Feb. 1, 1968, Saigon police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executes Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém


One of the most popular images from Vietnam War was the iconic photo of 1968 Saigon police chief executing Viet Cong officer. You can sense the brutality in every angle. You can feel the pain and the suffering while facing his death in the coldest of circumstances. However, even the photographer Eddie Adams, the winner of Pulitzer Prize for this particular photo stated that he wished he didn’t make that photo because it only captured one tiny detail of brutality. Even if the world was on its feet because it saw something that was so real that hurts, we must understand that this picture is just a drop in the ocean of whatever happened in those days. Photo cannot analyze an entire war, but this particular picture has its beautiful and naturalistic moments because Eddie Adams immortalized the moment of death, the expression of soldiers face as the bullet pierces his head. If you examine closely, you can see the bullet passing out through the victim’s skull.

When you look at it from a distance, you can see that uniformed officer is gunning an innocent victim so the first emotion is disgust and anger because you are witnessing a war crime. That is the reason for its symbolic cult following by war protesters against the Vietnam War.

The victim’s name was Nguyen Van Lem and he was no civilian, but a member of the Viet Cong. Also, he was not just a regular member; he was an assassin and the leader of the death squad, terrorist group which was killing Vietnamese Police officers and their families. His team was trying to take down a number of officials, including the shooter from the picture, Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Before that, Nguyen Van Lem was responsible for the murder of the General’s senior officers and his family.

Another interesting thing was that when Nguyen Van Lem was captured, he was performing a rather gory act. He killed seven police officers and their families, so he was responsible for 34 deaths, just in that particular moment. The execution was an example that terrorist acts cannot be tolerated. If we understand what it means to be radical, revolutionary and with so much death on our hands, we cannot agree with the notion that Nguyen Van Lem was doing a good thing even though he thought he was. The paradox of this particular photo is that it doesn’t tell you anything of the past. It is just captured a moment in which you can see the brutality, but there was another side of the story. Of course, the historical facts are unimportant because this particular picture struck us at an emotional level.

Eddie Addams stated that Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a good man but in a very bad situation, and this picture only tried to paint the actual scenario. A few months later Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was wounded and his life became a living hell. There is an interesting fact that General moved to the USA, but when he arrived, the Immigration service wanted to deport him immediately because of the photo. Even though immigration service approached Eddie Addams with an idea to testify against general Loan, he did the opposite thing and that was the main reason he was allowed to stay.

This picture has its own meaning and it will always be a symbol of suffering and war crime, but the photo cannot give you a full picture of what happened and who was guilty of what and why. So if we look at this photo as a piece of art, we can say that it will remain as it is for a long time.