For the fortieth anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon,” ZM Quynh writes a meta eulogy dedicated to Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. In this two-part series, Quynh raises these critical questions: Have we been denied our heroes? Has our history been fed to us in half-truths, bent to serve an agenda we were too young to understand, and are now too old to remember? Or care?
Do Photographs Lie? Or is it the Media that manipulates it?
Many credit Adam’s picture as a turning point for Americans, galvanizing the U.S. anti-war effort. But Adams kicked himself for it: “He was a goddamn hero…” he lamented in an interview on “War Stories with Oliver North.” With a heavy heart, Adams wrote Loan’s eulogy for Time Magazine in 1998, stating:
“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.”
South Vietnamese, including Loan, have criticized the American media portrayal of “Saigon Execution,” noting that articles about the shooting showed a complete failure to understand the reality of the war in Vietnam. For example:
ARVN soldier, Nguyễn Trường Toại: “One of the most painful…things that I saw…was when the newspapers carried the pictures of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who shot the Vietcong prisoner in the head during the Tet Offensive…The articles that the Americans wrote, the news reporters, were such that when I read them, I had the feeling that they didn’t understand the reality of the war, the truth of what was going on in Vietnam.”
General Lâm Quang Thi: “In retrospect, I think that the U.S. media’s coverage of the Tet Offensive was, in fact, a classic case of irresponsible reporting…When Police Chief Nguyen Van Loan executed a VC officer who had killed some of his officers during an engagement in Cho Lon…the U.S. media transformed it into a sort of cause célèbre for antiwar activists.”
There are also dozens of opinions in Vietnamese on the Internet. These are the words of Vietnamese soldiers that fought the war, people who survived it – those that witnessed it on the ground floor. They are the voices that were left out of American portrayals – the words of your people – not Eddie Adams, not NBC, not American journalist. They have the right to be heard. And you have the right to hear them.
In the midst of all of this, one thing is certain. Though it reflects an incident that occurred in another country between two players of non-American nationalities, “Saigon Execution” is now an inescapable iconoclastic staple of American history.
April 30th has rolled around again and Ba’s got the TV on constantly. Specials on the Vietnam War are on all the major channels. I see his footage over and over again. “That’s your godfather,” Ba shouts from the living room. I am putting on roller skates.“Uh hum,” I say, rolling into the living room. Ba has tiled all the floors. I am in heaven! Ba’s eyes are glued to the T.V. A man in the ugliest checkered shirt I’ve ever seen is led along a dusty street. A much younger Ba follows soldiers who escort ugly checkered shirt dude. “Watch this!” Ba says excitedly. “That’s me!” he says pointing to the barely half second shot in which his arm is seen swaying to the left and his face under a helmet turns to the right away from the camera. “Wow Ba, you look so young,” I say. It makes him happy. I blow a ginormous bubble. “Look!” Ba says pointing to the screen, his finger blocking the image of the pistol Bác Loan raises. His fingers trail the bullet as the footage slows down (conveniently). A greasy line appears on the TV as Ba’s finger follows the bullet into checkered shirt dude’s head. “Bang!” he says and dude falls onto the ground. “Did you see it?” he says, turning to me. I blow a mini bubble. “Yeah Ba I did, can I go outside and skate?”
What has this image come to symbolize and in its wake, what was lost or minimized?
History is often compartmentalized into bite size morsels. Realistically, we can’t carry all the details of our many histories in our heads. In our antiquity, history was collapsed into symbols of heroes and heroines – two women warriors on elephants, a giant turtle, a crossbow, a dragon and a fairy, a little boy on a flying horse.
For me, a “hero” or “heroine” is someone who is respected for something they did or said that had a significant effect and that represented something important such as the struggles of a people. He/she does not have to be perfect; in fact they can be fallible, human. They become part myth, part history – but largely symbolic.
Without any assessment as to whether Loan is a hero or not – first let’s ask, what does Loan symbolize? To Americans? To South Vietnamese? To you? Then, answer this: name one Vietnamese hero or heroine from the Vietnam War. Having a hard time? Maybe we weren’t allowed to have heroes.
Or is it something more? For the most part, Loan is widely respected as a hero by our elders. But perhaps their truths didn’t fit comfortably into the American political agenda about the Vietnam War. In fact, American articles that featured “Saigon Execution” failed to grant Vietnamese people the respect of balanced commentary on the events surrounding the incident. What happened to our voice? What part of our history failed to be encapsulated in this image? What parts of our truths were compromised?
In the aftermath of the Tết Offensive, the civilian and military casualties were staggering. The government estimated 14,300 civilians were killed and another 24,000 were wounded. That year, the ARVN had the highest number of casualties with 27,915 ARVN soldiers killed. Americans lost 14,589 young men and women. In the City of Huế alone, the VC buried over 5000 civilians and government officials in mass graves.
How is it then, given the severity of the Tết Offensive, that its impact on South Vietnam is lost in representations of the war? Rather, with a minimization of the context, all eyes focused on Loan, ignoring all other images, and, with the help of the media, stuffed all of the nastiness of the war into this single man. And there was a lot of nastiness.
