Never Stop Running, Napalm Girl!!!
The Sea was mild and soothing as I sailed alone in the western reaches of the Caribbean. It had been four days since my last human contact. Such exile does not disturb me – it comforts me. The wind was light, and the waves were small and melodious – like the cello phrase in a string quartet.
Although quite relaxed, I was also vigilant, because my position was near the busy shipping lanes between the Panama Canal and the Yucatan Channel. Suddenly, I sensed a nearby hazard. My first scan of the horizon revealed nothing. On my second, more careful sweep, I saw her – a gray smudge of a ship, still half below the undulating cusp of the Earth. I took my binoculars from their rack and focused them. What I saw slammed me backwards – both physically and emotionally. She was one of them – a gray, military transport vessel that was all too familiar to me. I had served aboard one – a U.S. Navy ammunition ship in Vietnam.
I had not willingly done so. I had been drafted just after receiving my bachelor’s degree. My first decision was whether to flee to Canada, as my courageous college roommate had done, or to let them take me. My next choice was between a two year Army enlistment or the four-year Navy sentence. Wishing to neither kill nor be killed because of anyone’s insipid “domino theory,” I chose the USN. As someone who survived higher education with my capacity for critical thinking still intact, I already knew that war was horrible and this particular one was senseless and despicable. I was not an ideal recruit.
The toughest part of my service was being a closet pacifist aboard a ship full of gung-ho, pseudo-warriors. And these were the worst kind – the swaggering, macho types, who had the luxury of never facing any real combat. I kept my secret to myself, just as I kept my self to myself. In fact, I do not have a single friend from that chapter of my life. When I would go ashore and meet actual soldiers, they were not gung-ho at all. They were beaten down and regretful and frightened – and wanted only to be away from there…to be home…to be far from all that madness.
I never talk about this with my friends. And it rarely enters my consciousness. But that dark ship on the horizon, transporting munitions and mutilation to who knows which target this time, just staggered me. To ease my anguish, I tried the comfort of my favorite classical music. It didn’t work, and neither did dousing myself with buckets of sea water. Although I resisted, I knew that the only way out of my agony was to burrow deeper into it.
So I brought out her picture. I keep it protected in an envelope hidden in one of my favorite books. I unfolded it tenderly, and gazed one more time at all the evil, meaningless terror of war captured in a single frozen instant from 40 years ago. I spoke to her once more as I had done many other times down the decades, when I needed solace:
“Hello again, Napalm Girl. Keep on running! There must be some place, somewhere, free from this horror and insanity. You must find that place. You deserve that place. Never stop running!!!”
She is crying out, “Too hot! Too hot!” as she flees. Grotesque flaming jelly from the sky has burned most of the little dress from her nine year old body. The rest she ripped off herself as she kept running and screaming “I’m dying! I’m dying!”
When the heroic photographer got to her, she was whimpering, “Water, water.” He emptied his canteen on her. With ferocious determination, through insane traffic, he managed to get her to a hospital in Saigon. They said she was so badly burned that she would never live and they would not accept her. He flashed his Associated Press photo credentials and said, “Don’t let this child die or everyone will hear about it!” They took her in. And they saved her.
That Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, deeply understood the ravages of war. His older brother, who was his personal hero, had already died photographing the misery of combat. When Nick answered the call of basic human decency, and rescued that terrified little girl, he had no idea that on the film in his camera was one of the most profound and powerful photographs of all time. He was only 19 years old.
Even though the immortal Napalm Girl picture touches me in my core being, it is the one with her mother sitting beside her in the hospital that truly haunts me. The woman’s quiet dignity as she comforts her innocent frightened child overwhelms me. In her noble, image, I can see what an almost unbearable burden but blessing it is to be a Woman, and to be a Mother, in this world of torment. And it sickens me to realize that it is almost always men that cause this needless anguish.
Decades later, I can still imagine their likely conversation as the child asks the mother, “What was that horrible fire that fell from the sky?”
And the mom might reply, “It was some terrible new weapon – like a bomb, but different.”
“But why did they drop it on us?” asks the little girl. “We were just children and old people hiding in the temple from the planes. We didn’t hurt anybody!”
My guess is that the heroic mother, overwhelmed with grief by the sight of her incinerated child, might have said something like this. “I do not know the answer, my beautiful daughter. But I do know that you survived this horrible thing, and your pain will go away and you will heal. And someday, life will be sweet and sensible again. Now, try to go to sleep, and when you awake, I will be right here beside you.”
