It is simply one of the most iconic photos ever taken. It's the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire as part of a peace protest on the streets of Saigon:
No, it's not just a Rage Against the Machine album.
It's common knowledge that Quang Duc staged this gruesome, fiery spectacle in protest of the American presence in Vietnam -- at least, that seems to be what all the Americans who copycatted him thought.
And you thought Americans copying Asian tattoos that they didn't understand was a stupid trend.
Because American history classes and news media both tend to relay everything in terms of how it affects the USA, it's easy to wind up with the impression that everything kind of revolves around us. But of course, the world is more complicated. For example, this protest couldn't have been less about the Americans in Vietnam -- they wouldn't even land combat troops there for almost two more years. The protest was completely and utterly about the Diem regime's anti-Buddhist policies.
And here is where a lot of us say, "The what regime?"
To briefly summarize, Vietnam had a lot of Buddhists, but as a former French colony, it also had a lot of Catholics, one of whom was to become the devoutly religious leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem's Vietnam regime set out a number of anti-Buddhist policies, like giving land, food aid, and military promotions only to Catholics. He even went so far as to ban the flying of Buddhist flags, while flying the Catholic Vatican flag on government buildings. This of course made the Buddhists very un-Buddhistly pissed off and sparked a number of protests that were violently suppressed by the government.
To send a message to the Diem regime, the Buddhist monks decided to show just how serious they were about equal religious rights by arranging the public self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. In what could have resulted in the tragic waste of one perfectly good monk, Western reporters nearly ignored the monks' invitation to the streets of Saigon to witness the protest. Only a few showed up, including one photographer by the name of Malcolm Browne, who would capture the now ubiquitous and much misunderstood image.
Browne's photo proved just how much political power a single snapshot can possess; when the image spread throughout news outlets around the world, it forced the first lady of South Vietnam to make a political concession to the Buddhists ... by proclaiming that she would bring mustard to the next Buddhist monk BBQ. Yeah, we can't lie, shit got pretty ugly around that time.
This one's basically self-evident, since we Americans decided to call it the Vietnam War. The war saw the Americans and the South Vietnamese fighting against the commies of North Vietnam. Fairly straightforward, right?
After all, if you were watching a Vietnam movie and suddenly you saw a bunch of, we don't know, Australians, you'd think they were playing a joke on us. And if you saw a whole division of Koreans fighting on the same side as the Americans, you'd think that Hollywood casting directors were too racist to realize their mistake.
Except for Frank DuBois, C.S.A., who takes painstaking effort to make sure all his racism is intentional.
First of all, Hollywood loves to downplay the contribution of the South Vietnamese. Everyone knows they were involved, but if you got all your information from movies, you'd think their role was limited to providing general support and committing the occasional war crime, when in reality the bulk of the anti-communist force was always Vietnamese. Even after most of the U.S. ground troops had withdrawn, the South proved perfectly capable of defeating major offensives. It was only after the U.S. continued to withdraw financial backing that they crumbled entirely.
"War without money just wasn't very fun."
But Uncle Sam had already made up his mind about cutting them off.
No one ever talks about the South Koreans either, despite the fact that they sent over 300,000 freaking troops to Vietnam ... meaning that they actually had a higher per capita involvement in the war than the U.S. Meanwhile, North Korea sent fighter pilots to aid the communist cause. And we haven't even gotten to the Australians and New Zealanders (about 60,000 Australians served there -- did you even know there were 60,000 people in the Australian military?).
"It takes balls to put on this uniform ... which you can clearly see the outline of in these shorts."
On the ground, things got even more confusing. A telling story is that one of the largest battles of the war didn't involve the North Vietnamese at all, but was essentially a proxy fight between the CIA and the French. You see, the war had started with the colonial French fighting the Viet Minh before they were forced to bow out after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Amazingly, the French weren't willing to give up 80 years of profiting from Vietnam that easily, and French intelligence tried to retain some influence. Things got ugly when the CIA installed the virulently anti-French Diem as president of South Vietnam, and before long the French had assembled a coalition that included an absurdly powerful criminal organization called the Binh Xuyen, who also officially controlled Saigon's police force. The battle against them involved more soldiers than the Tet Offensive, and eventually got so nasty that CIA agent Edward Lansdale suggested orchestrating a coup against the French government to "make a lady out of a slut."
U.S. Air Force
He was basically a Game of Thrones character.
This could go on all day, so let's just sum up: The Americans fought the North Vietnamese, who fought the Australians, who fought the Pathet Lao, who fought the Montagnard, who fought the nationalist militias, who fought the Catholic militias, who fought the Viet Cong (who were really the NLF), who fought the South Koreans, who were bombed by the North Koreans, who helped the Khmer Rouge, who fought the French, who bribed the sects, who betrayed the gangsters, who also fought the Americans. And everyone screwed over the peasants. There. They can work all that into a movie, right?
Related Reading: Next, why not bust some World War II myths -- like the idea that Americans did most of the Nazi killing. Follow up by busting a few entrenched Civil War myths, such as "There was nothing the South could have done to win." Last, learn the truth behind America's first war, including the revelation that we couldn't have won our independence without France.
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