Saturday, February 18, 2017
The realisation you live in a State in which people with huge power over you will go to such lengths sends a shiver down the spine
If the scale of a scandal is to be judged by the numbers of heads that roll because of it, the Maurice McCabe saga is already the biggest in the history of the State. It has consumed a Garda commissioner and a minister for justice. It will finish off a Taoiseach and ensure that the Tánaiste has little chance of succeeding him. It indirectly contributed to the resignation of a secretary general of the Department of Justice.
And it is a very long way from being over. The tumbrils are again clattering through the streets and if the guillotine is not yet descending, the tribunal of inquiry announced this week is surely the platform on which it will stand.
There has been nothing like this before. And there are two fundamental reasons why this scandal has become so uniquely destructive: fear and loathing.
The fear unleashed by what happened to McCabe and his family and to other whistleblowers has two apparently contradictory aspects. It is the fear of a State that seems at once dangerously overweening and, were the issues not so serious, almost comically hapless.
The McCabe story exposes power at its rawest and most naked: relentless, unashamed, unaccountable
We are confronted by a State that has two faces: one that will stop at nothing and one that can do nothing.
This first face of the State is terrifying – and the terror is deeply personal. If we leave aside the vast horror of child abuse in institutions and parishes (which never threatened a government), previous scandals of the modern era in Ireland have been mostly about money: politicians on the take, those in the know evading taxes, developers benefitting from a corrupted planning process, and a beef industry manipulating public support schemes.
The one big exception is the Blood Transfusion Service Board’s infection of hundreds of women with hepatitis C. It was a complex story, and most people didn’t follow it, but it did become highly personal when it came to focus on the State’s treatment of a single person: Brigid McCole. And when that happened it acquired an emotional charge. The spectacle of the State bullying a dying woman gave the story, for a while, a very high voltage.
The Maurice McCabe story is, in the strength of the emotional current it carries, much closer to McCole’s than it is to, say, Charles Haughey’s financial shenanigans. And this is part of what has made it so electric.
Few of us can imagine ourselves having secret offshore bank accounts or having Ben Dunne turn up at our door with huge cheques. But we can all imagine what it must be like to be wrongly accused of raping a child.
So Haughey being on the take made people angry – but McCabe being smeared makes people scared. (Even if, as Tusla has claimed, the abuse allegation against McCabe was inserted accidentally into his file, the campaign against him went far beyond that.)
There’s a horrible but vivid simplicity to the story: you don’t need to know the details of the malpractices that McCabe exposed within the Garda Siochana to feel a shiver go down your spine at the realisation that you live in a State in which people who have huge power over you will go to such lengths to render you unspeakable – a person portrayed as so vile that his words must not be heard.
The McCabe story exposes power at its rawest and most naked: relentless, unashamed, unaccountable. And the exercise of this power is all the more petrifying because in this case it is so capricious.
If you were writing this story as a thriller you would have McCabe stumbling upon something momentous, some dark secret that threatened so many powerful interests that he had to be crushed. But that’s not what happened.
The things that McCabe blew the whistle on were extremely serious, but they were not new: the culture they exposed was already obvious from the previous Garda scandal in Co Donegal.
The sky would not have fallen had the minister for justice and Garda commissioner at the time, Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan, simply said, “This respected sergeant has made some disturbing allegations. We will have them thoroughly and independently investigated, and whatever is wrong will be put right.”
Shatter and Callinan would have emerged with greatly enhanced reputations, and public confidence in the Garda would have been boosted. There is, then, something capricious about the development of an obsession with the crushing of McCabe. And capriciousness is frightening.
The viciousness of the campaign against McCabe is so disproportionate to the threat he posed to the State authorities that citizens have to wonder what the State would do were it genuinely threatened.
But then there is the other face of the State revealed in the continuing unfolding of this affair: the weakness and incompetence of its governmental culture. Gardaí notoriously once used the “blue flu” as an industrial weapon – but senior politicians seem to suffer from blue fever.
The very sight of a blue uniform, especially one with gold braid on its epaulets, seems to induce in Ministers who otherwise have a very high opinion of themselves, a fervour of self-abasement. They don’t just love a man or woman in uniform: they cringe.
One of the strangest aspects of the McCabe affair, indeed, is the way the instinct that is usually so paramount for politicians – self-preservation – has been so badly blunted. It would have seemed obvious after the bloodletting of the first phase of this scandal, in 2014, that the very name “Maurice McCabe” would have produced a flight-or-fight response in ministerial offices: either keep away from this issue or be sure that you are seen to be fighting for truth and justice.
Instead we have seen, especially from Enda Kenny and Frances Fitzgerald, a kind of mental and political paralysis that can be explained only by the blue fever: the Garda Commissioner is she who must not be confronted.
And this, too, is scary. Citizens are looking at a scandal that makes them feel very unsafe, and then they see a Government that is at best hopeless and at worst embarrassing.
The democratic power that is supposed to be protecting us from a police force that may in some large respects have gone rogue is a torn-up tissue of contradictions, evasions, posturing and downright lies.
Fear, indeed, is the catalyst for a reaction that has doomed Kenny. When people were not afraid, his habitual spinning of fictional yarns could be written off as harmless spoofing.
But when fear enters the equation, harmless spoofing begins to look like harmful lying. Once his blather and bluffing were transformed by public anxiety into barefaced mendacity, the Taoiseach had passed a point of no return.
And with the fear there is the loathing. It was – and how very ironic it now seems – Martin Callinan who introduced disgust into the story when he notoriously called McCabe and his fellow Garda whistleblower John Wilson disgusting. What an emotional boomerang that was.
Disgust, a visceral loathing that precedes and supersedes rational thought, was hurled at the whistleblowers. But it has come back on those who first deployed it. The substance with which McCabe was smeared – the horrific false accusation of violating a six-year old child – is nauseating, revolting, obnoxious. It makes the gorge rise. This is not throwing mud. It is an attempt to coat a man with loathsome slime.
The problem with manufacturing such a foul concoction is that, if it does not stick to its target, it hangs around. What was conjured up in those allegations must be subjected to cold, rational analysis.
This has gone beyond dirty tricks and into a realm where the State itself feels dirty.
But it is much more primal than that. A deep sense of revulsion has been introduced to this story, and all the explanations in the world won’t make it go away. A line was crossed by some powerful State actors, and they cannot simply skip back over to the other side.
Terror and taboo
It is this combination of fear and loathing that makes this scandal so potent and so destructive. These are two of the most powerful and primitive emotions: they make this story not a police procedural or even a good-cop-bad-cop conflict. It is more like an ancient Greek drama of terror and taboo in which some deep sickness seems to be ravaging the State.
This has gone beyond dirty tricks and into a realm where the State itself feels dirty. That kind of drama calls for a powerful expiation, a cleansing that is not just political but also moral.
And it’s hard to see the mere establishment of a tribunal of inquiry as that kind of cleansing act. We know from too many examples that these tribunals have functioned as a kind of ritual in which the State takes its sins and sends them off to some stuffy purgatory at Dublin Castle, where lawyers poke them with pitchforks for a few thousand euro a day.
But fear and loathing are not banished by such rituals. Their emotional charge is too potent.
The fear can be dealt with only by the establishment of robust democratic control over those arms of the State – in this case the Garda and Tusla, the child and family agency – that are given great powers in the belief that they will use those powers to protect and not to harm.
The loathing can be salved only by a thorough cleaning-out and punishment of the people who felt they had no boundaries, that they need stop at nothing in their desire to punish anyone with the temerity to question their power.
Heads will continue to roll, but the way we do these things is that they roll off into pretty baskets lined with plush pensions and legal impunity. That’s not adequate to banish the spectres that have been summoned up by such an extraordinary amalgamation of viciousness and folly.
Fintan O Toole
Of the many anxieties provoked by the Trump presidency, none is shared more widely than the fear that he will realign the United States with Russia. Notwithstanding the resignation of his reputedly pro-Russian National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, if Trump comes good on his campaign words, he will end sanctions imposed on Russia to punish its intervention in Ukraine’s civil war, accept Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and forge a global anti-terrorist coalition with President Vladimir Putin.
Such an about-face would indeed be dramatic, but not without precedent. Republican presidents in the US have a history of seeking rapprochement with Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 there was a notable respite in cold war hostilities during the first administration of Dwight D Eisenhower. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon, together with Henry Kissinger, was the architect of an American-Soviet detente. Even Ronald Reagan, who denounced the USSR as an evil empire, was quick to grasp the import of Mikhail Gorbachev’s transformation of Soviet society in the late 1980s. George W Bush famously looked Putin in the eye and reported that he had seen the soul of a straightforward and honest man “deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country”. It remains to be seen if the notoriously narcissistic Donald J Trump is capable of such empathy.
