Thursday, November 16, 2017

General Leon's shooting in context

The Missing Context: General Loan’s Shooting of the Viet Cong Terrorist
 “Context is everything,” goes an old saying. Unfortunately, the Sunday, September 24 episode of the PBS Documentary “The Vietnam War” did not provide the context of the most iconic photo of the war-that of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong terrorist. Let me provide that context, based on conversations with both the late General Loan and the late Eddie Adams, the photojournalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for taking the photo. I was one of five US Army captains working under a US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and a senior CIA official with General Loan’s National Police to develop innovative means to identify the Viet Cong leadership. I left Vietnam five months before the Tet Offensive. When Loan came to the United States after the fall of Vietnam, he opened a restaurant in Burke, VA. My wife and I, with our young daughters, would often go there. We also saw Loan at reunions in Northern Virginia of the Vietnamese National Police.  On most of these functions, Loan and I sat together, discussing the Vietnam war, particularly the events of that fateful day of the photo. He told me the man he shot was Nguyen Van Lem, also known by his Nom de Guerre  of Captain Bay Lop. He was a sleeper Viet Cong agent who then surfaced as commander of one of the assassination teams with the mission of  decapitating the leadership of the South Vietnam government in the opening hours of the Offensive. The PBS documentary, to its credit, covers in detail these death squads, perhaps the first tine the American public has learned of them. Sunday's episode, however, failed  to point out that the specific target of Lem’s team was the National Police leadership. Lem was captured at a mass grave site containing the bodies of more than 30 police officials and their families. He had just killed a senior officer, his wife, and six small children. Upon being captured,  Lem stated he was proud of what he had done. He was brought to Loan, who had been briefed on Lem’s crimes. Loan pulled the trigger at the precise second Adams took the photo. A strong argument can be made that, under Article 4 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, Lem was an "illegal combatant" and thus could be subjected to military justice, including summary execution. I'll leave it to lawyers to argue that, but the American public, lacking the facts surrounding the execution, certainly condemned Loan as a war criminal. General Loan died in July 1998. At his funeral, I spoke with Eddie Adams ( who passed away in 2004) who had become a close friend of the General. He confirmed what Loan had told me. He added that he had taken many photos of Loan rallying his police and the Vietnamese people, but the Associated Press refused to publish them. He wrote a poignant eulogy on General Loan for Time Magazine in which he said, “The General killed the Viet Cong. I killed the General with my camera.” I thank the Washington Post for allowing me to tell the story behind this photo.
 Lawrence Tracy
 The writer is a retired US Army colonel who spent 32 months in Vietnam

If the caption on the famous photograph of General Loan shooting Bay Lop in the head was captioned "In the midst of a fierce battle, an ARVN officer executes a captured terrorist (who had committed multiple war crime murders and boasted about them) in accordance with the rules of war", then things would have been very, very different for many millions of people all over the world.  That caption should still be under that image every time anyone sees it.


1 comment:

  1. One can take something that's as unassailable as a photo and present it to support whatever message is wanted. The photo is damning without context. With context and explanation the story totally changes. It was one of the iconic photographs of the Vietnam War but the way it was presented was a lie.