Forgotten Warriors The Girl in the Picture (Kim Phuc) Back to Reviews

Escaping her Image:
Kim Phuc’s Life on the Run

The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc and the Photograph that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War;
by Denise Chong; Viking
reviewed by Gerald Nicosia

Kim Phuc may be an unknown to the generation weaned on “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” but it would be hard to find anyone over 45 who has not seen that harrowing image of her--nine years old, totally naked, and screaming in agony—as she runs down a refugee-filled road in Vietnam, away from the napalm bomb that has critically burned her and into the lens of Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s camera.

Ut, a Vietnamese stringer for AP’s Saigon office, won the Pulitzer and numerous other awards for that 1972 photo, which was published in papers and magazines around the world, and forever changed Kim Phuc from one more anonymous young war victim into an icon of twentieth-century pain, devastation, and yet determined survival. As Denise Chong writes of the photo in her biography of Phuc, “The Girl in the Picture”: “The state of anxiety conveyed by the camera’s eye concentrates the minds of us, the viewers, simultaneously dispatching each of us into our own personal history of darkness. We privately flail at our human limitations, failings and self-indulgence in the face of the chaos and wrongdoing of war.”

More than any other Vietnam book in recent years, “The Girl in the Picture” confronts us with the ceaseless, ever-compounding casualties of modern warfare. Someone, maybe it was Howard Zinn, wrote that recent wars have been wars chiefly against civilians; and in the case of Vietnam, the war victims were often children and babies. It is because Chong succeeds in making Kim a real, living human child for us—playing at her grandparents’ house, picking fruit in the family’s orchard, helping out at her mother’s renowned noodle shop in Trang Bang—that we are so horrified by what the Vietnam War has taken from her.

Chong’s book allows us to see the war through the eyes of workingclass Vietnamese. Kim’s family have struggled for generations to achieve a life just a level or two above abject poverty—and to obtain a decent education and a modicum of security for their children. Suddenly their town and their very home are overrun almost daily by soldiers from both sides—the Viet Cong and Communists from the North, and the South Vietnamese troops who are supposedly defending them—and both sides spell trouble, loss, and possibly even death. It is no wonder their allegiance shifts from day to day, depending on whose gun-barrels they happen to be staring down at the moment. In truth, they don’t care for either side; they just want to live in a country without guns, bombs, and mortars raining continuous hurt upon them and all they hold dear.

Through the use of reporters’ detailed notes, Chong recreates with haunting vividness the day that Kim and her family are driven from their refuge in the local Caodai temple and then mistakenly dive-bombed by South Vietnamese planes, who had been directed to napalm an attacking Viet Cong force. The subsequent inferno of blazing jellied gasoline—one of modern man’s most horrific weapons—kills two of Kim’s cousins and burns her back and arms virtually down to the bone. Yet the terror and anguish of that day pale beside the years of excruciatingly difficult healing that follow—debridement of wounds, skin grafts, operations to loosen stiffened scar-tissue, constant pain, debilitating weakness, perennial headaches and nightmares, and other burn sequelae such as asthma and diabetes. This is not an easy book to read, but it is a book that everyone should read, especially those who think that a war ends the day that hostilities cease. Indeed, Kim Phuc is a living testimonial to the fact that wars do not end, that the damage of war lives on virtually forever.

At one of her many moments of great despair, Kim goes to see a fortune-teller, who tells her not to worry, that kind people will always come along to help her through even the worst crises in her life. “The Girl in the Picture,” as much as it is Kim’s story, is also the story of these dozens of Good Samaritans, beginning with Ut, who, despite the need to rush his film back to Saigon, takes the time to drive her to a competent hospital in Cu Chi. Left in Trang Bang with her massive third- and fourth-degree burns, Kim would surely have died. But even in a better hospital in Saigon, she is just a day or two from death when a Vietnamese nurse, Lien Huong, and her boss, Dr. My, plead with the administrator of the “Barsky unit,” an elite American-funded hospital for burn victims, to admit Kim.

Among the many others who “save” Kim at various times are war correspondent Peter Arnett, who insists that her story must be told; German photojournalist Perry Kretz, who returns again and again, often at his own peril, to document Kim’s ongoing struggles; Communist Vietnam’s elderly Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who intervenes repeatedly on her behalf to keep the Party bureaucracy from depriving her of an education, a career, and a personal life; and American antiwar activist Merle Ratner, who (though she advised Kim against doing so) provides the money, contacts, and psychological support that enable Kim to eventually defect from her miserable life as a Communist trophy in Cuba to the apolitical privacy of a small-town in Canada, a new family of her own making, and a truly satisfying career, working for UNESCO as a kind of universal ambassador for forgiveness and peaceful coexistence and overseeing the Chicago-based Kim Foundation to help child victims of war.

In the end, this is a surprisingly upbeat book. Chong emphasizes the power of Kim’s personality to transform the worst horrors of war—as well as the exploitative nature of those who would profit from war, like the petty bureaucrats who seize upon her propaganda value to feather their own nests—into the building blocks of a saner future. “The cycle of war repeats and repeats,” Chong writes, “the girl in the picture is ever running.” Yet, “in paying homage to her as a living symbol of wartime horror and suffering, others … feel a hopeful sense of being able to mitigate the darkness together.”


Forgottn Warriors The Girl in the Picture (Kim Phuc) Back to Reviews