The truth behind ‘Napalm Girl’
The iconic photograph has become the subject of media-driven myths
At the center of the photograph was 9-year-old Kim Phuc, her arms outstretched, her face etched in terror and pain. She was naked and badly burned. The image has become a timeless statement about war and its horrors, but it has also become embroidered by media-driven myths.
No fewer than three prominent myths have grown up around “Napalm Girl,” namely: that the photograph shows the effects of a U.S. bombing mission, that it was so evocative it swung public opinion against the war, and that it had the extraordinary effect of hastening the conflict’s end.
Calling out these myths does nothing to diminish the photograph’s emotional impact. But debunking them does free “Napalm Girl” from association with effects that are quite implausible, thus allowing a more accurate understanding of a remarkable visual artifact of a bitter war.
No myth of the “Napalm Girl” is more corrosive than the notion that Mr. Ut’s photograph captured a destructive napalm strike by U.S. warplanes. Such claims have surfaced periodically over the years. In recent months, the
But as news reports at the time made clear (among them a front-page article June 9, 1972, in The Baltimore Sun), the napalm bombing was carried out by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.
A related myth is that “Napalm Girl” packed such a visceral punch that it swung U.S. public opinion against the war.
But in fact, public opinion had turned against the war years earlier, as a
By May 1971 — more than a year before Mr. Ut took the photograph — 61 percent of respondents said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to Vietnam; 28 percent said it had not.
Nor did “Napalm Girl” hasten the war’s end, a myth that even AP has embraced. In an article in 2012, the news agency
The war did not end until April 1975, when North Vietnam’s military conquered the South.
For most American ground forces, though, the conflict had been winding down long before the aerial attack at Trang Bang. Under a policy of “
American strength in Vietnam fell steadily from a peak of 543,00 troops in April 1969 to 60,000 in early June 1972. By then, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from Vietnam. The draw-down of U.S. forces was neither accelerated nor otherwise influenced by the publication of “Napalm Girl.”
What, then, explains the persistence of these media myths? From where do they spring?
An inclination to indict the morality of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam helps explain the notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm at Trang Bang.
The photograph’s timelessness also contributes to the tenacity of these myths: Because “Napalm Girl” is so evocative, it is easy to believe that it must have exerted powerful and sweeping effects when it was published. Assigning mythical properties to the photograph has become a way to confirm its exceptionality.