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The Goldberg Variations

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It’s the 39th anniversary of this scene, made famous in a photo by Eddie Adams. The image depicts the summary execution of Nguyen Van Lan — an NLF fighter — by Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese director of police, after a street battle during the Tet Offensive, which had begun two days before. Adams, quite famously, expressed sincere regret that he had ever taken the photo; according to him, it brought undeserved agony to Loan’s life, which did not actually end for another 30 years.

It’s worth reflecting on this photo, I think, now that the dead-ender feeding frenzy has resumed, encircling the likes of William Arkin and Lara Logan, each of whom are accused — as Adams’ famous shot was — of contributing to the enemy’s work. In 1999, the renowned intellectual Jonah Goldberg argued that Adams’ picture

didn’t expand on ‘our right to know.’ It didn’t answer questions, or give us the story. It deceived. It gave no context. It confirmed the biases of the anti-war journalists, and they used it to further their agenda.

When the right wing history of this war is eventually written, some future scribe like Goldberg will write nearly identical words — and if that scribe happens to be Ben Domenech, exactly the same words — about any of the photos from Abu Ghraib, or any of the dispatches by Lara Logan, or any of the stories strung across the wire by the Associated Press. As too many of us have argued, the failure of national “resolve” or “will” has been invoked far too often as an explanation for why ordinary democratic processes brought an end — albeit a decade too late — to the horrific American War in Vietnam. I have no doubt that those same processes will have similarly belated consequences for the US in Iraq. It goes without saying that Goldberg, Malkin, and the rest of them will have absolutely nothing original to add to the discussion, and their conventional wisdom will continue to circulate for decades in the alternate universe of historical explanation that actual historians usually ignore.

Much as I love the work of Eddie Adams, and much as I may sympathize with his anguished personal relationship to that horrific photo, he was wrong to regret its existence. Obviously, photos are incomplete representations; they are incapable of providing “context” (or the rationalizations that Jonah Golberg would prefer); they require other forms of discourse to make them meaningful. But Americans’ “right to know” was, contra Goldberg, quite well-informed by Adams’ photographs and the film footage captured by Vo Su, the NBC cameraman who was working with Adams that day. Americans had a right to see what was being done in their name. Goldberg and others would likely prefer instead that America’s wars only be covered by military photographers — as was the case in Grenada in 1983 — or by a rigid pool system that almost necessarily sanitizes the realities of war. In the years to come, we’ll hear a lot of chest-beating about the photos from Abu Ghraib and how they lacked “context” and “furthered the agenda” of the anti-war press; we’ll hear about the grotesque video of a dictator’s lynching and be scolded for viewing this as evidence of the sectarian nightmare we’ve thoughtlessly subsidized; and we’ll hear names like “William Arkin,” “Lara Logan,” “Kathleen Carroll” uttered with the contempt formerly reserved for Jane Fonda. We won’t hear much from them about why Americans have decided this war has been for nothing, but we’ll know whom we’re supposed to blame for the decomposition of our “resolve.”

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