Girl, Napalm, and ?

So what did you fill in the blanks? Vietnam, I’m guessing ((Chrome’s autofill suggests “photo” and “attack” when I begin typing in “girl napalm”). And the reason for that in all likelihood is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the subject of Nick Ut’s iconic, Pulitzer-prize-winning image of the Vietnam war.

That straightforward association of “girl” and “napalm” with “Vietnam” came to me as I read The Gangster We Are All Looking For, the 2003 novelistic debut of Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy. In particular, it happened as I turned to page 86 and read the narrator of the novel, a young girl, displaced after the war to the US, tell us about one of her mother’s memories:

She had heard a story about a girl in a neighboring town who was killed during a napalm bombing. The bombing happened on an especially hot night, when this girl had walked to the beach to cool her feet in the water. They found her floating on the sea. The phosphorus from the napalm made her body glow like a lantern.

As I read the lines I thought about Ut’s photograph; precisely the association lê thi diem thúy wanted me to make. To work in a direct reference to Phan Kim Thi Phuc would be clumsy given the novel’s structure, so the most perspicuous way to bring the reader to her–in a quasi-autobiographical book written by an author whose identity as a refugee from the Vietnam war is known to the reader, whose narrator is a refugee and so on–is to simply use “girl”, “napalm”, “bombing” and “village” together. It worked. (I cast my mind back to the time I first saw the photo in an anthology of Life‘s photographs in my school library; I was a sixth or seventh-grader then, and my notion of a wartime photo was restricted to explosions, fireballs, mushroom clouds, gleaming weaponry, and strong, grimy men in martial poses. A young, naked, helpless girl in pain didn’t fit in well. More to the point, in my dim understanding of the war, it was the US v. Someone Or The Other and the thought that the US–strictly speaking, a South Vietnamese plane and pilot–was responsible for her defenceless, agonizingly painful state of being was jarring.)

That straightforward reaction was followed rather quickly by a sense of disbelief that more than a decade after the launch of the Afghan war (on 7th October 2001), I cannot think of a single, classic, enduring photograph associated with that continuing conflict. (In the case of the Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib photographs now aspire to the status of “iconic”). Somehow, despite the multiple documentaries made on the war (including the excellent Restrepo), and despite the enduring presence of “Pakistan” and “Taliban” in American geopolitical discourse, Afghanistan has once again managed to stage a forgotten war.

But it has been aided and abetted in that trick by the pernicious combination of a forgetful polity and successive administrations determined to reinforce that not-so-benign neglect with the always-powerful machinery of bluster and obfuscation about war aims, strategies and objectives. Forgetfulness, in this case, seems to be almost effortlessly associated with pointlessness.

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