It was “just some guy shooting somebody” Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams said at the time. But of course it wasn’t. When Saigon Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan casually put a bullet into the head of the trussed Viet Cong Capt. Nguyen Van Lem, the shot reverberated around the world. Adams’ photograph became the iconic image of everything that was wrong with America’s war in Vietnam. In “No Wider War,” the second volume of a new two-part history of the Vietnam War, author Sergio Miller weighs the moment when American moral revulsion sentenced the vicious conflict in Indochina.
‘By 1968, Saigon had become the greatest jungle in Vietnam where everything was for sale. The city was more a restless, broiling energy than a defined urban space. More than two million people were squeezed into central Saigon making it the most crowded city in the world. Greater Saigon, which more than doubled the population, was a labyrinth of shanty towns which now extended 28 miles to the west, 20 miles to the south and 35 miles to the north. Its inhabitants lived with the sound of artillery fire and the rumble of B-52 strikes. At night, a midnight curfew restored some semblance of peace. The traffic was insufferable, with over half a million motorcycles creating a permanent smell of acrid, two-stroke fumes. There was a lack of reliable electricity and water. The drug trade and a black market in military ware, including weapons and ammunition, thrived. Street hawkers, conmen, and prostitutes all engaged in a frantic scramble for the American dollar. With as many as 25,000 American troops annually spending $200 million, mostly in the city, this dollar was not hard to find. It was estimated that the average bar girl was making twice the prime minister’s salary. Saigon was a city being raped and now it was the communists’ turn.
There were two iconic moments in Saigon, and both had everything to do with image and nothing to do with actuality. The first was the assault on the US Embassy by 19 members of C-10 PLAF City Sapper Battalion. It began in the early hours of the morning of January 31 with a massive explosion that tore a hole in the perimeter wall on Thang Nhut Boulevard. By dawn, after much confusion and some hairy close-quarter gun fights, it was all over. Eighteen of the assailants lay dead in the gardens like bloodied rag dolls. Just one survived, wounded, a slight young man dressed in shorts and plimsolls. Five Americans had been killed. But for the heavy, cherrywood doors of the Chancery, it could have been worse. When the attack fell, all the South Vietnamese guards fled and the Saigon First Precinct Police refused to help.
The audacious but ultimately suicidal attack was swiftly snuffed out, but not on the news wires, where the echoes of gun fire in a US embassy rung loud. The early evening news channels carried the story with all its drama – and exaggerated accounts – shocking an American public. How could the symbol of American power in Vietnam have been so easily attacked? How did the enemy penetrate the heart of Saigon with impunity? The attack on the US Embassy, more than any other event on the first night of the Tet Offensive, profoundly shook public confidence in the narrative promoted by the Johnson administration. The shocking television images did not look, smell, or feel like victory. They looked like a misbegotten war, plain in every American living room.
The second event took place at the northern end of Ngo Gia Tu Street in Cholon, and involved a rather weedy-looking Saigon police chief called Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Today, this is the site of “Cozy,” an Italian sofa shop. The inoffensive Loan would end his days as a one-legged manager of a pizza parlor in a Washington suburb, but not before involuntarily offering perhaps the iconic image of the entire war.
There were two other elements to the story: a .38 Special Smith & Wesson, and a captured Viet Cong captain called Nguyen Van Lem. The unfortunate barefoot Lem, dressed in a red plaid shirt, knew he was in trouble from the moment he was hustled down the street, arms trussed and flanked by bullyingly triumphant ARVN soldiers. He had been found hiding near the An Quang pagoda, two hundred yards away, armed with a pistol. At the end of the street, Eddie Adams, an Associated Press reporter, and Vo Su, an NBC cameraman, picked up their gear. After a fruitless morning, over the course of which neither had found a newsworthy story to report, here was some action, at last.
Lem was brought to Loan. Loan waved the soldiers to one side, lifted his .38 Special Smith & Wesson to Lem’s head, and pulled the trigger. Lem fell like a stone, blood gushing from his insensible head. No words were exchanged. The banality of the miserable execution was mesmeric.
Yet Lem’s abrupt demise was unremarkable. A similar scene had probably been played out a thousand times in Vietnam’s endless wars. What transformed the execution was the camera. It is one thing to know that a war is immoral, ugly, and brutalizing, and quite another for it to be exhibited so matter-of-factly. Loan could have been stubbing out a cigarette on the pavement. It was “some guy shooting somebody” as Adams laconically recalled. A child crossed the road to take a look. It seemed the most natural thing to do. The blood from Lem’s brain ran away in three graceful rivulets, like a pattern on the Mekong Delta. Loan disappeared from shot, as if nothing had happened.
But something quite momentous had happened. Adams’ famous photograph of the “few grams of lead that are caught forever between barrel and head” exploded in many more heads. Every last, dumb patriotic cliché tumbled with the lifeless Lem. Was this really what Americans were fighting for? “It was clear at that point,” CIA officer Norm Gardner later reflected, “that the Americans weren’t going to stand for this crap.”
Truth also took a bullet to the head on that morning. Adams’ photograph had international aftershocks – how could it not? Loan the executioner had to be redeemed, in some way, and Lem demonized. But how do you redeem a cold-blooded executioner caught on camera committing a war crime? By an inverted and perverse victimhood, characteristic of the wider exculpation of atrocities committed over the course of the war: Loan was the real victim, not Lem. So grew the stories that Lem had been responsible for throat-slitting; that he had murdered women and children; that he had been found at the site of a mass grave even. None of this was remotely true. The latter appear to have been conflation with an Associated Press story of a decapitated ARVN officer and his murdered family in a northern Saigon suburb – or nowhere near were Lem was found.
Adams was a former marine, a personal friend of General Lewis Walt, and later described Lem as “a hero” who should be mourned. At the time, as fellow photographer Horst Faas, then photo editor for AP News recalls, Adams was actually excited by his coup, felt no guilt, and pretended to be nonchalant. Adams’ later sense of guilt over the image stemmed from the trouble Loan experienced in exile in America when the powerful engines of Congress and the Immigration and Naturalization Service combined to almost expel the former brigadier general as a war criminal, only saved by a personal intervention from Jimmy Carter. He was charged with “moral turpitude,” a malaise shared with his excusers.’
“No Wider War: A history of the Vietnam War Volume 2: 1965–75″ will be available for purchase May 11, 2021.
Sergio Miller is a former British Army intelligence corps officer who served in Special Forces. He was deployed to Northern Ireland and undertook assignments in South America and East Asia. In the first Gulf War he served as an intelligence briefer to the UK Joint Commander. Since leaving the regular armed forces he has worked in the defense industry. He continues to support the Reserves and writes regularly on defense subjects. This is his second published book. He is based in London.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.