Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Higher Moral Ground (Poem)

A Higher Moral Ground

I think that two people died in that picture, not only the man he shot
      but him. . . The intention was to show what happened.
          ~ Eddie Adams*

Get this:
It was 1968,
just another day

in Vietnam.
A general raised
his hand;

it was pure reflex
when the shutter

The shot struck
like no others
during the morning's news,

ruining one life
by following the hit
on another's

and calling it
what it was.
The camera

didn't lie;
it got what happened
in war,

on the street,
the next year even won
the picture-maker a Pulitzer.

But what a sore
point it was
for the shooter,

who could not
live down
what was

unintended, what was
not a moment
for national mourning,

not like that shot
of a veiled Jacqueline
receiving the folded flag

while our own hearts broke.

© 2011 Maureen E. Doallas

"Shooter" is a term for a photographer.

The photograph Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner by the phenomenal Eddie Adams was one of the most famous to come out of coverage of the Vietnam War. (I still recall the day the image appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere, remember wincing at the seeming cold-bloodedness of its subject, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan.) It was what's called a "reflex picture" — made without thinking about it at the instant the event happened — and it won Adams a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969. Adams also took the extraordinary (and as famous) 1963 photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy receiving the flag that covered her husband's coffin. That photo, interestingly enough, was never submitted for Pulitzer consideration. Frustrated with always being asked about his picture of the Saigon execution, no matter his other work, Adams eventually stopped answering questions about it.

* Hear audio of Adams talking about the image here.

Adams, who died in 2004, is the subject of the documentary An Unlikely Weapon, directed and produced by Susan Morgan Cooper; the film was screened in New York City in 2009. The interesting trailer is here.

* * * * *

I offer this poem for the One Shot Wednesday event at One Stop Poetry, which each week invites poets to share, read, and comment on each other's work. Be sure to visit the site late Tuesday afternoon and every Wednesday to access the many contributors' poems. Each week's posts are archived.


Glynn said...

I recall the original publication of the photo - I was 16. The brutality of what it depicted did something to all of us, I think. Your poem brings all of that back.

Louise Gallagher said...

And what a fabulous offering it is!

Valerie Kamikubo said...

How ironic the title "One Shot Wednesday" seems today.

S. Etole said...

my heart stood still a bit as I read this ...

Anonymous said...

I still remember that day... where I was and how it affected the people around me.

Anthony Desmond said...

this is the kind of poem that leaves me speechless... especially when I viewed the photo.


moondustwriter said...

I could almost here the shutter click as life stands still

Thanks for the information about Eddie Adams I always appreciate the history captured by a photographer ( in many cases at their own risk of peril)

hedgewitch said...

Another facet of the human experience laid bare, one we tend to hide from. I remember how the vultures descended on Jaqueline Kennedy and picked the bones of Camelot clean, and the horror of the Viet Nam shot seems part and parcel of it all, and of the devolution of civilization. in this clean and well constructed piece.

PattiKen said...

I remember that photo too, shocking me with its starkness when I thought I could no longer be shocked by the images coming out of Southeast Asia.

Thank you for this very powerful piece, Maureen.

ayala said...

Thank you for a beautiful thought provoking poem.

Beachanny said...

I remember it too; I was in Dallas of course for the other event. The tears never stopped flowing. Our lives changed, our passions ebbed, we grabbed onto whomever was closest and held on to keep from drowning in sorrow. Well done Maureen. Thanks.

R.H. Mustard said...

I know this photograph very well. It's somewhat similar to Robert Capa's famous shot of the Republican soldier at the instant of his shooting death in the Spanish Civil War. Your poem pulls the many threads of this intense confrontation together in a compelling fashion, reminding us of the all too common extremes to which human beings will go in defense of one ideology or another. We feel for the victim, but for me one of the photo's meanings is that no one is entirely innocent in war (with the exception of civilians). And, of course, truth is always the first casualty.

Anonymous said...

you made some interesting historical photo facts into a beautiful poem. it all looks good now.

Terresa said...

"The camera

didn't lie;
it got what happened
in war,

on the street,
the next year even won
the picture-maker a Pulitzer."

Photos stay with us a lot longer than words (at least for me). This is a striking, thought provoking piece, Maureen.

Anonymous said...


Ruth said...

I'm stunned by this piece, Maureen, and by listening to Adams talk about it. I am reading Susan Sontag's book on photography, and something she said keeps haunting me, that we think we know something from photographs. We see them from places we will never see in person, about people we will never meet, and we think we know something. Is what we know true? I was very moved by Adams saying he does not like being responsible for ruining that general's life.

I wish we could sit and talk about this very important topic in a discussion group!

Pete Marshall said...

superbly written....i didnt even need to see the photo to know which one you were talking about..and remember i was born in 67 and live in britain, such is the power of that image...Pete

Hannah Stephenson said...

Terrific poem, and sensitive analysis of these two images.

Chris G. said...

Decades later, I think the world still shudders at the sight of that...how one photo could sum up so much that was wrong...

C Rose said...

Your piece and the photo that inspired makes my heart ache. I feel pain for everyone in that moment.I think it is so important that you wrote this piece and brought this history back to us, it is how we can learn to love one another instead. Wonderful write ~ Rose