The title of Peter Conradi’s latest book, Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, echoes the American cold war debate about who lost China to the communists. Conradi’s answer to his book’s question is that Putin was responsible for the west’s loss of Russia, by eschewing liberal democracy in favour of socially conservative authoritarianism, by allowing his fears of western regime-change machinations to cloud his judgment, and by aggressive unilateralism in rebuilding and reasserting Russian power. Equally, Conradi is highly critical of western failings in relation to Russia, and does not demonise Putin.
The most immediate cause of the current troubles in Russian-western relations is the Ukrainian crisis, which exploded in 2014. But as Conradi’s lively and enlightening narrative shows, the new cold war has had a long gestation and is rooted in the failure of the US to treat post-communist Russia as an equal geopolitical partner and to seek its integration into western security structures. Russian complaints about the West breaking its promises, about its lack of respect for Russia as a great power, and about Nato expansionism to its very borders were as prevalent in the 1990s as they are today.
Yet when Putin came to power in 2000 he emphasised Russia’s European identity and saw it as his mission to improve ties with the US. He hoped to resolve the thorny issue of Nato’s expansion into former communist-bloc countries by the simple expedient of Russia becoming a member of that western alliance.
The opportunities for a fruitful American-Russian partnership reached their peak in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US when Putin became a willing collaborator in Bush’s war on terror. There is a story – not repeated by Conradi – that Putin proposed a new grand alliance to Bush. Just as the Soviets and the Americans had beaten Hitler in the second World War, so they would together combat terrorism and guarantee global security. The story is likely apocryphal, but it symbolises Putin’s high hopes for rapprochement with the US during the early years of his presidency.
Russian-American relations started to sour when, in 2003, Bush launched his regime-change war in Iraq, a move with which Putin disagreed. But more intractable and problematic was American support for the wave of so-called “colour revolutions” that began in 2004 in the former USSR states of Georgia and Ukraine. Populist protests in Russia demanding far-reaching democratic reforms added to Putin’s concern that he would be next on the western democracy crusade’s hit list. In a keynote speech delivered in Munich in 2007, he denounced the US’s determination to impose its system on other states and condemned its attempts to create and dominate a unipolar world
Putin’s newfound assertiveness was based on the recovery of the Russian economy from its disastrous collapse in the 1990s and on the benefits Russia was reaping from high oil prices. Important, too, was the consolidation of his domestic political support while the US was faltering in its counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Obama came to power in 2009 Putin was ready to reset Russian-American relations, but he was soon disillusioned by the western bombing campaign in Libya and by the double-dealing support of the US for an “Arab Spring” that would engulf Russia’s Syrian ally but exempt pro-western regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Putin’s breaking point was western support for the popular uprising in Ukraine that toppled the country’s democratically elected pro-Russian president.
As with the rest of the book, Conradi’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis is both careful and balanced. Is Russia’s expansion into Ukraine a prelude to a Putin-led programme to reabsorb former Soviet territory and recreate the USSR? Conradi thinks not: “Rather than the staging post in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union, his action appears instead to have been instigated by the fear that a country he and many other Russians still considered part of their homeland was in danger of drifting into the western camp. He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him.”
There has been much feverish speculation about Putin’s designs on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as they all have large Russian populations. But, as Conradi points out, if Putin did intend a westward expansion of Russia his forces could easily have grabbed more Ukrainian territory.
Although this book mostly concerns Russian foreign policy, it also covers western developments, especially the evolving perspectives of top American decision-makers. Conradi was Sunday Times correspondent in Moscow in the 1990s and he utilises his personal experiences of Russia as well as his journalistic skills to colour the narrative.
The book is very up-to-date, incorporating an epilogue on Trump’s election victory – met with jubilation as well as surprise by most Russians, who had feared the hawkish Hillary Clinton would win.
“Putin and Trump appear destined to share the world stage for some time”, writes Conradi. “Will a more conciliatory stance by Washington usher in a new era of co-operation between the two erstwhile cold war rivals or instead be seized upon and exploited by the Kremlin as a sign of weakness?”
That, as they say in the US, is the $64,000 question and has been the subject of incessant debate since the collapse of Soviet communism.
All American presidents since 1991 – Democrat as well as Republican – have sought to improve US relations with Moscow, but because they perceived Russia to be weak were only interested in a deal on their own terms. It will be interesting to see what happens when Trump’s vision of “America First” encounters its equally potent Russian counterpart.
Geoffrey Roberts is professor of history at University College Cork
Presidency is like a long season of The Office, with Trump as the self-obsessed buffoon. Watching Donald Trump’s freak show of a press conference, it’s painfully clear that we have all made a terrible mistake.
