From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

 

Fire road napalm girl Vietnam War memoir

The cover of Fire Road, the memoir by Phan Thị Kim Phúc.

When I was getting ready to move to Vietnam, I did what I try to do before going to a new country: Research through books, series and films. With Vietnam, though, most material is (understandably) usually about the Vietnam War.

And what image or person is more representative of the tragedy and insanity of that war than “The Napalm Girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc?

My sister handed me her copy of Kim’s memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, co-written with Ashley Wiersma, which tells her story beyond the horrific image burned into collective memory. I thought: Do I really want to read about this? Another part of me knew I had to. (Also, I enjoy a good Triumph Over Tragedy story.)

On 8 June 1972, Kim and her community got caught in the crossfire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers when an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places forced them to flee their village, Trang Bang, along the strategic Route 1 she refers to as Fire Road.

At nine years old, Kim was pictured running down the road, screaming, with third-degree burns over her body in a photo that some say had a major role in ending the Vietnam War. Nick Ut, who took her to the hospital later, won a Pulitzer for the shot that became part of photojournalism history.

The Napalm Girl by Nick Ut Vietnam War photojournalism

THAT image, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kim was thought dead. But she survived, and spent 14 months in intensive recovery from the third-degree burns. Here’s the book’s blurb:

Get out! Run! We must leave this place! They are going to destroy this whole place! Go, children, run first! Go now!

These were the final shouts nine year-old Kim Phuc heard before her world dissolved into flames − before napalm bombs fell from the sky, burning away her clothing and searing deep into her skin. It’s a moment forever captured, an iconic image that has come to define the horror and violence of the Vietnam War. Kim was left for dead in a morgue; no one expected her to survive the attack. Napalm meant fire, and fire meant death.

Against all odds, Kim lived − but her journey toward healing was only beginning. When the napalm bombs dropped, everything Kim knew and relied on exploded along with them: her home, her country’s freedom, her childhood innocence and happiness. The coming years would be marked by excruciating treatments for her burns and unrelenting physical pain throughout her body, which were constant reminders of that terrible day. Kim survived the pain of her body ablaze, but how could she possibly survive the pain of her devastated soul?

Fire Road is the true story of how she found the answer in a God who suffered Himself; a Savior who truly understood and cared about the depths of her pain. Fire Road is a story of horror and hope, a harrowing tale of a life changed in an instant − and the power and resilience that can only be found in the power of God’s mercy and love.

From the get-go, given the subtitle and her many references to God and Jesus Christ, it’s clear the book will be about faith. And, really, given what this woman has had to live through and with, it’s no wonder.

How can you watch your family members and community die, survive being horrifically burnt, become the ultimate anti-war ‘poster child’, a puppet in your country’s propaganda machine, live with constant physical pain and NOT turn to faith?

This is not to say Kim wasn’t raised religiously to begin with. For me, some of the most fascinating early parts of the book were all about the CaoDai beliefs and rituals of her childhood.

In a feature for Christianity Today in which Kim tells of her coming to the Christian faith, she explains:

“Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognises all religions as having ‘one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,’ or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. ‘You are god, and god is you’ − we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along − and every day, it seemed, they did −I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were non-existent or they did not care to lend a hand.”

I also enjoyed Kim’s recounting of her mother’s infamous noodle shop, which the state eventually took over. I think of this aspect of her family’s past often here in Vietnam, when I see little girls helping their moms at its many street stalls and home ‘restaurants’.

Vietnam street food noodle shop Fire Road

An excerpt from the book, mentioning Kim’s mother’s noodle shop.

The book also spent some time revealing aspects of Kim’s story that many may not be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.)

For instance, I didn’t know…

…that it wasn’t the Americans who dropped the bomb that burned Kim. Apparently, it was dropped “by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.”

… about the effect of napalm on the body. The ‘sticky fire’ adheres to skin like tar, making it hard for doctors to treat wounds. Trying to wipe it off only causes it to spread; and only smothering it (excruciating pain) removes it. It continues to burn the body if exposed to oxygen, too. Horrific.

“Napalm can generate temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Phúc, having sustained third-degree burns to half her body, was not expected to live.”
http://www.earth.com

Kim had to undergo many operations after the attack, and was still undergoing treatments in her 50s. So that day caused her physical suffering that lasted her whole life.

that Kim then became a keg in the country’s propaganda machine, having to attend frequent conferences and media briefings to say what she was told to say. All this time away from her studies (and life) squashed Kim’s dreams of becoming a doctor.

The many synchronicities in Kim’s story gave me goosebumps, and hats off to her for making so many friends (and meeting important people) along the way. I admired the guts it took for her to defect and make a new life in a colder clime.

Above all, the book makes you think about what’s needed for healing from trauma and tragedy, both literally and figuratively. It’s about the power of faith − for overcoming debilitating emotions, like fear and rage; for forgiveness (“love your enemy”, as the Bible says); and even for bringing a family together again.

kim phuc napalm girl scars

Kim holding her first-born son when he was an infant. Motherhood gave her healing.

Today, Kim is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and she has a foundation to help other children of war. Her story is a generous gift she has given the world. It is a truly inspiring one of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude and grace. I’ll end with Kim’s words:

“We are all walking one fire road or another, be it paved by relational upheaval or financial upheaval, physical or emotional or the general inconveniences of life,” Kim says. “But when you and I come along with a posture of peace, or with gentle and kind words, or with an offer of prayer or a hug, or with anything that looks and acts like Jesus, it is as if we have used a fire extinguisher − the flames that burned hot settle down.”

To hear Kim speak about the book, watch this clip from Tyndale House Publishers.

napalm girl Adel Abdessemed

When it comes to the Vietnam War, Kim’s story is part of the popular imagination. The haunting image of her running away, naked and burnt, was made into a sculpture by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

 

One thought on “From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

  1. So sad – yet so real – the ravages of war , man on man are indeed traumatic. both physically and emotionally – and what do they ultimately achieve ?
    These images remain as vivid memories to millions of people around the World to this day As vivid today as they were then ! Yet do we ever learn ?

    Like

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