So how did Loan become the collective scapegoat? This is not just conjecture. Take a look at The Washington Post’s response to the INS’s attempt to deport Loan:
“…some Americans pretend that the United States did not dirty its own hands in Vietnam and had no responsibility for what our allies did there. Or is it that they think our own participation in a war about which they still feel guilty can be expiated by offering up Mr. Loan as a suitable public sacrifice?”
What happens when our histories are filtered through another’s lens?
In the spring of 1988, “journalist” Tom Tiede strolled into Les Tres Continents, a pizzeria in Burke, Virginia to be waited on by a “small and exceedingly thin Oriental who walks on an artificial leg and wears a paste-on smile to mask an otherwise drawn, gaunt…melancholic appearance.” I know, you’re already hissing at “Oriental” but, bear with me.
It’s the “paste-on smile” and the “drawn, gaunt…melancholic appearance” that gets me. What was Tiede trying to do?
Loan asked him, “What would you like?”
An interview, basically, was what Tiede wanted. Loan refused. Tiede’s article, published 20 years after the Tết Offensive, then goes on to discuss Loan’s history and how he became “a symbol of all that went wrong” with the war. (Okay, Tiede got that right at least.)
Tiede then ends the article with a claim that Loan has told friends that he has hit rock bottom “serving hash.” What “friends?” Who are his unidentified sources? Tiede then states that Loan “limps” to another table to serve customers water. “It is no wonder he is so very melancholic,” Tiede comments.
Based on whose observation? Tiede’s? Who is Tiede anyway? Just for kicks I did a web search on him. Nothing much of note came up. I wonder if Tiede is “melancholic” about this. Moreover, I wonder if it was important for Tiede, for Virginia, for the nation – that Loan was painted as this “gaunt” “melancholic” limpy “thin Oriental.”
Now what’s going on? What happened to the fierce, angry, cold-blooded murderer? Compare this article to Tiede’s prior work of journalistic brilliance in 1977 titled, “Ex-Viet General Unrepentant,” in which Tiede describes Loan as an “Executioner,” a “young turk,” a man of “ruthless bravado and leadership by force” who was “widely feared,” stoop-shouldered and balding with bad teeth. Tiede really has a thing for painting comic book style caricatures imbued with his vitriolic judgment. I suppose if Loan was tall with a thick head of hair and amazing teeth, he’d say Loan had the charm of a slick used car salesman with an exceptional dentist.
But picture this – what if Tom Tiede was replaced by zm quỳnh? What if I had walked into Les Tres Continents:
Last week, Ông Nội passed away.“Of loneliness,” I heard Mẹ whisper to Ba. “Of old age,” Bác Loan says, nudging me, smiling. His look reassures me that there is always another side to the story. My thoughts return to Ông Nội – how he missed something the comfort of a plush apartment in Virginia could not erase. We all pile into a station wagon and head over to Bác Loan’s pizzeria. An iron-gate is pulled, closing the pizzeria’s mall entrance. I stare longingly at a sequined off the shoulder shirt on a mannequin in a store across the way. Old men, some with bellies as wide as their smiles pile into the pizzeria. With them are their wives and little Vietnamese kids that scamper all over the restaurant. Sodas are poured on tap and pizzas with marinated fried fish doused with fish sauce are brought out. “Vietnamese pizzas!” Bác Loan declares. The lights of the mall click off. The laughter from inside the pizzeria becomes louder echoing through the walls of the empty mall. Bác Loan places a hand on Ba’s shoulder as he roasts him, telling battle worn tales as men bowl over clutching their bellies in laughter, slamming their fists on the tables, their faces turning red, Italian sausage and fried fish hanging from their mouths. “Ew…” I whisper to my cousin as she tosses her feathered hair…“Yeah…”
What is the “truth” behind “Saigon Execution” and how does this translate into our truth?
…our Vietnamese American truth. So to this question, I say this: when I die I take with me only one thing – my truth and my integrity. How I came to be where I am, who I am, and why I am. And that truth has a foundation. For me, that foundation needs to be based on fact, not fantasy. And it needs to be written by me or my people. I need to know, because the not knowing is to erase, to not honor the lives that were lost, to not honor the sacrifices that were made – to not honor my own sacrifices.
And to the question of how does this affects us today and why should it matter – I say this: at that time, there was the American “truth” – the complex mythology of preserving “democracy” and “defeating communism” which necessitated sending hundreds of thousands of young Americans to a foreign land knowing many of them won’t return home alive. This required crafting a message to convince Americans to support the war and to sacrifice their own. Sound familiar?
So how I observe the war calculates into how I observe the current stance of America with other nations. To give you something concrete – take the “War on Terrorism.” To be more ambiguous, take the “War on Drugs.” The Vietnam War is a training ground for the on-going analysis of propaganda – it informs us on the current wars that are waged – visible and invisible, abroad and right here in our backyards.
These all directly involve me: my sons and daughters, my friends who are part of the armed forces, and most of all, those things that many of us take for granted that add to the global issues that cause conflict, global poverty, and marginalization. It informs who I am ethically as a Vietnamese American.
