JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory, Volume 24, Number 2, 2004 Page: 262
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since the end of the Vietnam war. Almost twenty-five years after the
traumatic event of the napalm bombing, the girl's silent scream that spoke
eloquently to the war's opponents is given voice by the language of
trauma and recovery; the girl-victim of war's inhumanity becomes an
adult survivor, who speaks publicly of her past experience and her hopes
for peace in the future.'
The history of the photograph offers a point of entry into a set of
interlocking questions about the place of the Vietnam War in the
American national imagination, as well as the role of iconic images in the
construction of national memory. It also provides an opportunity to
consider the role of public testimony in response to a traumatic event.
When thirty-four-year old Kim Phuc speaks at the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial wall as the girl in the picture, how do we value the effect of the
adult survivor's autobiographical words compared to the wordless horror
captured by photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut? The story of the girl
and the photograph are bound up with the traumatic history of the
Vietnam war as it lives on in national memory-the American body
politic, which is also embodied in the memorial wall through the names
of those who served and died. The fate of the photograph also took on
additional poignancy when it entered into the tangled relations among
image, history, memory, trauma and testimony that were brought newly
to the front of civilian consciousness with the events of September 11,
In her much-quoted 1973 essay "On Photography," Susan Sontag
made the claim that photographs have more impact on viewers than
television because television is a "stream ofunderselected images, each
of which cancels its predecessor." Unlike television, Sontag argued thirty
years ago, writing during the war, a "still photograph is a 'privileged
moment,' turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again."
The example Sontag chose to illustrate her point was that of Kim Phuc:
"Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers
in the world in 1971 [sic] a naked child running down a South Vietnamese
highway toward the camera, having just been hit by American napalm,
her arms spread wide open, screaming with pain-were of great impor-
tance in mobilizing antiwar sentiment in this country from 1967 on. And
each one was certainly more memorable than a hundred hours of televised
barbarities" (136).2 While it is true that the prize-winning photograph
acted to crystallize antiwar sentiment and may even "have stopped the
war," as many antiwar veterans claimed, the fate of this particular
photograph somewhat undermines Sontag's opposition between the two
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Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition (U.S.). JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory, Volume 24, Number 2, 2004, periodical, 2004; (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc28644/m1/8/: accessed October 22, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .