If you are of a certain age, you almost certainly remember Kim Phuc vividly, even though you may not know her name. She was the nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl who was burned by napalm on June 8, 1972, and whose image in a prize-winning photo taken by South Vietnamese AP photographer Nick Ut became an iconic and influential force that helped end the war.
The picture of Kim running down a road near the village of Trang Bang screaming in agony and terror, her clothes torn off and her body badly burned, shocked and outraged an America that had become profoundly weary of the war and its horrors. The photo was Picasso’s Guernica come to life, even more horrific because it was not just an artist’s imaginative and stylized rendition of the bombing’s effects, but the real thing.
As familiar as the photo has become, the story behind it is less so. For example, if the introductory paragraph of this essay had read: “She was the nine-year-old girl who was burned by napalm dropped by American forces in South Vietnam,” how many readers would have caught the error?
In fact, it was the South Vietnamese who were doing the bombing, but the idea that Kim was burned at the hands of Americans persists. That is only one of several common misconceptions about the attack, because the incident has been widely misrepresented and misunderstood through errors of omission and commission.
In many accounts — up to and including this recent AP story in honor of the photo’s 40th anniversary — the crucial role of the North Vietnamese is downplayed. The AP article’s only mention of their role in the battle is in a sentence that states Kim and her family had taken shelter in a temple for three days “as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village.”
The phrase almost makes it sound as though the claims of the two sides were about equal. But in reality those North Vietnamese forces were invading the South Vietnamese village of Trang Bang that Kim and her family called home, and the South Vietnamese forces were defending it from them (by 1972, the vast majority of Communist forces fighting in the South were Northerners).
What happened that June day 40 years ago was depicted in this original report on the incident. It was filed by Christopher Wain, a British journalist on the scene who witnessed the battle, the airstrike, the napalming of Kim and the others, and who also assisted her in getting help afterward.
Wain described a firefight between South Vietnamese forces and the North Vietnamese infantry who were dug into bunkers on the outskirts of the village. Because the white markers that the South Vietnamese had dropped to indicate the Northern positions had been dissipated in the rain, the South Vietnamese airplanes made the error of dropping bombs near their own forces instead. Some South Vietnamese infantry (ARVN) ran from the temple to escape the sudden danger, along with a group of civilians (including Kim) caught in the crossfire whom the ARVN forces were waving to safety. Another South Vietnamese plane came by, and according to Wain:
I suppose all the pilot could see was figures running, which is what he would expect the North Vietnamese to be doing. You cannot identify people when you are 100 feet up and flying at 300 miles per hour, so he flew in and dropped four canisters of napalm on top of them …
As this report points out, the fleeing ARVN members were armed and running with the civilians toward the regular ARVN units, a situation that contributed to the pilot’s perception that they were the Northern enemy determined to attack the Southern positions. The ARVN soldiers carrying their weapons can clearly be seen in Ut’s photo, behind the burned children.
Once the setting and protagonists are understood, the situation becomes apparent: a tragic case of friendly fire and civilian casualties in a war in which the Northern enemy counted on the fact that civilians and children would be hurt and killed, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs would be taken, and the American public would shrink even further from a conflict in which the lines between combatants and civilians could rarely be cleanly drawn and these horrific errors were inevitable.