To the customers crowded into his little shopping center restaurant - Virginia housewives, shopkeepers from elsewhere in the Rolling Valley Mall - Nguyen Ngoc Loan's is a familiar and friendly face.

If in recent days the famous photograph, the grisly film, had not once again been thrust before the nation, he would never be recognized as the general who, without apparent emotion, put a bullet in the head of a bound prisoner on Saigon's war-town streets more than 10 years ago.

Now, as he fights with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep his status as a permanent resident of the United States, and ultimately to keep from being deported, he has the sympathy of many people who have known him only here.

Kim Werd, who works at the hairdresser's across the hall said she eats at Les Trois Continents every day. Asked if she had heard about what he had done and about the proceedings that have begun against him, she said, "Yes, and I think it's horrible. I think it's awful. A man's trying to rebuild his life and people are not giving him a chance. I suppose that anybody that's involved in a war that did what they were supposed to do would be a war criminal."

In Virginia's Vietnamese community the sentiments have been much the same.

"Everybody did it, it's not only him," said the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official when she learned of Loan's case. "Taking away his green card (permanent resident certificate) is not fair. The past in Vietnam is not in the United States."

For Rep. Harold Sawyer (R-Mich.), who was instrumental in efforts to bring the action against Loan, the justification is simple. Loan, he believes, is demonstrably a war criminal and along with other former Vietnamese officials who engaged in crimes ranging from graft to torture to drug trafficking, should not be allowed to live in the United States.

"We've got enough guys like that around here without importing them," Sawyer said.

For many, the publicity around Loan serves only to prove that Vietnam, with all its moral ambiguities, is inextricably linked to the past of the United States.

"I just think this is an act of phenomenal hypocrisy," said a young woman who works for a prominent human rights organization, "for the U.S. at this point to make this sort of judgment. I'm sure he's a thoroughly reprehensible figure, but what he did is just not that morally distinguishable in my mind from the actions of Americans who were involved in perpetrating the same war."

From the liquor store in Los Angeles, former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky defended his old subordinate, but at the same time raised questions that echoed the feelings of many long-time opponents of the war.

"He was just doing his job," said Ky over the telephone. "At that time during the Tet offensive any street was the front line. If they think all the people involved in the war in Vietnam are criminals, that the war in Vietnam was a crime by itself, then why just persecute one poor guy? Why not prosecute everyone responsible; Gen. (William) Westmoreland, President (Nguyen Van) Thieu, and Kay?" We were fighting not only for Vietnam but for you as well."

Loan himself, thin and limping on an artifical leg, bears little resemblance to the once powerful director general of South Vietnam's national police. He refuses to talk about his past, his present, even his restaurant. "You just earn a living," he said, "that's all."