Since the European migrant crisis began, no news photo has given the advocates of more humane border policies hope than the widely circulated picture of the 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach after drowning at sea.
As he lies on the shore in his red shirt and black shorts, Aylan looks as if he might be taking a nap. His death is a horrifying reminder of what happens when migrants from the Middle East and Africa can’t get the help they need to rebegin their lives.
But as the controversy surrounding Aylan’s death continues, we need to be aware of the limited power of images to change government policy. As a number of commentators have pointed out, a photo taken during the Vietnam War offers a striking comparison with last week’s photo of Aylan.
That photo is the one AP photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut took on June 8, 1972 of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack on her Vietnamese village that was ordered by an American commander.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture, which was first known as “napalm girl” and appeared in Newsweek, Phuc is naked. Her clothes have been burned off her. Her arms are outstretched. Her mouth is open as she screams in terror.
Phuc seems to be asking someone—anyone—to pick her up, but the only adults in Ut’s picture in a position to help Phuc are a group of soldiers, who seem indifferent to her and to the other terrified children near her.
The result is that Ut’s photo offers a mixed set of lessons when we think about it today. It was, to be sure, a great plus for the antiwar movement. The terrified Phuc could not be treated as what American military spokesmen called collateral damage.
The photo showed the mindlessness behind the quote an American Army major once made to reporter Peter Arnett about American military tactics in Vietnam: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”
It was not until March 29, 1973, that the last American troops departed Vietnam, and it was not until April 29, 1975, that Ambassador Graham Martin and the last American diplomatic personnel left Vietnam, but there’s no clear way to measure its direct impact.
The real hero of Ut’s picture is Ut himself. He has never claimed hero status, but it is an honor he deserves as a result of his refusal to remain a passive observer of the scene he has just photographed.
In contrast to the indifferent soldiers in his picture, Ut picked Phuc up and rushed her to the nearest hospital. There he was told that Phuc was beyond help, but he demanded that the doctors treat her anyway. It turned out that Ut was right in believing Phuc was not doomed, despite the burns covering more than half her body.
Phuc survived her ordeal, and her life has turned out well. She is a United Nations Goodwill ambassador, living in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and two sons. She is also an optimist. In a September 3 interview with Canada’s Global News, she said that she believes the picture of Aylan can change the course of the migrant crisis in Europe.
Phuc’s optimism says much about her faith in the politics of rescue. But the sad truth is in 1972 Ut succeeded in saving Phuc because he did what no government or international agency did at the time her life was on the line—he acted on the basis of what his heart told him rather than weighing the political pros and cons of a crisis.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.