For the last several months we all thought we were watching the presidential version of Celebrity Apprentice. Trump was going to walk into our living rooms, fire somebody at random, and then happily walk out.
In fact, we have our shows all mixed up. This is actually a very long season of The Office, with our new president playing the role of a self-obsessed buffoon who clearly thinks he’s smart, funny, kind and successful.
Trump is the boss we all know so well, and never want to see again. The one winging it at every turn, in every sentence. The one who just read something, or talked to somebody, and is now an Olympic-sized expert.
“I have been briefed,” he declared, as he explained what passes for his poodle-like policy towards Vladimir Putin
“And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say, because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: Nuclear holocaust would be like no other. They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Coming from the mouth of Ricky Gervais or Steve Carvell, this might be rather funny. But as we know from the guests at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump travels with military aides who carry real nuclear codes.
It’s great that he’s reading the most basic books about that nuclear holocaust. Who knew it could be so awful to obliterate the planet?
He’s also been reading about uranium, which is cool. It’s best if he explains this one in his own words: “You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.”
But enough with all the briefings about bad things. Let’s get to the important stuff that president Trump wanted to tell us.
In theory, the press conference was called to reveal the name of the all-important Labor Secretary, whose identity will only get recalled on Jeopardy. He’s replacing the guy who quit after a reporter dug up the video tape of his ex-wife on Oprah. Talk about a bad hombre.
But all that was just a bait-and-switch for the real subject of Trump’s obsession: himself. In painful detail, the president took the trouble to explain his thought process in real time, as problems bubble up to the thing that sits under his combover.
Most White House reporters and presidential historians long for this kind of insight: how does a commander-in-chief deal with a crisis? What is his decision-making approach to all the world’s challenges?’
Sadly in Trump’s case, it turns out the answers are astonishingly simple.
Let’s consider the first big test of Trump’s management of this branch office of the paper company: the strange firing of General Mike Flynn, formerly one of his closest and craziest advisers, handling bad things like uranium.
“As far as the general’s concerned, when I first heard about it, I said huh, that doesn’t sound wrong. My counsel came, Don McGahn, White House counsel, and he told me and I asked him, he can speak very well for himself. He said he doesn’t think anything is wrong, you know, really didn’t think.”
So now we have two people in the Oval Office who think, kind of: huh, nothing wrong with talking to the Russians and lying about it.
But let’s hear more from the 45th president: “I waited a period of time and I started to think about it, I said “well I don’t see... to me, he was doing the job.”
So even after a period of reflection, Trump still couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. (Note to the nervous: good to know he waits before he acts.)
“The information was provided by - who I don’t know, Sally Yates, ” he explained, unclear or unimpressed by his acting attorney general, a career official who earned her last promotion with bipartisan support.
“And I was a little surprised because I said ‘doesn’t sound like he did anything wrong there.’ But he did something wrong with respect to the vice president and I thought that was not acceptable.”
So that’s clear. Trump fired Flynn for doing something wrong to Mike Pence even though he did his job well.
That “something wrong” would be lying about something totally fine, in Trump’s view.
But why is Trump so confident that this isn’t such a big deal? “As far as the actual making the call,” he told the nation, “in fact I’ve watched various programs and I’ve read various articles where he was just doing his job.”
If Donald Trump is qualified for any job - and that’s a rather big if, based on this press conference - it’s clear that he wants to be a media critic on Fox News.
In his considered analysis, the state of the media today is just astonishing. “Russia is fake news,” he declared, dismissing the investigations that will engulf his entire presidency, if not a whole country.
“Russia - this is fake news put out by the media.”
This kind of fakery is, Trump suggested, cooked up in part by Obama hangovers whom he will likely root out of government in due course. In the meantime, the great revelation for the commander-in-chief is that The Wall Street Journal is just as bad as The New York Times.
“I thought the financial media was much better, much more honest,” he revealed, before encouraging reporters to bypass his hapless press secretary.
“But I will say that I never get phone calls from the media,” he said, sounding more than a little hurt.
“How did they write a story like that in The Wall Street Journal without asking me, or how did they write a story in The New York Times, put it on front page?”
How indeed. The Guardian will happily accept the president’s help any time he can fit us into his obviously empty schedule. We have another story going out today, if that’s OK.
To be sure, there are many pundits who think this kind of circus plays well in Trump Country.
The rust belt surely loves this kind of braggadocious presidency combined with constant media bashing.
