War Images: “Napalm Girl”

War Images: “Napalm Girl”


A picture is worth a thousand words. When we imagine a black-and-white image of an agonized little naked girl—arms spread out—running among other children with a blazing village in the backdrop, even those unfamiliar with the incident’s context would recall the picture of the Napalm Girl, shot by photojournalist Nick Ut during the Vietnam War. Photography’s powerful ability to tell a story, stir emotion, and capture a moment allows an image to transcend time and convey messages in a universal language. That doesn’t mean that images have claims to the truth, nor can the meaning of a picture be divorced from the perception of its observer. In much the same way we still listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine” or have a clear image of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans painting, we are exposed to iconic photographs from the past. The timeless nature of these works of art lies, to some degree, on the impact they had in their own time. Napalm Girl, originally called The Terror of War (1972)—as one of the most symbolic photographs of the most controversial war the United States fought, is representative of the media’s depiction of the conflict overall. Media depiction of the conflict is said to have been a crucial element in the perception of the war and in turning the public against it. Featured on the front page of several newspapers including the New York Times and subsequently awarded the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, Nick Ut’s memorable Napalm Girl shocked its audience and is claimed to have shifted public opinion and perhaps even the course of the war. But to what extent can a still image really be held accountable for influencing the standpoint of a nation and its growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War? Scholars have claimed that the undeniable emotions that the picture triggers had a substantial impact on Americans’ stance and in turn the outcome of the war. However, counterclaims raise doubts, arguing the lack of (or even contradicting) evidence used to support these statements. Could war images like Napalm Girl, however, have had some indirect, perhaps immeasurable, impact on reinforcing antiwar sentiments?

The Associated Press (AP), founded in 1846 in New York City, is a news cooperative owned by newspapers, radio and television stations that work together to produce global reports. A 2013 New York Times article by Richard Pyle about Vietnam War photos that made a difference explains that photojournalism became a “dominant force in global journalism” during the Vietnam War.1 The AP bureau in Saigon “was the largest and most experienced news unit” and combined with the lack of censorship, it was able to capture images of a terrorized nation and expose it to the world. The AP won six Pulitzer prizes, and four were for photographs that today circulate as visual symbols of the war and its devastating effect on civilians.2 If there is one image that marked the controversial conflict, that shocked a nation and was widely distributed by major outlets, it was Nick Ut’s now iconic Napalm Girl.

In the southeast region of Vietnam lies the village of Trang Bàng, where nine-year-old Kim Phúc lived with her family. On June 8, 1972, the village was mistakenly hit with napalm bombs by the South Vietnamese Air Force, which suspected Viet Cong in the area. Among other villagers, Phúc was one of the unfortunate targets, and she and other napalm-covered children fled the blazing village. At 06:16:34 a.m. that day—having just witnessed the attack—Ut shot a photo of what was unfolding before his eyes, unaware that he had taken a picture he now claims “changed [his] life, and her life, too, and changed the war.”3

Often called “the living room war,” Vietnam was a watershed moment in the media coverage of war. With the rising popularity of television, news coverage now made it into the homes of millions of Americans who witnessed the atrocities of the conflict on CBS’s evening news. But more memorable than the moving image were the stills that flooded the screens, newspaper and magazines. Hal Buell, director of photography in the AP, believed that as “dramatic as it was, television footage in what was called the ‘living room war’ never matched the compelling still photos that, over and over, revealed the bitter nature of the Vietnam conflict.”4 In her 1977 book On Photography, critic Susan Sontag indicates that “a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain—probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.”5 The unparalleled power of photographs wasn’t simply because the camera had become “the tool of choice for photojournalists,” as Pyle attests, but because photographs, as Sontag described, “are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”6,7 Together with Nick Ut’s picture, Eddie Adams’s of General Nguen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon is probably the other most unforgettable image of the Vietnam War, and it has been seen by many. However, not as many are aware that there is film footage of that same incident, taken by NBC cameraman Vo Suu.8 The discrepancy in the fame of the still versus moving image coverage of the event is very telling of the lasting effect different media have. Additionally, a lot of footage and many images of the conflict were deemed inappropriate to be featured during primetime on news channels: “television, in other words, was forced to sanitize combat photography because of audience considerations.”9 Hence, the more revolting images tended to appear in print instead.

