Gulliver among Guerrillas

By Thy Phu Posted May 15, 2013

Figure 1. Nguyen Thi Kim Lai Leads Captured U.S. Serviceman William Robinson to Prison, 1965. Phan Thoan.

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Few images capture the spirit of asymmetric warfare more effectively than this one, which contrasts a hulking American soldier with a scrappy female fighter. Though he leads, there is no doubt about who calls the shots. Hunched over, he is humbled while she is triumphant. The photo also captures more general contrasts for viewers both within Vietnam and abroad. Despite the support of superior resources, technology and weaponry, the US was shaken by unyielding guerrilla resistance, which was aided by little more than repurposed guns and sheer determination. 

Photos like this one reflected yet also created and reinforced this view of asymmetric warfare. They helped the National Liberation Front establish a compelling message to bolster fighters' resolve. Such photos also sparked sympathetic worldwide response.

Figure 2. Vietnam Pictorial. This photo draws parallels between the U.S. and China, the giant that has fallen and the mighty that will fall. 

Several years after reunification in April 30, 1975, the photos were called on to do similar ideological work, this time for the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war. In this collage, the famous photo of contrasts establishes parallels. Although seldom used by the photo-editors of Vietnam Pictorial, the cut-up technique draws comparisons between Chinese opponents, whose sheer numbers and resources were likened to the overwhelming force of their American counterparts whom they’d famously defeated. Emboldened by this earlier victory, the editors at the picture magazine took a few liberties. While the guerilla girl is still petite, in their hands she's grown to reach the humiliated pilot's shoulders.