The Photo That Helped Change a War

NGUYEN NGOC LOAN kills viet cong
South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. (AP/Eddie Adams)

My teen-aged support of the Vietnam War ended the day I saw the above photograph – taken on this date 47 years ago – although I probably didn’t see it until later in the month in a national magazine such as Newsweek or Rolling Stone. My hometown newspapers supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, regardless, their editors would have deemed the image too graphic for the good folks at home.

Whenever I finally did see the photo, I remember thinking that the country where such an event could take place is not one I’d care to die for.  Even get a haircut for. And I also remember thinking that this is a fight between brothers – the shooter and the shot looked enough alike to be blood relatives – so the rest of the world should leave them to it.

We are flooded with images daily, hourly now, and I don’t believe that a single photograph could ever again have the impact that this picture (and a later, even more devastating photo known as “Napalm Girl”) had on the course of a war. I feel certain that’s not a good thing, but I’m not sure why and I don’t have the first clue how to fix it.

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