Of course, the American version of The Office was set in Scranton Pennsylvania, so maybe there’s something to that argument.
Much like the epic mockumentary, it’s clear that President Ricky Gervais has no idea how unintentionally funny he is.
The only difference is that this boss is armed with uranium and he has no idea what to do now. Which means the joke is really on us.
On his way into the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Shane Ross said his Independent Alliance would be representing Maurice McCabe’s views at the Cabinet table.
Lucky McCabe. Apparently, Shane had been in contact with the beleaguered garda sergeant. The transport minister didn’t physically beat a path to the McCabe home. But he was in telephone contact, and he was now taking it upon himself to be McCabe’s representative at the Cabinet table.
Ross has long considered himself to be the people’s champion, and this week there was no better cause to be championing for the people.
The sight and sound of politicians scrambling to identify with McCabe during the week must have elicited wry amusement in Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. That pair had travelled the hard yards with McCabe for nearly five years, while most others either gave the story a passing nod, or ignored it because it offered no electoral capital.
All that changed over the last nine days. The story has hit a chord with an appalled public, and therein lies thousands of floating voters, ready to be harvested.
Mary Lou McDonald was interviewed on RTÉ’s News at One on Tuesday about the unfolding affair. Four times in the relatively brief interview she referenced “Maurice”. The Cavan-based garda sounded like her Very Best Friend Forever.
Micheál Martin does know McCabe to a certain extent. They first met in 2014, but the sergeant had been more or less sanitised by that point. During the week, Martin came across as somebody who had stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches with the cop, their friendships forged in the heat of battle.
Then there is Brendan Howlin. On RTÉ radio on Saturday, the Labour Party leader breathlessly revealed how he had had a “long conversation” with the garda that morning, and he related what McCabe and his family wanted done to address the horror that had been visited on them. He, the fearless Brendan, was going to carry their load.
Howlin’s grab for the reflected glow was probably the basest. He was in cabinet in 2013 when his then colleague, Alan Shatter, accused McCabe, and the sergeant’s then confederate John Wilson, of failing to co-operate with the internal Garda investigation into the penalty points scandal.
On October 1, 2013, Shatter said under Dail privilege: “Having engaged with members of this House, and published material, they didn’t co-operate with the garda investigation that took place.”
Very few in the Dail batted an eyelid as the sergeant and ex-guard were accused by the minister of justice of failing to comply with an internal investigation covered by garda rules. Whether intended or not, an impression was created that the complainants had acted mischievously in kicking up a din about a scandal and then withdrawing when an investigation was launched. None of it was true.
Where was Mr Howlin then? Six months later the tide was turning on McCabe’s public standing. On March 26, 2014, the day after the resignation of Martin Callinan, Shatter apologised, saying it had not been his intention to mislead the House or create any upset.
During that intervening period there wasn’t a peep out of Brendan Howlin, or other ministers, up until Leo Varadker’s declaration of support for the whistleblowers the week before Shatter’s apology.
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said he had had a ‘long conversation’ with Maurice McCabe in recent weeks.
For the last week or so, “Maurice” has been namechecked across the media, as politicians queued up to be associated with him in public. God knows with the cost of advertising today, who wouldn’t want to sidle up to a bit of free publicity.
I, for one, would have been saved a few sleepless nights if all these politicians had been so welcoming of McCabe and his tidings four years ago.
I knew McCabe back then. I had seen the evidence, met the victims of crime whose plight this turbulent cop was attempting to have addressed. Yet something wasn’t adding up. Why was there such little take-up on the story by politicians or media?
The scurrilous rumours about child sex abuse were out there being spread like manure. People didn’t have to believe the lies to shy away from McCabe. Why take a chance?
Why be associated with somebody who is discommoding the most powerful institution in the country if there is even the smallest chance that he turns out to be toxic? Why get involved in something that may see you targeted as Daly had been when she had been erroneously arrested, or Wallace had been live on TV when Shatter divulged an innocuous traffic incident he’d been involved in. Why bother?
In such an environment of indifference and febrile rumour, I was nagged by a feeling that despite all the evidence, despite McCabe’s obvious sound character, I was missing something that discredited his story.
One day in early 2014, I briefly found myself in the company of Conor Brady, the former editor of the Irish Times and former chair of the Garda Ombudsman Commission. We barely knew each other, but in the course of a conversation about the Garda controversies he asked had I met McCabe. “He’s an impressive guy,” said Brady. “A serious man who should be listened to.”
