Burns are visually distinct and emotionally overwhelming. They are horrific and iconic. Think only of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk whose self-immolation was filmed and photographed in a carefully orchestrated protest against Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Sitting in the lotus position, the elderly monk was doused with petrol by fellow monks before he set himself alight. The act, not surprisingly, ended in his death, but the events of 11 June 1963 also sparked a dramatic escalation in the conflict between Vietnam’s dictatorship, which favoured the country’s Catholic minority, and its Buddhist community. A description of the event by American journalist David Halberstam manages to add drama to the haunting photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne by emphasising more than just visual spectacle.
‘Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh…Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.’ (D. Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, 1965, 211)
Sociologist Michael Biggs has argued that the power of this extreme form of protest comes from the likelihood that self-immolation will end in death (70% of cases are fatal). Hunger strikes may be averted, but in cases of self-immolation, death is not conditional. Not surprisingly, responses to such images are dramatic.
‘The Napalm Girl’
My second example captures another moment in the history of Vietnam (8 June 1972), nearly a decade after Guang Duc’s self-immolation. It was taken minutes after inhabitants of Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, experienced a napalm strike, and it shows children running towards a wire roadblock on Route 1, the main highway between Saigon and Cambodia. As described in the first pages of Robert Neer’s recent history of napalm, earlier these children had been huddled with their families in a temple under the protection of South Vietnamese soldiers, when the building was mistaken for a North Vietnamese target. A group of injured and frightened children subsequently escaped the site and fled to a nearby checkpoint, where a waiting journalist noticed a naked nine-year-old girl who had been stripped by napalm, which continued to burn. It was then that Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut captured his Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo. To many, it dramatically depicts the impact of war on non-combatants, and the day after it was taken, the photo appeared in newspapers alongside the heading ‘The Terror of War’. ‘Napalm Girl’ has become the best known image of the Vietnam War and is credited with bringing about a shift in the American public’s attitude towards the conflict.
Although burns have the potential to erase a person’s identity, by literally scorching away their features, the ‘Napalm Girl’ now has a name, Kim Phuc, and her story has been told in a film and a well-known biography. After capturing this pivotal image, Nick Ut took Kim and her brother to a South Vietnamese hospital. She subsequently spent 14 months in the Barsky Unit in the American hospital in Saigon. Kim’s burns, which covered 50% of her body, were grafted by American surgeons and, after two years of treatment and rehabilitation, she was able to return to her village. Like many burns victims, her life was fundamentally transformed, only, in this case, it was further altered by the particular political context. Forced to leave school, she was regularly interviewed and became a ‘national symbol of war’. Eventually defecting from Vietnam while en route to Cuba, she now lives in Toronto, Canada with her family. In 1997, she established the Kim Foundation International, a charity that assists child victims of war.
As unique as Kim’s story may appear, many burns casualties have resisted remaining individual tragedies. Like the fiery death of Guang Duc, some have inspired imitators, or galvanised collective action. More recent cases of self-immolation have demonstrated this yet again, with the suicide of Tunisian fruit-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi recognised as a catalyst of the Tunisian Revolution, if not the wider uprising in the Arab world; in Panara and Wilson’s The Arab Spring (2013), he is the butterfly of chaos theory whose fluttering wings continue to cause storms around the globe. While burns units in the West continue to treat cases of self-immolation (two were admitted to the Birmingham Burns Unit over the Christmas holidays), many more patients, past and present, share similarities with Kim Phuc. As in the past, approximately 50% of burns victims are children. Their stories, like that of Kim, are also more often heard, not just in the popular press, but at burns conferences, such as that mentioned in yesterday’s posting, in order to better understand the experiences of patients.
Dr Jonathan Reinarz is Director of The History of Medicine Unit and a Reader in the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham.
Further useful links:
- A struggle to contextualize photographic images: American print media and the “Burning Monk”
- Self-Immolation: A Survey of the Last Decade
- Self-immolation: Socioeconomic, cultural and psychiatric patterns
- Robert Neer: Napalm
- Firestorm: Napalm and the American Century
- How a Single Match can Ignite a Revolution
- The Trace: Violence, Truth, and the Politics of the Body
- Image: Napalm