You have to learn to take the bitter with the sour.
Advice given to Billy Wilder by Samuel Goldwyn

Almost everybody is familiar with the George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s from The Life of Reason, Santayana’s chronicle of how the mind works. But memorable quotes are like photographs—stripped of context. What came before and goes after them has been shorn away; they stand naked and alone.

A couple of hundred pages later in the same book, Santayana wrote, “Memory itself is an internal rumor; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and un-seizable basis to build upon.” This I find surprising, if only because it seemingly contradicts his earlier assertion about history. Well, not exactly. It just tells us that we can remember nothing. Nothing more than the “hearsay within the mind” or “the falsified echoes that reach us from others.” Those who cannot remember the past become everybody. Or nobody. Everybody can remember nothing. Or nobody can remember anything.

I should stop here and start again.

It’s the 50th anniversary of perhaps the defining photograph of the Vietnam War: Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize–winning snap The Terror of War, better known as “Napalm Girl.” Over the years there has been a plethora of commentary about this photograph, about Ut, about the nine-year-old girl in the picture, whose name is Phan Thi Kim Phúc. There have been several books, including an autobiography by Kim Phúc, documentaries, and an orchestral suite. Kim Phúc has done interviews with the Queen, with Pope Francis, and with the officer claiming responsibility for coordinating the napalm attack on her village. (More on that later.)

The Leica M2 that A.P. photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut used to photograph nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

Kim Phúc’s town of Trảng Bàng hadn’t seen fighting until just a few days before that famous photograph. The war seemed remote until one morning in early June. Kim Phúc’s family awoke to find their property dotted by the distinctive footprints left the night before by Vietcong troops. South Vietnamese forces weren’t far behind. Kim Phúc’s family moved into the local Cao Dai temple as soon as the Vietcong allowed it; they thought this site would be spared. She and the other village children were permitted to go outside to play so long as they remained in sight of the temple.

On June 8, after fierce fighting around the outskirts of Trảng Bàng forced South Vietnamese forces to retreat, an air strike was called in. A yellow-smoke grenade dropped from a low-flying airplane—American-made, but flown by South Vietnamese pilots—to mark a target area: it included the Cao Dai temple, the one place deemed to be safe. Here’s Kim Phúc’s own account of that morning:

For much of the morning, heavy rains and an uptick in increasingly closer bombings kept the thirty or so of us who were living at the temple hunkered down inside....

An hour or so after lunch, a military plane descended overhead and swooped down abruptly to within feet, it seemed, of the outbuilding where we were. In its wake, a smoke grenade detonated, coating the scene in bright purple and gold. It was a signal to the South Vietnamese pilot who was trailing behind: Drop your bombs on this very spot.

A color-mark made within the temple grounds? This had to be an error. Why would our country’s troops be attacking their own?

Sensing a shift in the room’s energy, I glanced up from my play to study a nearby soldier’s expression. As he took in the emerging situation through the glass of a small, painted-frame window, his eyes widened and his lips formed around not a name but a curse: “Jesus Christ.”

South Vietnamese soldiers urged the villagers to flee. The children playing near the temple took off as fast as they could. Adults scooped some of the younger and slower children into their arms as they caught up with them along Route 1. Incendiary bombs exploded all around as they ran. Children, civilians, Vietcong forces, South Vietnamese soldiers—all were caught in the hellish storm.

Memorable quotes are like photographs—stripped of context. What came before and goes after them has been shorn away; they stand naked and alone.

Napalm clung to Kim Phúc’s back, her arms, and her neck, burning ceaselessly at 5,000 degrees as she ran down Route 1, screaming, “Too hot! Too hot!” She reached a clique of reporters and photographers, and one, a BBC correspondent, offered her a drink from his canteen. Then he tried to cool her burns by splashing water on her. Big mistake. Oxygen in the water fueled the smoldering napalm and Kim Phúc passed out from the shock of being again consumed by fire. How was he to know that napalm craves oxygen, and that water simply causes it to burn even more fiercely?