It is not surprising, given the undeniable emotion images like Napalm girl trigger, that several claims have been made to the significant impact they have had on public opinion, some going as far as to say they had a role in ending the war. Nick Ut himself told CBS News in an interview that soldiers have thanked him for taking the picture that brought them home earlier and may have saved their lives.10 Gallup has conducted public opinion polls over thirty-five years to assess American citizens’ opinion of the Vietnam war, inquiring whether they thought sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. Throughout the years, figures show dramatic changes in disapproval rates and an ever-increasing public disenchantment with the war. With its extensive coverage of the event, media is thought to have had a significant role in shaping public opinion.

Some argue that the media was able to generate the Americans’ disillusionment with the war by revealing its atrocious realities. Nick Ut’s photograph seems to have shaken the nation to the core; even President Nixon, when faced with the barbarous acts depicted, questioned the veracity of the image.11 To this day, some still believe that the photograph could have “helped end the war.”12  The same 2017 LA Weekly article that made this claim also says that the image is “credited with swaying the public opinion against the war” and supports this by stating that “six months later, the war did stop.”13 Could an image of five wounded children have shifted the public opinion and brought one a war that killed over a million people to an end? Sociologist E. M. Schreiber, writing in 1976, believed that media’s weakening support for the war was a major aspect in the decline of public support but dismisses anti-war movements as a plausible argument to explain the shift in public opinion in the United States. He observes a much stronger relation between declining support and an increase in casualties and the length of the war.14 Could the increase in casualties and length of the war have led the media to instigate feelings of disapproval? Could this have factored into the photographers’ decision of what to capture and the publishers’ decision of what to publish? Schreiber reveals that “the change in Vietnam opinions of the segment for the public that was most attentive to the printed news media between I964 and I968 suggests that this opinion change was linked to changes in the Vietnam-related views expressed by the news media.” If the mood of the written reports on the war shifted, then it is likely that the images published would represent that shift in kind. This raises the question whether the media was changing its views as a result of the photographs that were being taken or whether the images being published were chosen to complement the views expressed in the articles. In turn, this also raises the question as to whether the media changed to convey the shift in public opinion or whether public opinion changed as a result of a change in the media. If it was the latter, then to what extent did photographs contribute to this effect?

Despite the several claims made with regards to Napalm Girl and other photographs’ decisive impact on the public opinion towards the Vietnam War, there is little substantial evidence to directly support that belief. In fact, LA Weekly’s 2017 article makes the false claim that the war ended six months after the picture was taken; Vietnam still had another three years before it could be declared over.15 Pyle’s “Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference” acknowledges that images did have dramatic effects, but “despite some who insist otherwise, none of the photos had enough impact to end, or even shorten, a war that went on for three more years after Nick Ut’s shutter clicked.”16 It’s also doubtful whether soldiers can really credit Napalm Girl for an earlier return when “President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam, and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.”17 If Nixon had already ordered American troops to be removed from the ground, the photo could not have been the reason for a change in policy.

To further discredit the impact of the Napalm Girl on the public disenchantment with the war, journalist W. Joseph Campbell, whose blog draws attention to media-driven myths, points out that “nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam.”18 Therefore it would be misleading and in fact inaccurate to claim that Nick Ut’s photo of the Napalm Girl was responsible for galvanizing opinion against the war, when this was already happening before the image was taken. Once again, whether the decision to publish photographs such as Napalm Girl was influenced by the declining public opinion, and not the other way around, persists. If the media has exaggerated its own influence, and, as Campbell attests, “no single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam or ‘expedited’ its end,” then might it have transmitted messages that fueled public disenchantment or perhaps expressed the shift in public opinion that contributed to the end of the war?19

Michael D. Sherer studied the Vietnam War photos published in major national news magazines and compared them to the shift in public opinion gathered from the Gallup Polls. With an aim to determine whether the shift in public opinion affected the kinds photos that were published, he categorized images in three time periods; one in which public support for the war was strong, one when it was shifting, and one when it was weak. Subsequently he looked at the scene, subject, portrayal and perspective present in 286 photographs published in Time, Life, and Newsweek. His findings show that when support was high, images mostly depicted American forces in non-combat situations. When support was shifting, images mostly depicted combat-related situations involving American forces caught in life-threatening activities. Finally, when the support dropped, images placed more importance on the allies and less on American forces with a slightly greater emphasis on life-threatening and combat related moments. He concluded that “photographs depicting tragedy and suffering in the war were not made until there was a public outcry against the conflict.”20 In other words, photographs that emphasized the grim aspects of the war were published following, and perhaps as result of, the increased disapproval among the public. Nevertheless, the difference between correlation and causation is difficult to pinpoint; it can be said that the shift in public opinion changed the tone of the media’s coverage of the war, but this shift was probably a result of former media coverage of casualties and other aspects of the conflict. However, regardless of whether public disenchantment influenced journalism or vice versa, what is clear is that it was only after a shift in the attitude towards the war that the disheartening photographs were published.

