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Denise Chong

The Girl in the Picture

The remarkable story of Vietnam's most famous casualty


ISBN: 0-7432-0703-3

Gelesen: 2005

This is the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was caught on photograph, running naked and burning after being hit in a napalm attack. The photograph is one of the most famous photographs from the Indochina war, the photographer, Nick Ut, was awarded with the Pulitzer prize that year.

The story begins with her maternal grandparents and how her parents settled down in Trang Bang, near the Cambodian border on Highway 1 (the old colonial Route National 1, connecting Phnom Penh to Saigon) and, by hard labour, became moderately wealthy citizens of that town. It gives some political background information as well, about what was going on in the U.S. administration and between them and North Vietnam and China, and then slowly develops the story to the point when the fateful air attack occured, on June 8th, 1972. The moment of the attack itself is described in minute detail, filling most of two chapters (one chapter ends in the very moment when some napalm-filled canisters are in midair), a page somtimes describing events that happen in less than a minute, but with an incredible density of details, not boring elaborations.

The story then continues: how Nick Ut takes Kim Phuc to a hospital, how the picture almost didn't get published because of regulations concerning nudity on the front page of newspapers (a photographer from another agency claims he had shot the same scene, but that the picture was destroyed by his editor), and how only by the instant fame Kim Phuc received through the picture, she could be transferred to a western hospital that was actually capable of keeping her alive.

Later, Kim Phuc was used by the local authorities for propaganda purposes to an extent that prevented her from successfully studying. With the help of prime minister Pham Van Dong (who seems to be a decent chap), Phuc was finally able to evade the media attention and study in Cuba. (The Vietnamese administration is actually quite decentralised, with a lot of power residing with local authorities, so Pham Van Dong can't simply order the authorities of Phuc's home province around.) She arrived at a time in Cuba when things in Vietnam, thanks to Doi Moi, the Vietnamese perestroika (there still is no Vietnamese glasnost), began to turn better and in Cuba, thanks to Fidel Castro's opposition against developments in the Eastern Bloc, turned worse.

In Cuba, Kim Phuc met a fellow Vietnamese student, whom she married. On their return flight from honeymoon in Moscow, the two of them defected during a refueling stop in Canada. They now live in Canada.

Besides telling the story of Kim Phuc's life, Denise Chong weaves in background information about the war, about life in Vietnam and Cuba, and international politics. The author is a Canadian as well, so the book is not too friendly towards the U.S. engagement in Vietnam, but critical to the South Vietnamese pseudo democracy as well as to the communists who later ruled the country. In particular, it shows how peasants get between the fronts and are forced to take sides in a war in which they have nothing to gain but everything to lose. On the negative side, the book is very "christian". It unreflectedly accepts christian values, such as forgivenness and reconciliation, and it puts a lot of emphasis on Kim Phuc's conversion to christianity (still in Vietnam), and on how the american military adivsor who believs himself to have ordered the raid on Trang Bang, became a pastor (as has Phuc's husband, who was a convinced supporter of communism before their defection to Canada).

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