The dark gray death ship passed a few miles ahead of me, and has now disappeared beyond the horizon. But even though it is no longer visible, its malignancy still torments me. I stare again at little Kim’s photo in my hands, and ask myself, “How can I best honor her suffering?” And then I realize that what makes her pain-wracked image so universal and so immortal is that it lays bare the true nature of war. And that the best way to repay my gratitude, is to use my power as a writer, to further expose this loathsome evil.
Tragically, as I type these words, the war drums are beating again. The Deceiver-in-Chief has scheduled a national address in which he will knowingly lie about the need for this latest “regrettable but necessary action.” Then the commentators will babble on about “sufficient justification” and “reprisals” and “surgical strikes. But they will never discuss what war actually is. And that is because, at its core, it is sick and perverted and senseless.
If someone invades your home and threatens your family, it is your right and your responsibility to protect them, even if it necessitates violence. This type of personal duty is decent, courageous and just. But war is the killing of human beings with whom we have no personal grievance. War is Mass Psychotic Hypnosis. But it is never initiated by ordinary people. One morning at breakfast, a million Norwegians do not spontaneously decide that it would be a good idea to invade Ireland that afternoon.
No, this type of insanity can only be seeded and nurtured by certifiable sociopaths. Unfortunately, we don’t call them lunatics, and banish them to asylums. Instead we anoint them as political and religious leaders. These diseased power addicts use cold-blooded manipulation to convince enormous groups of people that other groups of people are their enemies…and so they must go forth…and annihilate them.
Here is another truth about war that the self-righteous, talking heads deliberately avoid. Those who make the wars never have to fight the wars. The Great Deciders will never be in a night ambush, where the fear is so overpowering that their bodily control abandons them, and they shit themselves. And the defense contractors, engorged on obscene profits, will never have to kick open a mud hut door after strafing it with automatic weapons fire, and discover a heap of dead children beneath a wounded mother, who is so traumatized that she cannot even scream. And the media tycoons cheerleading for more carnage, will never rush to the flag-draped coffin of a dead son or daughter and wrap themselves around it in fury as the military band tries to sound heroic.
And here is yet another profound truth that the acceptable, credentialed pundits never state: War doesn’t work! It never makes the world a better place. For thousands of years, humanity has waged hundreds of wars, but they never achieve their supposedly noble ideals. They never “end all wars” or “bring everlasting peace” or “insure self-determination” or any of the dozen other excuses that are used to incite people to massacre one another. What it does succeed at doing is bringing misery, murder, mutilation and madness to ordinary, decent people.
So listen carefully as the highly paid military and political analysts parade across your television screens, proclaiming the need for this latest “kinetic action.” Observe how these shrewd distorters evade the three paramount characteristics of war that I have just discussed. None of them will address what war really is. Nor will they mention that those who benefit from war do not suffer its horrors. And finally, they will not admit that war never brings good into the world and is actually a plague that sickens the human project.
Recognizing that war is Mass Psychotic Hypnosis, how do we overcome those who mesmerize us? How do we break free from their spell? Certainly our liberation will not come from those at the top. War rewards them too handsomely.
We must rely on our numbers. We are many, they are few. When the chant from the anti-Vietnam protests, “Hell, no…we won’t go!” became a reality and not just a slogan, the war machine sputtered and died. Refusal is our best strategy. We must refuse to serve in their militaries or in their terror cells. We must refuse to resolve disputes through violence. And if they incarcerate us for our resistance, that is a better fate than killing someone who is not an enemy. And when enough of us refuse, their prisons are not large enough to hold us.
I am perfectly mindful that such thinking is idealistic and foolhardy, but perhaps it will inspire others to come forth with better options for ending war. Yet, even if such ideals are useless, we must try – if for no other reason than to honor Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl. We must sculpt a world where an innocent little girl does not have to race down a road with the flesh peeling off her body, trying to outrun her own death!
I urge you to visit www.kimfoundation.com. Dedicated to helping other children who are victims of war.
Almost every day something utterly insipid “goes viral” on the World Wide Web. Perhaps we can help spread this little essay at this critical time when the war drums are again thundering Inside the Beltway. By doing so, we can all honor the Napalm Girl.
Lots more from former Key Wester, Ray Jason on his website:
THE SEA GYPSY PHILOSOPHER, Uncommon Essays from a Thoughtful Wanderer