Brady had encountered the sergeant through his former role in GSOC. At that point I realised my doubts were unfounded. I was not crazy (well, not too crazy). Everything did make sense.
Three days after that encounter, Brady went on the This Week programme on RTÉ radio and said much the same thing in public. To my mind, that was a crucial moment in the tide of public opinion turning in relation to McCabe.
Brady, a sober and mainstream voice with an intimate knowledge of policing, wasn’t just saying that this cop was a credible person, as others had. He wasn’t just referencing the penalty points issue that had been highlighted by Wallace and Daly.
He was indicating that this was a man without baggage, a rare voice bearing the truth about the darker elements of Garda culture. For me, that confirmed what I’d thought I knew but had questioned because so many seemed not to want to know.
Maurice McCabe has done the State some major service. Just look up reports from the Garda Inspectorate, the public accounts committee, the Comptroller and Auditory General. Read the reports from Sean Guerin SC, or retired judge Kevin O’Higgins. Talk to the victims of crime in Cavan/Monaghan whom he ensured would receive justice.
Talk to 400 or so members of the Irish Road Victims Association, who rose to their feet to applaud McCabe at their annual function last November when he received an award for his work on road safety.
Maurice McCabe and his family have paid a terrible toll for his bravery and persistence.
It’s really terrific that so many politicians are now flocking to bask in his reflected glow. Pity it took so long.
Pity he and his loved ones had to endure so much pain until this day arrived.
Friday, February 17, 2017
South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, shoots Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem, also known as Bay Lop, on a Saigon street on Feb. 1, 1968.
After Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his sidearm and shot Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head he walked over to the reporters and told them that: “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me”. Captured on NBC TV cameras and by AP photographer Eddie Adams, the picture and film footage flashed around the world and quickly became a symbol of the Vietnam War’s brutality. Eddie Adams’ picture was especially striking, as the moment frozen is one almost at the instant of death. Taken a split second after the trigger was pulled, Lem’s final expression is one of pain as the bullet rips through his head. A closer look of the photo actually reveals the bullet exiting his skull.
“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world”, AP photojournalist Eddie Adams once wrote. A fitting quote for Adams, because his 1968 photograph of an officer shooting a handcuffed prisoner in the head at point-blank range not only earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, but also went a long way toward souring Americans’ attitudes about the Vietnam War.
For all the image’s political impact, though, the situation wasn’t as black-and-white as it’s rendered. What Adams’ photograph doesn’t reveal is that the man being shot (named Nguyen Van Lem) was the captain of a Vietcong “revenge squad” that had executed dozens of unarmed civilians earlier the same day. Regardless, it instantly became an icon of the war’s savagery and made the official pulling the trigger – General Nguyen Ngoc Loan – its iconic villain.
Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem minutes prior his execution.
Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem under arrest.
South Vietnamese sources said that Lém commanded a Vietcong death squad, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers’ families. Corroborating this, Lém was captured at the site of a mass grave that included the bodies of at least seven police family members. Photographer Adams confirmed the South Vietnamese account, although he was only present for the execution. Lém was brought to Loan who questioned him briefly then using his personal .38 revolver, executed Lém with a single shot in the head.
Photographer said he had a lot of sympathy for the shooter and wished he had never published the picture. He felt so bad for Loan that he apologized for having taken the photo at all, admitting, “The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera”.
Adams wrote in Time in 1998:
Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths… What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?’… This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time… I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes”.
What happened to General Nguyen Ngoc Loan after the war? Sadly, the photograph’s legacy would haunt Loan for the rest of his life. A few months after the execution picture was taken, Loan was seriously wounded by machine gun fire that led to the amputation of his leg. Following the war, he was reviled wherever he went. After an Australian hospital refused to treat him, he was transferred to the United States, where he was met with a massive (though unsuccessful) campaign to deport him.
He opened a pizza restaurant in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Burke, Virginia at Rolling Valley Mall called “Les Trois Continents”. In 1991, he was forced into retirement when he was recognized and his identity publicly disclosed. Photographer Eddie Adams recalled that on his last visit to the pizza parlor, he had seen written on a toilet wall, “We know who you are, fucker”. Nguyen Ngọc Loan died of cancer on 14 July 1998, aged 67, in Burke, Virginia.
Did Loan’s action violate the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war? He executed the partisan after he had 'claimed' that he had stumbled upon the bodies of his men and even their families that were killed by the Vietcong. The Vietcong were indiscriminately killing people. Summary execution of partisans is allowable under Geneva.