The Vietnamese-American A.P. photographer Nick Ut was only 21 years old at the time the photo was taken. He was following in the footsteps of his older brother, a war photographer slain in Vietnam seven years earlier. Instead of taking the film to be processed and published immediately, Ut took Kim Phúc directly to the nearest hospital. The nurses wouldn’t take her; they had no room, no facilities to treat burn victims, and no time to spend on lost causes. Ut presented his press credentials and threatened hell to pay if Kim Phúc weren’t cared for.

After taking the picture, Ut took Kim Phúc directly to the nearest hospital, and threatened hell to pay if she weren’t cared for. The two have remained in contact ever since.

The nurses accepted the patient, but soon sent her on to a facility they thought would be better equipped to treat her. The First Children’s Hospital in Saigon was no less busy and little better equipped, however, and somehow Kim Phúc wound up left for dead in their morgue. She was found three days later by her parents, who prevailed upon a skeptical doctor to send her to the only hospital in Vietnam prepared to deal with victims of severe burns.

Kim Phúc survived and went on to become a spokesperson for mercy. She converted to Christianity and offered forgiveness to those involved in the burning of her village and herself. The story Kim Phúc tells is a story of redemption. And, indeed, it is something like that, depending on how you look at it. And how much you believe in redemption—particularly, in redemption from the horrors of war.

But here I have to give something away: I don’t believe in redemption. The bad things that happen in life remain the bad things that happen in life. They’re redeemed by nothing.

Lessons Unlearned

Robert S. McNamara, who is often credited as being the chief architect of the Vietnam War, was no longer secretary of defense when the photo was taken, having stepped down in 1968. Nevertheless, napalm was very much part of his repertoire. When I interviewed him for my movie The Fog of War in 2002, McNamara told me something disturbing, but also disturbingly truthful, about his role in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, which incinerated roughly 100,000 civilians overnight. The weapon? Napalm. He said, “Our side won, or else I would probably be tried as a war criminal.”

I have often wondered what bothered him so much about the firebombing of Tokyo. He was perfectly willing to talk about being a war criminal in this context, but never acknowledged (at least to me) any connection between the firebombing of Tokyo and the Vietnam War. Was Vietnam too close to home? I suppose he could have argued that napalm was used in a very limited capacity, or that civilians weren’t directly targeted with napalm as they were in Tokyo. I certainly don’t think it was some oversight on his part. He was smart and carefully considered what he was saying.

I’m drawn back to a very simple question: Why was napalm still being used in 1972? And was it being used principally against Asians? (Napalm was used in the firebombing of Dresden, but roughly two-thirds of the napalm deployed in World War II was dropped in the Pacific, not to mention the tremendous quantities used in the Korean War and in Vietnam.) Edwin Hoyt, in The Firebombing of Japan, provides few images—none to match the photograph by Nick Ut. They show a lone tree set in a sea of devastation and surrounded by a jumble of bodies taken from the Sumida River, victims that had drowned desperately trying to escape the unbearable heat. However, there is a description similar to one provided close to 30 years later by Kim Phúc:

Sumiko Morikawa was a twenty-four-year-old home-maker with a four-year-old son and twin eight-month-old girls. Her husband was posted somewhere in Japan. As the fires began, a neighbor helped them flee to a park. “Atsuko, Ryoko, have patience,” she told the twins. “Kiichi, Mother will hold onto your hand and run,” she said to her son. Houses and trees burned around them as they fled. In the park, they rushed to a pool. Sumiko ladled water onto the backs of the children. “It’s hot!” shrieked Kiichi. His jacket and cotton air raid hood were burning. She doused them and huddled in the water with her children.

The inferno drew closer. Flames poured from the windows of nearby buildings. People jammed into the pool, and filled the area around it. Fire and smoke grew still closer, thicker, and hotter. A ball of flames hit Kiichi in the head. “Mother, it’s hot!” he screamed. She ladled water frantically. “Mother, it’s hot!” Kiichi repeated, and closed his eyes. “Hang on, hang on. Don’t go to sleep. We can see Father very soon,” she implored. She tapped him frantically on the cheek. But he only rolled his eyes, then slumped over. The twins were dead. “Kiichi, Kiichi, don’t leave me alone,” she begged, and fainted.

