Dear Reader, I have to confess that I’ve been reading ‘The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War’ by Denise Chong for longer than I like to think about – about eight weeks, actually. I downloaded it on to my Kindle in mid-August, just after returning from Vietnam and
Cambodia, on the recommendation of one of the other members of our Vietnam holiday group. He told me that, when, during the course of a thirteen hour flight from Saigon to London Gatwick, he read the bit where little Kim Phuc got hit by napalm, he cried, and that he completed it a few days later. I’m afraid I didn’t finish it until last Thursday (17 October, to be exact).
That it took me so long to read is no reflection on the book at all, and much more to do with me being very busy over the last few months: term re-starting, lots and lots of visits and visitors and, of course, daughter having a baby. This last event involved me having to knit at the time of day when I would normally read. A terrible imposition, as you can imagine!
‘The Girl in the Picture’ is, as it says in the full title, a biography of Kim Phuc, who was hit by a napalm bomb in 1972. It is commonly believed that the napalm bomb which struck Phuc was dropped by the Americans – a mistake which the (still) Communist Vietnamese government does nothing to correct – but, in fact, it was Phuc’s own government, the South Vietnamese, who made this error. Of course, the Americans must bear some of the blame, for giving such a dangerous toy to the incompetent military arm of an incompetent – and also corrupt – government. This napalm attack would turn out to the most disastrous friendly-fire incident of all time, because The Photograph did get taken and its appearance in newspapers over the world would turn Americans at home wholeheartedly against the war (assuming they weren’t part of the large sector who opposed it already).
But where did this leave poor nine year old Kim Phuc? In pain and in poverty, but with a loving South Vietnamese family around her. The napalm attack was not actually, the saddest part of this biography. What almost drove Phuc into the ground was the way in which the Communist Vietnamese government exploited Kim Phuc’s fame and used her for propoganda purposes over the course of several decades. They disrupted her studies at university, by demanding her attendance at media events several times a week. They ran her mother’s noodle business into the ground. They sent her all over the world, with minders breathing down her neck at her every turn, urging her to collect gifts of money and in kind, which the minders then stole. They give her the uniform of a medical student so that she can be photographed as prospering under the Hanoi regime, then insist she gives it back immediately, before she returns to her hovel in Saigon. They give her a (unknown) baby to hold and give photographers the impression it is hers. For the largest part of the story, Phuc, had barely enough to eat and, despite occasional surgical interventions, an inadequate supply of medicines. All this Denise Chong describes faithfully and in enormous detail. The Communists’ exploitation of Phuc takes up the largest part of the biography, but, even when she eventually escapes, the ravages of napalm on her body and of having been a propaganda tool for so long, leave her unable to earn her living in any way other than being ‘The Girl in the Picture’.
Denise brings out Phuc’s character loud and clear. She is a very strong woman, mentally and emotionally, resourceful and independent, and full of courage. Despite the many outrages committed against her, Phuc’s approach to every situation is measured and restrained. The reader finishes the book full of admiration for her. What I did not expect was her moving away from the Cadocai religion of her family to embrace Christianity. ‘This is an American religion,” says Pham Van Dong, the only Vietnamese leader who is kind and supportive towards her.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are interested in the history of the Far East. It’s a grim, but illuminating, read.