- Historic Sites
The Obsequious Bow
The Story Behind the Picture That Shocked America
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
“One of the officers spoke a command in the microphone. I think the officer was Major Bui [North Vietnam’s commandant of military prisons]. He was never identified so I am just assuming. But he was a very ugly, nerd-looking officer. He looked like the prototypical brutal, no-nonsense prison commander … interchangeable with prison types anywhere.”
“The tape stops and they mutter something in Vietnamese and push me out into this room which has 150 to 200 people in it—the obvious press conference. As I walk out, there’s a whole mess of photographers running up the aisle toward me.”
“A moment later the curtain was yanked back, and flanked by two Vietnamese soldiers, in came the pilot. Movie lights went on and he stood still, more or less at attention. He was a big guy, perhaps six-three. He was dressed in striped prisoner pajamas, alternating purple and cream stripes, socks and sandals.”
“Now the beauty of this situation is I’m still ill. All my bandages are covered, but every day at three o’clock, I hit a high fever. I also have a boil in each nostril—just glorious. So my nose is red and about yea-big anyway; I’ve got this red [razor] burn over me, plus I’m in my late-afternoon fever.”
“He was not emaciated or infirm looking. The only thing physically wrong with him (that I could see) was his nose, which was swollen and was colored extremely red, almost as purple as the stripes of his pajamas, as though he’d been hit with a blueberry pie. But his eyes and entire face were completely devoid of expression. He seemed to be unaware of anything. He seemed not to be there at all.”
“Some obviously were Caucasians, but my assessment was there were no friends here at all; and so, okay, Manchurian candidate. I will pretend I’m drugged, and how does one do that? One stares at the back of the ceiling with a fixed, glassy-eyed stare, acts mechanical in all his motions. I’ll do the ninety-degree bow. I’ll box the compass.”
“His eyes remained blank, his face without expression as the photographers snapped away on all sides. His arms hung limply at his sides. After perhaps sixty seconds of this during which the prisoner did not move, one of the officers, Bui perhaps, gave a command in Vietnamese. Immediately, the prisoner, still without the slightest change of expression or any indication he was awake, bowed deeply from the waist to the audience. He straightened up, did a quarter-turn to the left and bowed again deeply and slowly, his head almost reaching the level of his thighs. Then he… repeated the process.”
“I bow to the cameramen rushing toward me, bow to the head table over here, I bow to the door I just came through, I bow to the wall over there, and I stand up straight again.”
“After four bows he stopped. The photographers kept on taking pictures. Again, the officer barked a command in Vietnamese and again, suddenly, the pilot began bowing as before.”
“And then Dum Dum makes the mistake of yelling out at the top of his voice, ‘Bow!’ So I box the compass again the exact same way.”
“Again the officer barked a command and again, suddenly, the pilot began bowing as before. The process was repeated three times. Finally, perhaps after four or five minutes had passed total, the officer gave a fourth command and the pilot did an about-face and abruptly disappeared through the curtain.”
“Major Bui, who was sitting at the head table, realized what I had done and, whoosh, get him out of here, get him out of here. And that was it!”
“I was stunned by his appearance. I was practically unable to take pictures, to function. I tried to catch his eye while he was doing all this bowing and to show, somehow that… I was… an American. … I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t and I probably should have. I didn’t know what to do … because I might screw things up for him.
“And maybe, well, I thought I was going to do interviews, and this was just a prelude to the important thing that was going to happen later.… And when he was finishing the bowing, standing there again, I got between him and the curtains so he would have to go right by me in order to leave. I could look right into his face, you know? [It would] give him a chance to see I was an American, to get some kind of response from him, because he was giving nothing. And so he walked right by me, even brushed my arm. There was nothing in his face.
“I was so shocked. The event was like some sort of Oriental pageant. The prisoner had acted like a robot. It was impossible for me to connect the man who had walked out, bowed, and then disappeared, with the firm, intelligent … voice supposedly recorded just two days earlier. As the shock wore off, I started getting mad.
“What had they done to him? Why had they done it? And why, above all, had they chosen this man to show the world an example of how they treat their prisoners? Everybody I had talked to before … on the status of prisoners had said the same thing to me: that prisoners were well treated, considering their status. They were given double the normal Vietnamese rations of food; medical care; reading matter and recreation. In sum, they were given considerably better treatment than Viet Gong prisoners were accorded by the South Vietnamese and Americans.