Whether or not we know the story behind a picture or not, our reactions to images are always valid, and most often right.
Had the picture of Don Ayala and Abdul Salam been taken moments earlier (see previously posted blog below), it could have been as powerful as Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph of Saigon’s police chief, Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner on the street forty years ago, shown here. I’m sure President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates breathed a sigh of relief that picture wasn't as powerful as this one, and that the “justifiable rage” spin quelled any outcries of injustice.
I was a high school student in the D.C. area, who read the Washington Post in the morning and the Evening Star at night, and saw this picture in the newspaper. The war was also on TV, and I followed it as carefully as my mother and sisters because my father had been there once, and was in the process of learning Vietnamese to go back again, this time as one of 44 senior province advisors. The back story I read at the time, 1968, was that some of Loan’s family had been killed in a dawn sapper (terrorist) attack and this man was captured. I remember believing that as horrific as the picture appeared, the killing of this Vietcong by the General was a case of justifiable rage.
For many Americans, knowing the back story didn’t matter. This picture was one of many that lent itself to moral outrage and spurred the anti-war movement. It helped Richard Nixon get elected on his promise to end the war—delayed until he was re-elected, of course. The bottom line is this and other images hastened the end of the war. Who hasn’t seen the Napalm Girl?
It is much, much easier to spin words, than pictures. Great pictures etch themselves on the mind due to their singularity and focus. Words are always in flux, while images are generally immutable.
This is precisely why President Obama listened to Secretary Gates, and reneged on his promise to release the torture pictures. One or more of them could become a horrific symbol of this country’s immoral, unjustifiable and illegal decision to torture. It may bring louder cries to bring those to justice who made the decision to violate the law and torture. If torture stays above the fold in print and online, and leads the news shows, people will link the torture to the wars. Interrogations that caused death and needless suffering, often to innocents, occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. We haven’t seen the War in Iraq and Afghanistan like we did the Vietnam War, and we won’t as long as a handful of corporations, some who make the machinery of war, control the media.
If we see the street execution of Salam Abdul and this Vietcong as "justifiable under the circumstances," it is only because we view the incidents out of context. The circumstances of both these deaths is solely the result of U.S. making war in these countries on the basis of lies, without justification, and without the support of the people here or in those countries. If we hadn’t been defending our puppet regimes in the South Vietnam, there would have been no sappers. Had we not been defending our puppet regime in Kabul, Loyd or Ayala wouldn’t have been in a village in Afghanistan with a platoon of soldiers, and Paula Loyd and Abdul Salam would be alive, and Don Ayala wouldn't have had his life turned upside down.