According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, irregular forces are entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly, and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they do not do meet all of these, they may be considered francs-tireurs (in the original sense of “illegal combatant”) and punished as criminals in a military jurisdiction, which may include summary execution. The guy shot was an “illegal combatant”, a francs-tireurs.
However, if soldiers remove their disguises and put on proper insignia before the start of combat in such an operation, they are considered legal combatants and must be treated as prisoners-of-war if captured. This distinction was settled in the post-WWII trial of Otto Skorzeny, who led Operation Greif, an infiltration mission in which German commandos wore US uniforms to infiltrate US lines but removed them before actual combat.
(Photo credit: Eddie Adams).
History hasn’t clarified Lem’s role in the Vietcong and the Vietnamese government has never acknowledged his role in the war. Lem’s widow and children lived in poverty for years before being discovered by a Japanese TV crew living in a field. It was only then that the Vietnamese government provided her shelter.
Daily Life (a snapshot) on a
Colonial Plantation, 1709-11
William Byrd 11 wrote his diary in a secret code - an archaic form of shorthand known only to the most educated of his day. Because it was encoded, he was confident that no one would ever read his revealing portrait of the world he lived in. He was wrong. It took over 300 years, but in 1939 his code was cracked and the observations of William Byrd II became known to all. Because he never intended it to be read by others, his diary gives us an unvarnished view of life on a colonial plantation in the early 18th century.
William Byrd II was born in Virginia in 1674 but was soon taken to England where he was educated. He remained there until his father's death in 1704. He returned to the colony and took over the management of Westover, the family plantation on the James River. He became an influential member of the Virginia aristocracy and was appointed to the colony's Council of State in 1708. He owned vast amounts of land (approximately 179,000 acres) and numerous plantations. He founded two cities - Richmond and Appomattox - on his land. He died in 1744.
Byrd kept a daily journal throughout most of his life. In the following entries he reveals the routine of his daily life:
I rose at 5 o'clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer's Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene [two house slaves] were whipped. I danced my dance [physical exercises]. I read law in the morning and Italian in the afternoon. I ate tough chicken for dinner. The boat came from Appomattox [another plantation] and was cut in the evening I walked about the plantation. I said my prayers. I had good thoughts, good health, and good humor this day, thanks be to God Almighty.
I was out of humor with my wife for trusting Anaka [a house slave] with rum to steal when she was so given to drinking, but it was soon over.
My wife was indisposed again but not to much purpose. In the afternoon I beat Jenny [a house slave] for throwing water on the couch.
My wife was much out of order and had frequent return of her pains. ...in the evening I took a walk about the plantation and when I returned I found my wife very bad. I sent for Mrs. Hamlin and my cousin Harrison about 9 o'clock and I said my prayers heartily for my wife's happy delivery...I went to bed about 10 o'clock and left the women full of expectation with my wife.
About one o'clock this morning my wife was happily delivered of a son, thanks be to God Almighty. I was awake in a blink and rose and my cousin Harrison met me on the stairs and told me it was a boy. We drank some French wine and went to bed again and rose at 7 o'clock.
I rose at 6 o'clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and when she came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive me.
Then I went to see the President, whom I found indisposed in his ears. I dined with him on beef. Then we went to his house and played at piquet [a card game for two players] where Mr. Clayton came to us. We had much to do to get a bottle of French wine.
About 10 o'clock I went to my lodgings. I had good health but wicked thoughts. God forgive me.
Disease Strikes the Children - One Lives, One Dies
In the spring of 1710 Byrd's son - Parke - was 8 months old, his daughter - Evelyn - 2 1/2 years old. We rejoin his diary as he arrives at his manor and discovers his infant son suffering from a fever:
It was very hot this day, and the first day of summer...my wife and I took a walk about the plantation; when we returned we found our son very sick of a fever and he began to break out terribly. We gave him some treacle water [a medicinal compound used as an antidote for poison].
My son was a little worse, which made me send for Mr. Anderson [the parish minister]. My express met him on the road and he came about 10 o'clock. He advised some oil of juniper which did some good.
William Byrd II
The child continued indisposed. In the evening we walked home and found Evie in great fever and to increase it [they] had given her milk.
In the evening the children were a little better.
I sent for my cousin Harrison to let Evie blood who was ill. When she came back she took about four ounces. We put on blisters and gave her a glister [an enema] which worked very well. Her blood was extremely thick, which is common in distemper of this constitution. About 12 o'clock she began to sweat of herself, which we prompted by tincture of saffron and sage and snakeroot. This made her sweat extremely, in which she continued little or more all night.
