* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column first ran in February 2007.
To Western minds like mine, one of the great modern mysteries is the selection of the Dalai Lama.
The current one was plucked from obscurity, from a poor hamlet in Tibet, at age three, the fifth of 16 children. He went on to become a monk, author of a dozen books, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a man of wisdom, respected by world leaders of all stripes.
In short, he fulfilled his unexpected destiny to perfection. But in the beginning he was an ordinary three-year-old. How does this kind of thing happen?
The question comes to mind as I reflect on last week’s speaker at the Mondavi Center, Kim Phuc, known as “the girl in the picture.” She, too, was plucked from obscurity, chosen not by a Buddhist monk but by a napalm bomb.
The bomb destroyed the South Vietnamese village where Phuc’s family was hiding on June 8, 1972. As Phuc, 9, fled with other children, screaming, naked, arms akimbo, burned over 65 percent of her body, a photographer snapped a picture.
The world shuddered at that photo, perhaps hastening the end of the war.
Because the photograph still moves me, you’d think I would have rushed to buy a ticket to Phuc’s speech when they became available months ago.
I didn’t. This is because I assumed that someone was manipulating the now grown girl, placing her before the public because American audiences would like to see her.
What were the chances that this 44-year-old woman was remarkable in her own right? How could a girl from a small town in Vietnam have much sophistication, let alone the ability to speak good English?
I expected to be disappointed by her performance, as I have been by other people who became famous by accident. I wanted her to remain the girl in the photo.
A month ago, however, I heard that she’d be participating in a free afternoon panel, and I decided to go. Then a friend offered me a ticket to the evening performance, so I went to that, too.
I have been richly rewarded for those decisions, so I want to share some of what I learned.
First, more about the photo.
All of the other children in the photo were Phuc’s relatives. The boy with the huge wailing mouth is her older brother, who died two years ago. Her younger brother and two cousins are also running. Two other cousins, not in the photo, were babies who died in the attack.
The photographer was a young Vietnamese man named Nick Ut, then 21, who worked for the Associated Press (and still does). He won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, but Phuc honors him as the man who took her to the hospital and saw to it that she got help for her burns.
They speak every week.
The serviceman who claimed to have coordinated the air strike was a slim-faced American, John Plummer, who spent years in alcoholism and failed relationships after the war. In 1996, however, he met Phuc after she spoke at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and received her forgiveness. He calls it the moment that changed his life.
Some have questioned his role in the bombing, but whatever Plummer’s truth may be, Phuc’s desire to forgive is one of many clues to who she has become.
At first, things didn’t look good. According to Phuc, the post-war Vietnamese government used her for propaganda, as a “war symbol for the state,” thwarting her plans to attend medical school. (She had been accepted after achieving a stellar grade point average). She was constantly supervised.
Finally, she convinced an important dignitary to restore her privacy, and she continued her education in Cuba. There she met her husband, also from Vietnam, and on the flight home from their honeymoon told him she wanted to defect. They did so during a refueling stop, in Gander, Newfoundland.
She and her husband have two children, one the same age as she is in the picture, and Canadian citizenship.
Kim never became a doctor but she said, “dear friends, sometimes our dream changes.”
In 1996 she helped create the foundation named for her, the Kim Foundation International, dedicated to helping child victims of war. She calls it her mission. I presume that public speaking is part of how she raises money.
Phuc is soft-spoken, walks with dignity, and has a big smile. Her English is lovely: clear and beautiful. She is comfortable rolling up her sleeve to show us her burned arm.
At the afternoon session, she also showed us a new photo, in which she holds her infant son with her heavily scarred back and shoulders in clear view.
That second photo means hope to her, and forgiveness. She said, “Faith and forgiveness are more powerful than napalm could ever be.” Despite continuing pain from her burns, she accepts her famous war photo as “a powerful gift.”
Listening to her, I felt myself in the presence of someone spiritual, not unlike the Dalai Lama, someone who took the unexpected, painful, public life she was handed and made it into an opportunity to do something for others.
I am glad I went to hear her.
I am humbled by her vision and her strength.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org