that “Napalm Girl” helped “to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

And more recently, Ut was quoted as saying: “When I pressed the button, I knew. This picture will stop the war.”

It didn’t, of course. The war ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed South Vietnamese troops and seized the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

WJC

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