Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Whatever happened to 'The Girl in the Picture'?

The Girl in the Picture; By Denise Chong; Simon and Schuster UK Ltd 2000; 372 pp; P10

JAKARTA (JP): Many people claim to know exactly where they were when they heard the news that U.S. president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

This reviewer remembers vividly the moment he saw for the first time one of the defining images of the late 1960s, a naked preadolescent Vietnamese girl running in terror down a country road from a misdirected napalm attack, an image that would go round the world and galvanize the burgeoning antiwar movement.

"The girl in the picture" was one Kim Phuc, who, if this moment of fate had passed her by, would, like millions of her compatriots, have lived out her life in anonymity. But, no, for this average young lady from Trang Bang in Tay Ninh province by the Cambodian border, the madness of it all would project her into a perverse kind of celebrity, into a kind of iconic symbolism from which her petroleum jelly-scarred body would not let her quietly escape.

Denise Chong has written a sensitive biography of Kim Phuc, a tender appreciation of a life altered forever one June afternoon in 1969 when a South Vietnamese Air Force plane rolled in over the town of Trang Bang to attack supposed Vietcong positions and release canisters of the deadly antipersonnel weapon napalm.

Chong was given the subject's personal approval, permission that others such as the London newspaper Mail on Sunday did not seek when it staked out Phuc's Toronto residence to run a "World Exclusive" on her.

South Vietnam in 1969 was a desperately corrupt country, ineptly led and shored up by massive American support and money. Its air force was all of a piece with the general venality and incompetence. Prone to errors and "mistakes" of this kind, its pilots were often simply ready to offload their bombs and napalm for the sake of it, for the formality of it. Trang Bang was nothing much in the way of an exception.

Kim Phuc would have been left to die on a cot in the grubby outhouse of a Saigon hospital but for the fortuitous intervention of an American philanthropic agency, consigned to fate like so many others of her benighted people. But a long and painful road to recovery was initiated that would take her to the United States and Germany and put her eventually on personal terms with none other than Vietnamese leader Pham Van Dong, who comes out of this story a man with a more human face than his Stalinist orthodoxy immediately suggests.

However, the Stalinists who won the Vietnam War had for the most part their own designs on Kim Phuc and would parade her endlessly as an icon of anti-imperialism and national suffering.

And she was never allowed by them to forget that she was "The Girl in the Picture", that she was a symbol par excellence of Vietnam's torment. They would send her to world peace conferences stage-managed by Moscow, to manifestly hollow international junkets in the Cold War propaganda campaign.

Nor was that June day the only time that Indochina's conflicts would come spilling through Kim Phuc's life. Pol Pot's evil Khmer Rouge would play a part, attacking Tay Ninh province in yet one more of their madcap escapades and bringing fresh torment to Phuc's family and neighbors.

Napalm? What can be said for this atrocious weapon? What can be said for the U.S military men that authorized its usage, or for the politicians who connived at it? Or for those who devised rules of engagement that allowed for firing on unarmed civilians "only if they were running"? Did anybody really believe that nine-year-old girls would have the presence of mind to stand stock still and face the pilot as a screaming jet fighter homed down on them?

Kim Phuc is the Vietnam War's most famous casualty. Read this biography and wonder at her marvelous equanimity of spirit, and ask yourself if you could sleep well at night knowing that you were using such a thing as napalm.

-- David Jardine