W. Joseph Campbell

No, ‘Forbes’: It wasn’t ‘an American napalm attack’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Forbes weighed in yesterday on the dust-up over Facebook’s removal of the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War. In  doing so, the magazine stepped squarely in a nasty and tenacious media myth.

Facebook deleted the image from a Norwegian writer’s site, claiming the photograph violated content prohibitions on showing nudity. The move sparked an uproar in Norway and beyond, and the social media giant soon reversed itself.

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-10-25-21-amOf particular interest to Media Myth Alert was this passage in a commentary at the Forbes online site: “the image depicts a group of children, one of whom is nude, running in fear after an American napalm attack.”

The napalm bombing took place June 8, 1972, near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

But it was no “American napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped in error by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear (see front page image, nearby, of the now-defunct Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia).

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops,” Christopher Wain of Britain’s ITN television network, who saw the attack, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International news service.

Similarly, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times reported from Trang Bang that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm on his troops and a cluster of civilians.”

Nonetheless, the myth of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack soon took hold, and has proven extremely durable. A few weeks ago, for example, the Los Angeles Times declared the naked girl at the center of the photograph had been “scorched by American napalm.” (The newspaper subsequently deleted the erroneous reference, without acknowledging error or posting a correction.)

Even more egregious, and even farther from the truth, was this assertion, offered last month in the online newsletter of an Australian think tank: “The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese.”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech on October 10, 1972, McGovern invoked the photograph of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim [Phuc], fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say. In any case, his reference to “dropped in the name of America” suggested U.S. involvement in the attack.

So, too, did Susan Sontag, the filmmaker and author, who asserted that the “naked Vietnamese child” shown in the picture had been “sprayed by American napalm.” That passage, which appeared in her book, On Photography, was an unmistakable insinuation of U.S. responsibility for the napalm bombing.

A wholly inaccurate and exaggerated insinuation.

WJC

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