When she came to and looked around, the pool was dry. Kiichi was still breathing, but faintly. He shivered. She cradled him in her arms and walked to the side of the pool. Crying hysterically, she asked for forgiveness from her daughters, and covered them with her damp jacket. A friend’s house was clogged with refugees, but they found a quilt for her. She wrapped Kiichi in it. A girl gave her a cup of hot tea. Sumiko took some in her mouth, cooled it and then, like a bird, trickled it into his mouth. Kiichi opened his eyes a little and said “Mama,” then slumped over, dead.

Mercifully, there are no photographs of this.

Louis Fieser, the Harvard University chemist who created napalm while developing new explosives for the National Defense Research Council, claimed to “certainly [have had] no thought about the use of napalm against non-military personnel.” But diagrams and research materials suggest otherwise. Which raises the question: When does the disingenuous become outright lying?

The first tests of napalm on buildings took place at a farm complex in Indiana’s Jefferson Proving Ground. But observers argued that the tests weren’t specific enough to the intended targets: German and Japanese homes. A further set of tests was proposed.

A shipment of Russian spruce was diverted to San Francisco for its similarity to hinoki wood used in Japan. It was sent to New Jersey to be conditioned to the right moisture content before being trucked out to Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah. Great pains were also taken to furnish the models appropriately. One chemical-weapons officer logged thousands of miles along the Pacific Coast collecting tatami mats. Apparently, he couldn’t find enough, since officials eventually built their own tatami factory.

RKO Studios provided designs for authentic German furnishings. A shuttered furniture factory in upstate New York was reopened to produce the required pieces. The end result of all this was a dozen fully furnished duplex Japanese houses in four units, and a block of six urban German residential dwellings—three in the style of the Rhineland, three in a central-German design. The test villages were burned down repeatedly from May 17 until September 1, 1943.

The first tests of napalm on buildings took place at an Indiana farm complex. But observers argued that the tests weren’t specific enough to the intended targets: German and Japanese homes.

How could Fieser insist that napalm was not intended for use on civilians, when the tests were designed around the incineration of civilian homes? Elsewhere, he disclaimed responsibility for such uses: “I discovered that a jelled fuel burns more efficiently than a free fuel…. I don’t think I have to be ashamed of having made that discovery. And I would be the first to suggest that antipersonnel use be outlawed. But how in the world do you make that distinction? Why should the investigator be called on to rule on the uses?”

I guess that if you spent your time worrying about every possible consequence or outcome of any individual action, you’d never do anything. Still, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the seemingly incredible obtusity on display in Fieser’s comments. Did he see himself as Florence Nightingale or Jonas Salk? What’s clear is that napalm’s intended use against civilian populations should have been obvious from the tests in Utah, if not before.

Richard Feynman, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, and like myself a Jew from the South Shore of Long Island, wrote about his work on developing the atomic bomb. It’s a passage that I can never forget. He noted that we make moral decisions based on certain assumptions, but we rarely revisit our assumptions to see if they still apply:

With regard to moral questions, I do have something I would like to say about it. The original reason to start [the Manhattan Project], which was that the Germans were a danger, started me off on a process of action which was to try to develop this first system at Princeton and then at Los Alamos, to try to make the bomb work. All kinds of attempts were made to redesign it to make it a worse bomb and so on. It was a project on which we all worked very, very hard, all cooperating together. And with any project like that you continue to work trying to get success, having decided to do it.

But what I did—immorally, I would say—was to not remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when the reason changed, because Germany was defeated, not the singles thought came to my mind at all about that, that that meant now that I have to reconsider why I am continuing to do this. I simply didn’t think, okay?

And then there are those that simply joined the jingoistic spirit of the times. John Steinbeck, for example. I’ve never liked Steinbeck. I read Travels with Charley when I was in grade school, and even then I found it precious, pretentious, and annoying. When I finally read The Grapes of Wrath, it didn’t much change my opinion of him. So, as I was reading about napalm, I was surprised—and then vindicated—to stumble on a passage in which the eminent novelist writes to L.B.J.’s Special Assistant Jack Valenti.

