1968: Nguyen Van Lem

Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps the war’s most unforgettable image.

An American cameraman also captured it in on celluloid. Caution: This clip shows … well, a man being shot in the head at point-blank range.

Though the image brought Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he would express discomfort with it later in life, and eulogized General Loan in Time magazine when he died in the U.S. in 1998.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members; that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer.

Adams’ editor has said that many such summary executions were taking place during the Battle of Saigon — a broader context to the image no matter its specific fairness to the executioner.

But of course, the shot gained its deeper resonance from the growing disgust with the Vietnam War … and from its concise tableau of a century’s brutality. Here is a frozen image of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Like any great work of art, Adams’ serendipitous photograph took on a life of its own … and a tapestry of meanings richer than its creator could ever have intended.

On this day..

26 thoughts on “1968: Nguyen Van Lem

  1. The Viet Nam war began (before the U. S. became involved) in the country of French Indo-China. So maybe, just maybe, the “Viet Cong” were in the right as they were throwing off the chains of colonialism.

    • Yeah, those horrible chains of coloinalism..the guy who got shot had actually just murdered civilian family members while wearing civilian clothing. In order to turn South Vietmnam into another smothering, closed society with no voting and few if any rights as we know them. You know, like the Democratic Republic of North Korea…where the execution of family members is encoded into law…

  2. The civilian clad VC terrorist had just murdered many family members of S.VN soldiers along with the serving S. VN military people who were captured unarmed.

    He was caught at the scene and admitted what he had done. The terror attack of Tet 68 was still in progress.

    The General had every right by military S.VN law to execute him.

    The VC murdered thousands of civilians at Hue during Tet, woman and children- bond their arms and shot them in the head. Buried them in mass graves,

    Even they are ashamed of it.

    The leftist press hid the truth about the photo, used it to aid their Communists for their own reasons.

    RIP General Nguyen Ngoc Loan

  3. Execution date Jan 31 1968
    Photo publication date Feb1

    We should always be careful not to commit summary execution of history claiming “justification by google”

    Remember – the internet is full of erroneous information

  4. If you saw some one execute an Isis prisoner who was said to be the the one who beheaded a journalist would you or anyone else care…. NO you wouldn’t care … What is the difference between a terrorist who commits a barbaric act or a VC….I just remembered WHAT IF IT WAS THE WRONG iSIS GUY ?Still no one would give a shit

  5. “The only evidence we have that the victim was a criminal is from the mouth of his killer.”

    This quote from the first comment pretty much reinforces the entire problem with this issue and many similar ones. Absolute and 100% incontrovertible proof does not and will never exist. We only have accounts of people who were apparently there and witnessed it.

    But that’s just how the world works I guess.

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  8. No war crime there. Any person who is found behind the lines of a belligerent without a proper uniform and is proven to be an enemy soldier/agent, he is considered a spy and is therefore NOT eligible for treatment as a POW. Summary executions can apply if the captor wishes to do. Lem was found with a bunch of dead familes and VC police officers and was captured in civilian clothing behind South Vietnamese lines. He’s not only a spy but a war criminal as well.

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  11. Let bygone be bygone. We have been tortured enough by the war, by what we have suffered from, and by the sad memory of the past

  12. You might want to take down the video of the “shooting,” as the account of the person who posted it has been terminated, so the video is no longer available.

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  14. Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding The Pain Of Others maintains that this photo was staged. The prisoner was led out to the street where a group of journalists were waiting. What I found hard to stomach was the war crimes museum in Ho Chi Minh.

  15. There was no war crime here, however shocking the action may have been. A combatant in war, as Lem was, is required under the laws of war to fight in a clearly recognizable uniform. Lem was waging war in ordinary clothing, for the purposes of not being recognized as a combatant. Under the laws of war, such a combatant has no rights under the Geneva Convention or any other protocol. They can be summarily shot if the captor so chooses. And so they chose.

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  17. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan should have been tried for war crimes. Just why did the story come out that Nguyen Van Lem (the Vietcong captive) was a murderous person? I suppose that these are only the words of the general in defense of himself specially when his American neighborhood learned of his real identity.

  18. Yes, this photogaph is power full, but a photograph is like a book. One has to read the whole book to understand it. The executed individual was a Viet Cong member. The Viet Cong did one thing and one thing only, which was to murder innocent members of the legitimate government of South Vietnam.

  19. It’s an amazing composition; that just makes its spontaneity so much more remarkable.

    This would be a completely different picture if the executioner’s chest and/or the prisoner’s back faced the camera.

  20. In my opinion, this is easily the most powerful photograph of all time. The calmness of General Loan sandwiched between the tension on the faces of the soldier on the left and Nguy?n V?n Lém just speaks volumes about how treacherous this war was. Everytime I watch the video, I still jump when Loan fires the shot.

  21. The fact that there were “many summary executions” without trial does not excuse this one. The “But mom, all the other kids are doing it” defense has never been accepted in a court of law.

    The only evidence we have that the victim was a criminal is from the mouth of his killer.

    Nguyen Ngoc Loan never faced justice for his murder, and in fact lived out a life of relative ease in the United States. He should have been tried for war crimes.

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