Even though iconic images such as Napalm Girl might not have caused the change in public opinion, that doesn’t mean that images such as Napalm Girl didn’t in some way contribute to the people’s increasing concerns with the war. According to Sontag “photographs cannot create a moral position but they can reinforce one—and help build a nascent one.”21 Even if the sixty percent of the public thought sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake by the time Ut took the picture, the sight of it may have reinforced these opinions and provided further justification for these beliefs. Other images that came before the Napalm Girl, namely Adams’s execution photograph, may also have strengthened a stance against the war already been taken by the majority. Images can be used to support and provide evidence of a belief but, Sontag states, they cannot construct or identify events and rather we require the “existence of relevant political consciousness” in order to be “morally affected by photographs.”22 Today, images still stir emotion and trigger responses, as was the case in the   of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, son of Syrian refugees, who lay face down, lifeless on the shore of a beach in Turkey after an inflatable boat carrying sixteen refugees capsized.23 The picture went viral and refueled an already existing resentment for the Nevertheless, just like the Napalm Girl, this image has gone to show once again the limitation of photography’s ability to influence. Despite the viral exposure of the image and the impact it had on those who saw the image, it hasn’t produced any direct outcome; the Syrian crisis has persisted and refugees continue to be imperiled.

  1. Richard Pyle, “Vietnam War Photos That Made a Difference,” The New York Times, September 12, 2013 https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/vietnam-war-photos-that-made-a-difference/. Accessed 27 November 2017.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “How Nick Ut’s Photo ‘Napalm Girl’ Changed The Vietnam War.” NBC News. YouTube. March 28, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FrVpX-E0kI. Accessed 27 November 2017.
  4. Pyle, “Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference”
  5. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977).
  6. Pyle, “Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference.
  7. Sontag, On Photography.
  8. Associated Press, “50 Years Ago, a Photo of a Vietnam Execution Framed Americans’ View of War,” NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/50-years-ago-photo-vietnam-execution-framed-americans-view-war-n843801
  9. Sherer, Michael D.Vietnam War Photos and Public Opinion.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Vol 66, Issue 2, pp. 391 – 530
  10. NBC News, “How Nick Ut’s Photo ‘Napalm Girl’ Changed The Vietnam War,” NBC News, March 28, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/video/how-nick-ut-s-photo-napalm-girl-changed-the-vietnam-war-908256835749
  11. Pyle, “Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference.”
  12. Gendy Alimurung, “Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl Helped End the Vietnam War. Today in L.A., He’s Still Shooting,”  LA Weekly, July 14, 2017, http://www.laweekly.com/news/nick-uts-napalm-girl-helped-end-the-vietnam-war-today-in-la-hes-still-shooting-4861747. Accessed November 28, 2017.
  13. Ibid.
  14. E.M. Schreiber, “Anti-War Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam.” British Journal of Sociology, 27/2, 225-236. 1976.
  15. Alimurung, “Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl Helped End the Vietnam War.”
  16. Pyle, “Vietnam War Photos That Made a Difference.”
  17. W. Joseph Campbell, “Exaggerating the Power of ‘Napalm Girl’ Photo,” Media Myth Alert, May 29, 2014, https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/exaggerating-the-power-of-napalm-girl-photo/. Accessed November 30, 2017.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Michael D. Sherer,Vietnam War Photos and Public Opinion,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol 66, Issue 2 (1989).
  21. Sontag, On Photography.
  22. Ibid.
  23.  Bryan Walsh, “Alan Kurdi’s Story: Behind The Most Heartbreaking Photo of 2015,” Time, December 29 2015, http://time.com/4162306/alan-kurdi-syria-drowned-boy-refugee-crisis/.
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