An unforgettable snapshot of Vietnam's blurred lines Remembrance: Photo of a death portrayed the brutality of war, but could not begin to capture the incongruity of life in the middle of it.

July 29, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The prisoner's grimacing face, a face caught in the moment between life and death, became one of the most vivid images of the Vietnam War. Like the recurrence of a particularly unpleasant nightmare, that face reappeared this month with the death of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Loan, the man's executioner.

Photographer Eddie Adams' extraordinary picture of that impromptu execution on a Saigon street in February 1968 captured perfectly the brutality of the war in Vietnam: Loan's arm outstretched, the man's hands secured behind his back, his twisted mouth, even the bullet leaving his skull, some say.

Loan died July 14 of cancer in Northern Virginia, three decades after Adams' photograph imparted an odd immortality to both prisoner and executioner. But unlike Loan, who became instantly famous, or infamous, worldwide, the man he gunned down in a Saigon street during the 1968 Tet Offensive remains all but anonymous.

Anonymous Vietnamese bodies were plentiful in those days. Except in the terrible intimacy of the firefight, we never got to know either our enemies or our friends very well in Vietnam.

Adams, who won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his photo, came to feel apologetic about the picture.

"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths," he said the day after Loan died. He felt compassion and sympathy for Loan.

After the photo generated revulsion worldwide, Adams said in an interview on National Public Radio, he actually spent a few weeks traveling with Loan through South Vietnam. He got to know him pretty well.

"The guy was very well loved by the Vietnamese," he said. "He was a hero to them, you know. So he wasn't the idiot he was taken to be, like a lot of people, and it just saddens me that none of this has really come out.

"He was fighting our war, not their war, our war ... [but] all the blame is on him."

Which perhaps was the problem. Loan was our guy. Not some Nazi SS thug shooting prisoners. Not a grinning World War II Japanese caricature. Not a Soviet commissar. Not a Chinese interrogator from "The Manchurian Candidate." Not even a ruthless North Vietnamese political officer.

Our guy.

Years later, we would find out that a month and a half after Loan pulled the trigger on his prisoner, our American "boys" would be shooting women and children at My Lai. Ruthless violence became infectious in Vietnam.

Saigon -- Ho Chi Minh City now -- had a phantasmagoric quality during the Communists' Tet Offensive. A correspondent could eat breakfast in the courtyard of the Continental Palace Hotel, where shabby peacocks strolled, then taxi out to the war in one of the little blue Renaults that scooted around Saigon like water bugs on a fetid swamp. Adams was himself just cruising with an NBC television crew when they ran into Loan and the photo op of a lifetime.

A reporter could spend a few hours watching the action in Cholon, the Chinese quarter, at the Y Bridge, or near Tan Son Nhut air field, then return in time for a sundowner on the veranda of the Continental, where pornographers peddled their seedy and often ancient pictures.

Which may be why I got to the scene late on the day Loan himself was shot about three months after the notorious execution, during a second round of Viet Cong assaults after Tet.

A dozen or so Viet Cong soldiers had fired a mortar at the Phan Thanh Gian Bridge, the main route from Saigon to major U.S. bases at Bien Hoa and Long Binh. They succeeded only in crumbling a chunk of the sidewalk. They caused no more delay than a clogged toll booth at the Harbor Tunnel.

But the mortar squad apparently got lost and trapped in a warren of shanties and small houses along a branch of the Saigon River. Not far from where the "The Quiet American," of Graham Green's great novel of the Vietnamese malaise, was found dead in the mud. The VC held out tenaciously against South Vietnamese Rangers sent to rout them out.

The curious sightseers of war assembled at the head of the street leading into the enclave of shacks where the VC were hiding. Saigon harbored an amazing assortment of civilians during Tet, from CIA agents to construction workers to a kind of macabre tourist of war.

"I like to ride around Saigon and look at things," said a blond German girl on a bicycle.

"It's dangerous," I said.

"I'm not very afraid of anything very much."

"That's good," I said.

By that time the sniping near the Phan Thanh Gian Bridge was not very interesting anymore and she pedaled away.

Loan arrived early in the day, and as a Newsweek story put it: "The little bastard just went in with his AR-15 blazing."

No one ever said Loan lacked guts. Sniper fire ripped into his right leg, cutting the femoral artery. Grenade fragments tore into his shoulder.

An American Marine and an Australian correspondent named Pat Burgess carried him out.

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