Relay: Images of Vietnam

In Bangkok, wartime photos by Nick Ut

It was strange, walking around Gaysorn Village, an upscale shopping mall adjacent to Bangkok’s new and equally luxurious Gaysorn Tower commercial and residential development, to happen upon the horrifying images captured by Nick Ut. But that is what happened on Friday in the early afternoon as a two-week adventure neared its end.

The mall was one stop in an ultimately fruitless search for a traditional musical instrument, an exploration that stretched across two days and yielded just a purveyor of cheap guitars, keyboards, amplifiers, and the like. But the climate was blissfully controlled inside the mall, and walking around its second floor was a welcome respite from the midday, mid-90s temperatures outside.

As it happened, I’d been thinking of Vietnam lately, having visited Southeast Asia for the first time, the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick-directed “The Vietnam War” documentary still somewhat fresh from its fall airing on PBS, and a long piece on “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam” in the Feb. 26 New Yorker, which had helped pass the time on a 151/2-hour flight, fresher still. 

“The more we look at American decision-making in Vietnam, the less sense it makes,” Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker. 

“And we watched,” Lt. John Kerry testified to Congress, as depicted in “The Vietnam War,” “while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals. We watched the United States’ falsification of body counts; in fact, the glorification of body counts.” 

Yes, it was strange, and inharmonious, to find, tucked among Brooks Brothers and Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton and Omega and Bally and Tag Heuer and Bang & Olufsen and Davidoff, the Leica Gallery and its current exhibition, “My Story by Nick Ut.”

“It’s an image you cannot forget, and shouldn’t try,” according to the exhibition’s program. “Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack remains — and always will be — the most searing image of the Vietnam War. . . . But while ‘The Terror of War’ has, along with Malcolm Browne’s ‘Burning Monk’ and Eddie Adams’ ‘Saigon Execution,’ taken on a life of its own, become cultural shorthand for war’s collateral damage, it is only one photo among thousands that he took.”

Twenty-five among those thousands are featured in “My Story,” and to gaze at any of them is to experience “a can opener to the heart,” as an East Hampton man once said to me in describing an especially traumatic occurrence in his life.

In “The Terror of War,” Mr. Ut captured 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her clothes burned off and skin seared, running toward his camera, one of several fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm attack in 1972. The others depicted in “My Story” are no less harrowing, and each of us who had wandered into the gallery, adjacent to the Leica store, where the brand’s sleek, beautiful cameras were displayed as though works of art in their own right, fell silent, as if commanded by the terrorized, agonized subjects of Mr. Ut’s work. 

Ultimately, I could only turn away, so crushingly sad were the images, and I thought of the surreal moment that I watched the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapse, from the roof of my Brooklyn apartment, so many days earlier, an event that had provoked the same, involuntary impulse. 

“Damn you,” I whispered to every architect of this inexpressible, appalling, decades-long butchery of human beings, consciously echoing Col. George Taylor in the climactic scene of the original “Planet of the Apes.” “Damn you all to hell.”

An older Asian man and I had passed each other minutes earlier, subdued as we walked through the makeshift hallways of the small space. Could he be Vietnamese, I wondered. Probably not, but perhaps, or of another country into which the carnage had spilled, Laos or Cambodia. Perhaps. 

I rounded a corner, and he and I were suddenly face to face again, and we looked into each other’s eyes, all of them wet and too full to hold back the sorrow.

Christopher Walsh is a senior writer at The Star.