Evie was much better, thank God Almighty, and lost her fever. The boy was likewise but was restless.
Evie was better but the boy was worse, with a cold and fever for which we gave him a sweat which worked very well and continued all daily
Evie took a purge which worked but a little and my son had a little fever. I went about 11 o'clock to Colonel Randolph's to visit him because he was sick...and took my leave about 5 o'clock and got home about 7 where I found the boy in his fever but Evie was better, thank God Almighty.
The boy continued very ill of the fever.
I rose a 6 o'clock and as soon as I came out news was brought that the child was very ill. We went out and found him just ready to die and he died about 8 o'clock in the morning. God gives and God takes away; blessed be the name of God. ...My wife was much afflicted but I submitted to His judgment better, not withstanding I was very sensible of my loss, but God's will be done.
About 2 o'clock we went with the corpse to the churchyard and as soon as the service was begun it rained very hard so that we were forced to leave the parson and go into the church porch but Mr Anderson stayed till the service was finished. About 3 o'clock we went to dinner. The company stayed till the evening and then went away. Mr. Custis and I took a walk about the plantation. Two of the new negroes were taken sick and I gave each of them a vomit which worked well."
The Threat of War
Rumors of an invasion by the French spread through the colony in the summer of 1711. The invasion threat never materialized but the Tuscarora Indians attacked settlements in North Carolina and threatened the same in Virginia. In response, a local militia was raised with Byrd as its commander. Byrd describes an expedition in October that was intended as a show of force calculated to intimidate the Tuscaroa's into submission:
I rose at 7 o'clock and my wife shaved me with a dull razor...About 11 o'clock we went to the militia court... We fined all the Quakers and several others [for their refusal to take up arms]... I spoke gently to the Quakers which gave them a good opinion of me and several of them seemed doubtful whether they would be arrested or not for the future. I told them they would certainly be fined five times in a year if they did not do as their fellow subjects did.
I rose about 7 o'clock and read nothing because I prepared myself to ride to Major Harrison's...About 10 o'clock I got over the river and proceeded on my journey but went a little out of my way. However I got there about one o'clock and found the Governor, Colonel Harrison, and Colonel Ludwell, which last had been sick...
About 2 o'clock we went to dinner and I ate boiled beef for my part. After dinner we sat in council concerning the Indians and some of the Tributaries came before us who promised to be very faithful to us. It was agreed to send Peter Poythress to the Tuscaroras to treat them and to demand the Baron Graffenriedt who was prisoner among the Indians.
Westover, Byrd's plantation on the James River
I rose about 6 o'clock and found it cold. We drank chocolate with the Governor and about 9 o'clock got on our horses and waited on the Governor to see him put the foot in order.
...About 3 o'clock the Tuscarora Indians came with their guard and Mr. Poythress with them. He told the Governor that the Baron was alive and would be released but that Mr. Lawson was killed because he had been so foolish as to threaten the Indian that had taken him.
About 6 o'clock we went to dinner and I ate some mutton. At night some of my troop went with me into town to see the girls and kissed them without proceeding any further, and we had like to be kept out by the captain of the guard. However, at last they let us in and we went to bed about 2 o'clock in the morning.
I rose about 6 o'clock and drank tea with the Governor, who made use of this opportunity to make the Indians send some of their great men to the College, and the Nansemonds sent two, the Nottoways two, and the Meherrins two. He also demanded one from every town belonging to the Tuscaroras.
...Then we went and saw the Indian boys shoot and the Indian girls run for a prize. We had likewise a war dance by the men and a love dance by the women, which sports lasted till it grew dark. Then we went to supper and I ate chicken with a good stomach.
We sat with the Governor until about 11 o'clock and then we went to Major Harrison's to supper again... Jenny, an Indian girl, had got drunk and made us good sport. I neglected to say my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, good humor, thank God Almighty.
We drank chocolate with the Governor and about 10 o'clock we took leave of the Nottoway town and the Indian boys went away with us that were designed for the College. The Governor made three proposals to the Tuscaroras: that they would join with the English to pursue those Indians who had killed the people of Carolina, that they should have 40 shillings for every head they brought in of those guilty Indians and be paid the price of a slave for all they brought in alive, and that they should send one of the chief men's sons out of every town to the College.
About 4 we dined and I ate some boiled beef. My man's horse was lame for which we drew blood. At night I asked a negro girl to kiss me, and when I went to bed I was very cold because I pulled off my clothes after lying in them so long."