On June 8, 1972, a photographer captured the now infamous image of Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, running naked down a Trang Bang highway, her clothes and skin incinerated by American napalm. The photograph was featured in news periodicals around the globe, immediately altering the international perspective of the Vietnam conflict. To the world, Kim became "a living symbol of the horror of war."In this well-researched, easy-to-follow (and exhaustive) biography, Denise Chong attempts to give an overview of the Vietnam confrontation, and a fair one at that. She focuses on Kim Phuc's family and has successfully painted through her own on-site research, reading, and interviews the simple peasant world in which they lived, and the attacks they endured from all sides: Invasion by ruthless Chinese-sponsored Communists from the north; manipulation by self-serving, faraway nations in the West; deceit and corruption by greedy leaders within their own ranks; and betrayal by disingenuous neighbors and even family members. Essentially an entire generation of children grew into adults knowing only terror, maiming, death, manipulation, distrust, and self-imposed silence; the latter only if one wanted to live.
Within this world Kim Phuc, fighting daily pains that only a burn victim could know, found her destiny.
Each chapter of Kim's life a snapshot of almost 40 years roils with emotion, beginning with the miracle of surviving her initial burns. From that tragic moment forward, her mother and family overprotected her and treated her as a weak and ugly burn victim, a woman destined to live her life alone. From high school on, she spent her life shadowed by "minders," individually assigned hawks for the Vietnamese government who watched her constantly for any transgression of word or deed. Dismissing Kim's ambition to be a doctor, the Vietnamese Communists took away that dream when they realized she could be used more effectively as a propaganda tool. And as that tool, she suffered the dual life of being pampered as a celebrity when abroad, but treated with disdain, poverty, and starvation when at home. Yet, two words kept falling from Kim's lips and strengthening her faith: "I forgive."The South Vietnamese people sought only basic needs. They desired to be left alone, to feed their children, to laugh at each other's jokes, to work, to worship, to sleep and dream; they didn't ask to be pawns of superpowers, or victims of land-grab, of endless and esoteric debates concerning communism and capitalism. And Kim Phuc wanted only to be "normal." It took the face of one child, screaming in pain, nakedly frozen in time, to help bring us all to our senses.
From her modest beginnings in Vietnam to her successful new life in Canada, her dramatic story will set you on fire.
Clay Stafford is a writer and filmmaker who lives near Nashville.