Steinbeck must have thought his 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature made him an authority on war weaponry. He recommended that the president initiate a “colossal strike” on North Vietnam and advocated the use of 10-gauge automatic shotguns in the South (for those who are “man enough”). But there was one thing that he said “has been bugging me for some time”: the terrifying power of napalm. His solution? The “Steinbeck super ball”: “a napalm grenade, packed in a heavy plastic sphere almost the exact size and weight of a baseball… It’s a natural weapon for the Americans.”

How appropriate. The quintessential American writer managed to unite baseball with firebombing.

Yet Another Chance Occurrence

The photograph of the burned girl on that road in Vietnam symbolizes a war that had gone on far, far too long—and was still far from over. After all, Nixon ran on a platform in 1968 to end the war. And what did he do? He sabotaged L.B.J.’s back-channel peace talks and escalated the war—massively escalated it—by invading Cambodia. The picture becomes emblematic of so many things: the lies of politicians, the horrors of war, the uncertainty of outcomes. When we look at Kim Phúc, we ask ourselves, “What did she do to deserve this?” And the answer, invariably, comes back. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Kim Phúc spent a long time very mad about everything and everyone involved in this atrocity. If I were her, I would be mad, too. The fact that the burning of Kim Phúc occurred in the course of some supposedly meaningful mission—e.g., to save South Vietnam from Communism—I don’t think that changes much of anything. A little girl running from fire was engulfed by it and horribly, horribly damaged. I don’t even like the idea that one can take a positive lesson from such a thing.

After fleeing her village, Kim Phúc (shown here with her infant son) came upon a clique of Western reporters. A BBC correspondent splashed water from his canteen on her burns, not knowing that water causes napalm to burn even more fiercely.

Kim Phúc sees it differently. Near the end of her book, she mentions a revelation that turned the last of her rage on its head. Despite endless efforts to forgive everyone for everything done to her on June 8, 1972, “there was one question that tormented me above them all: Why did the people at the hospital put me in the morgue, leaving me to die?”

Speaking at a UNESCO conference 30 years later, she met a renowned scientist who had spent the majority of his career studying chemical weapons, including napalm. He explained to her: “The fact that you were left unattended for three days’ time, your wounds wrapped tightly in bandages, your body laid to rest, is precisely what saved your life.” It turns out that napalm can re-ignite. Kim Phúc later met the brother of an unfortunate soldier in Vietnam who found this out the hard way. After being burned with napalm, he was airlifted to a hospital in Hawaii. Within minutes of triage nurses removing his bandages to inspect his burns, he was dead.

I find this story deeply troubling, and I’m not even sure why. God, whoever He or She might be, is most likely not an expert on third-degree napalm burns. The fact that Kim Phúc’s bandages weren’t removed was yet another chance occurrence, just like the napalming of her village itself. Except one nearly cost her her life; the other saved it. It only heightens my feelings about the sad fate of humanity. We endlessly try to find meaning where there is none—only the impossible burden of having to bear the unbearable, comprehend the incomprehensible, forgive the unforgivable.

A final irony. The officer who claimed responsibility for coordinating the attack on Trảng Bàng was forgiven by Kim Phúc. But there was a problem. He subsequently admitted to The Baltimore Sun that he had lied. (Though he was a veteran of the war, he was too low-ranking to have had any real role in the attack.) He was simply “caught up in the emotion at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the day Kim Phúc spoke.” Evidently, the need to receive absolution, to achieve redemption—even for something you didn’t do—trumps all.

Santayana may have truly believed the world could be made better through knowledge of the past. Knowledge of the past, knowledge of something. But what if knowledge doesn’t lead to a better world, only to a deeper sense of hopelessness? Here’s my version: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without an ironic sense of futility.

While I can’t find the same meaning in the incident on June 8, 1972, that Kim Phúc has found, I also can’t do better than to quote her autobiography:

When the war came to my village of Trảng Bàng, it was as if someone flipped a grand light switch into the off position; what had been bright and beautiful was now decimated and dim. Gone were the laughter and whimsy; gone were those thriving fruit trees; gone were lazy days and innocence; gone was abundance in all its forms. Those napalm bombs were dropped, and everything exploded—our resources, our freedoms, our lives.

Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL

Additional research by Joshua Kearney, an editor who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts