Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Burning Monk

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Malcolm Wilde Browne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist whose most famous photograph, that of a monk who had set himself ablaze in a Saigon street, literally showed the world the horror that was to soon become the Vietnam War.  President Kennedy said that “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one.”  The burning monk photo reportedly led Kennedy to begin a reevaluation of his Vietnam policy.

In June of 1963, several foreign journalists in South Vietnam were told where and when they could witness a “shocking political protest” against the government of South Vietnam which was supported by the U.S. government.  Of the several invited, only Browne showed up and was there to witness as a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, calmly parked his car, got out and sat in the middle of the street while several other monks doused him with gasoline.  The devout monk then struck a match and sat in prayer, burning, while hundreds watched and Browne snapped a series of photographs.

The incident signaled the beginning of a rebellion that led to the overthrow and deaths of the U.S. backed President and national security chief of South Vietnam.

Those years in which our government was quietly engaged in a shadow war in Vietnam - trying to back the right generals and set up a government favorable to the United States - are chronicled, in part, in Graham Greene's novel, The Quiet American.

While I was in Vietnam last winter, one of the places that I was able to visit was a monastery/orphanage in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam.  One of the things on display at that orphanage was the auto that Thich Quang Duc drove to the scene of his death.   That old car serves as my very tenuous connection to Malcolm Wilde Browne.  It is clearly pictured in the background of the photo of the burning monk.

Mr. Browne died this week after a decade-long battle with Parkinson's.   He was fearless (having survived three plane crashes while covering the war in Vietnam) and truly a pioneer in his field.

(And, as an aside, his middle name comes from his grandfather's first cousin, British novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde. ) 

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