I spent my first full day in HCMC exploring the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War/War of American Aggression. I started out after breakfast for the nearby War Remnants Museum, one of the highlights of wartime history in the city. As an American citizen whose extended family had experience in the war – a horrific experience – I wanted to learn about a war we’re seldom addressing in our school’s curriculum. So often, our survey of American history begins with the European explorers way back in the day, skims over the Native Americans (another issue I have with history education), briefly glances over the civilizations of Mesoamerica, marches right into the Colonies, Revolutionary War, Civil War, Industrial Revolution, WWI, WWII and maybe the Cold War. The Cold War only if you’re lucky.
Therefore, the Vietnam War, a war still on the hearts and minds of anyone living through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, seldom gets any sort of historical mention other than there was a war, it was probably about the spread of communism, and we realize now that we shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place. At least, that’s about as much as I got from my secondary education. It was no fault on part of the teacher – that’s just the way the curriculum is structured and what you’re feasibly able to cover in a year’s study.
I’ve spent a better part of my travels the last three and a half years learning history from the “other” perspective. As a child growing up and learning about the patriotism of the American colonists, I always thought the British quite horrible in the way they’d thought to tax us without representation! They obviously were incorrect, backwards people! When I finally studied AP US History as a junior in high school, I was amazed to learn why the British actually had reasons for requiring those taxes. As I learned to critically think about history from multiple perspectives, so many new ideas emerged from this study. Ironically, I’m such an Anglophile that my British coworkers think I’m pretty strange.
After all, walking through Hiroshima and seeing the destruction of the bomb left in some of the buildings, the preserved babies who had defects as a result of radiation produces a much different sensation than merely studying about it from a safe distance. I set foot into Terezin in the Czech Republic and felt the presence of so much more than the townspeople and the tourists on that cold March day. There was something wrong about that place; it was a model camp during WWII. A model camp that housed people – especially children – until they were killed at Auschwitz. One glance around the nearly deserted town, watching plastic bags blow on the street and wondering where all the children are, gave me an eerie sensation that I still remember when looking at the photographs.
Walking through the museum in Nanjing, China, dedicated to the massacre there during the war sets your body on edge. What brutality did those rocks witness? For the next holiday, I’ll be visiting Auschwitz as part of my travels, and I’m not sure I can mentally prepare enough even after my extensive Holocaust study over the last fifteen + years. I read The Diary of Anne Frank and several survivor stories back then, and our little Holocaust museum in Skokie, IL, was a mere storefront. When I was fourteen, I never thought I would visit where Anne Frank was last alive, walking the paths as she must have, under entirely different circumstances. I never really understood WWII then as I’ve come to over the last few years.
When I toured the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there are signs not to step on the bones. Bones from the Khmer Rouge’s victims still regularly bleed up from the soil after hard monsoon rains, and in the light brown dust, I could make out white slits of bones starting to emerge. To find out that bullets were too expensive so people – their own countrymen – were bludgeoned to death with whatever object was handy made something inside me sick. On the audio commentary of the Killing Fields, one of the survivors said something to the effect of, “We are all like broken pieces of glass. Only we can put the pieces back together.” History is shards of broken glass waiting to be put back together by those who study it and seek to piece it together from all sides. So much of history is isolated from us if we just study it from textbooks. Walking in history induces sensations and visceral emotions so strong that it’s impossible to look back and not question what we know as truth.
But I knew so little about the Vietnam War save for a few textbooks, films, and, of course, Forrest Gump’s drawling “war in Viet-nam” as Tom Hanks narrated Forrest’s time in the country. I’ve read enough of Tim O’Brien’s works to be truly terrified of the memories some of the men have from the war. In the Lake of the Woods and The Things They Carried were frightening portraits of the remnants of war – especially the mental remnants.
I walked into the front space of the museum not sure what to really expect other than, of course, a new perspective on the war from those who lived there, endured the fracture of their country and the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange and other chemical warfare. The massive tanks, planes, and helicopters littered across the warm concrete looked a bit hodge-podge at first, but exploring their presence was something for selfies at odd angles. I marveled at the sheer size of some of the equipment hauled over there for the express purpose of halting the Viet Cong troops.
On the museum’s first floor, there was a big display dedicated to flags and propaganda against the war from multiple countries’ perspectives. That was unique to see that there was pretty much condemnation for the war from most fronts, especially, of course, any country under the shadow of communism already. I didn’t grow up during the Cold War (considering the Berlin Wall was stripped down when I was only five years old), so I can’t say I completely understand the fear of communism and the McCarthy trials and hunts. Whatever it was, the fear was real, the Doomsday clock was mere seconds to midnight, and schools practiced nuclear bomb drills. Whilst I can’t imagine that school desks would really protect someone in the event of a nuclear bomb, I enjoyed the book Fall Out by writer Todd Strasser in terms of a “what-if” scenario. Whatever it is that I understand now, the time period created this response.
Going up to the second and third floors, there is an exhibit on wartime photography, including the famous Napalm Girl photograph. The faces of soldiers and civilians stared at me from all corners of the room, and I can’t say I realized that US soldiers also were affected by the chemical warfare at the time. It makes sense, of course, but I didn’t know much about it. The Agent Orange room – painted in a vibrantly sad orange color – showed the children and adults suffering from deformities due to the chemicals showered down on villages and foliage. The effects are still there, haunting generations of families, and bringing up the still-debatable topic of the effects of chemical warfare.
Of course, as the guidebooks point out, and, as any semi-objective viewer would see, the exhibits were mostly patriotic and slanted – just as most nationalistic museums are no matter where they are located in the world. The main point here was that America shouldn’t have interfered, and atrocities were committed. People are still living with the physical and mental problems associated with Agent Orange. America may have had better technology, but it didn’t have intimate knowledge of the landscape. It was lost on that, along so many other disadvantages, as I was going to learn at Cu Chi Tunnels the next day.
The mention of US victims of Agent Orange poisoning, along with a mention on the psychological effects of the war on the soldiers and their families, did bring into account that not all American soldiers wanted to be in that war. As I told one other tourist there, they were doing it because the country called them to it, it was their duty, and not all soldiers resorted to base brutality, either. Many of them came back irreparably damaged physically or mentally, and Vietnam vets still make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless in the US.
After walking through some of the jungle on this holiday, taking a boat up the Mekong through plants large enough to swallow a person whole, and trying to fit my American hips through the tiny Cu Chi Tunnels, I really and truly appreciated the sacrifice many made by fighting in this most unpopular war, whether called up because they were in the service already or because of the draft.
Outside the museum was an exhibit on the prison at Phu Quoc, now a paradise of an island with lovely resorts and spas. The displays on the prisoner torture and jail cells was quite compelling. The small guillotine stood in stark contrast to the bright blue skies above the stone walls containing the exhibit. There were several loud gasps of shock as tourists and visitors rounded the corner and caught sight of it.
The museum closed at 11 AM for lunch, so I finished up my tour of the grounds and exited, intent on walking to a nearby Buddhist temple and finding a place open for lunch. My next stop would be the other very visual remnant of war in Vietnam: Independence Palace.