Bác Loan arrives with Ba in the afternoon. I’ve helped Mẹ clear the master bedroom, locate soft foam slippers for his feet, set clean sheets on the bed, opened the window that faces the east. When he arrives, we take him to his favorite restaurant, Franco-Vietnamese food. “Yes!” I whisper and clamor alongside him. In the restaurant cà phê sữa đá is set on the table, Poulet Ratio au Vin Rouge is served. Bác Loan converses with the Vietnamese owner in French. In the background patrons fight to pay his check before the food has even been ordered. He can barely chew his food as strangers come from all corners of the restaurant to shake his hand, offer their thanks. Invitations for dinner, lunch, breakfast begin to fill all his days in California. Ba puffs up his chest, “He’s staying with me, with his god-daughter,” he says pushing me forward. I choke on an éclair. “Chào Bác,” I bow. “Okay then, for dinner at least,” they insist. Bác Loan smiles, leans on his cane and makes his way to the door. Along Bolsa Avenue more people approach him. He is like a dragon, making his rounds. There are ten times more Vietnamese shops that have opened since he last visited. “This really is like walking through Sài Gòn,” he laughs.
In all honestly, General Loan professed not to care. He accepted his place in history with a certain amount of grace. But I care. The half-truth irks me. Or maybe its being lied to that bothers me. It’s my history. I want it stated in full, not conveniently edited to appease a national need. I get to decide who I respect and why, not the media, not a political agenda.
For me it swings full circle right back to my world now. My Vietnamese American world in this diverse country – this country where a shade of the truth shimmering from a cleverly crafted lie or a slimly trimmed half-truth can be used to justify whole-scale chronic marginalization of communities of people.
Truth is a proactive activity. To assume without some analysis, especially in this Internet age, that all information provided to us is complete and truthful is just lazy. Why would we do anything less for our past?
With the whole truth, you can define your own history. With the whole truth, you can decide to recognize those who served and sacrificed for us. For me, whether I call him “hero” or not, I honor General Loan’s service and his sacrifices, and the passion he had for the Vietnam our parents fought for.
In my opinion, only knowledge of the whole truth will allow you to create a response and/or a solution that is holistic and sustainable – one that evolves. With a half-truth, all you can do is make a bandage. My favorite bandages are the ones with Spiderman to cover the boo-boo. Eventually, though, all bandages lose their adhesiveness, even the waterproof ones. Trust me, I know. I’ve got the scars to prove it.
In the year before his death, I set clean sheets on my own bed when Bác Loan came. Traveling non-stop, he visited every person he called family or friend, his feet never staying still just like that fateful day on January 31st, 1968. He had just missed Ba who slipped out of lucidity less than a month before his arrival, the stroke affecting his entire body. Mẹ sat in the garden, her aging fingers picking at herbs she swears will heal Ba. “We are both old men…” he said, sitting next to my father as they both gazed out the window. Bác Loan’s eyes were sharp and clear, my father’s lost. I smoothed back Ba’s hair, pushed his mouth close, wiped the dribble. Bác Loan grabbed my hand, “Take good care of my old friend. He was a good soldier – one of the few of my men that has survived. He’s like my brother,” he said. “Yes, of course,” I bowed, feeling strangely in debt to him for my own father.
I enjoyed his last visit to our home. After he left the nostalgia of his presence in our lives, always watchful, always warm, always generous remains fixed in the air we breath. Some part of me knew it would be the last time I would see him. Another part of me knew he would never be completely out of our lives. I did not know him then, in that time in 1968, but I know him now. The dragon, the hero, the man.
The poem and story in italics is my fictionalized metaphorical interpretation of the attitudes of some South Vietnamese about Nguyễn Ngọc Loan based upon research and review of Vietnamese media, Internet blogs, online discussions and chats following Vietnamese blogs and articles, etc. Though these portions are loosely based upon the public figure, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
 Tom Tiede, “Ex-Viet cop: I want to live a quiet life,” Ludington Daily News, March 26, 1988, p. 10.
 See also, equally lacking in journalistic diligence, Tiede’s article “Ex-Viet General Unrepentant” in which Tiede claims that there were “eyewitness accounts” that Loan had “calmly selected the man from a group of prisoners” without citing any sources of said “eyewitnesses.” Moreover, no such account has appeared in any other source discussing “Saigon Execution” that quote directly from individuals who were present such as American photographer Eddie Adams. Tiede, Tom, “Ex-Viet General Unrepentant,” The Pittsburgh Press, Feb. 26, 1977.
Z.M. Quỳnh huddles in a room tinged with blue nursing calloused hands worn down from the chronic transcription of restless dreams. past lives have included scattered jaunts through urban minefields with each misstep hinting at a life less easily mapped out by this amateur cartographer. irrationally drawn to moving mountains one stone at a time, quỳnh is hell bent on creating a machine to extend weekends one additional day (just one – that’s all she needs!) so she can finish her novel about the aftermath of the Việt Nam war.
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