The American War
Most Americans have probably never stopped to think about what the Vietnamese call the “Vietnam War.” Well, it turns out that they refer to it as the “American War.” Modern-day Vietnamese view the conflict as major episode in their much longer struggle for independence and celebrate their victories with monuments and museums much as Americans celebrate the American Revolution.
One such institution is Ho Chi Minh City’s superb War Remnants Museum, which offers several exhibits documenting and detailing the conflict from the Vietnamese perspective. The exhibits are graphic and challenging, provoking those with simplistic, romanticized visions of war with the more complex and horrifying realities.
Walking through the museum, I noticed several fellow Americans (as well as other nationalities) glued to the photo exhibit documenting American atrocities in Vietnam. Pictures of American tanks dragging live Vietnamese soldiers to their deaths, Vietcong being pushed out of helicopters, and American soldiers torturing men and women. In one photo, Morley Safer reports as soldiers burn down villagers’ thatched huts. In another, American soldiers forcibly clear traditional tribes-people from the central highlands.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but one particular photo, which I had never seen before, was worth ten thousand. It showed an American soldier posing while holding the shredded remains of a Vietcong soldier at his side. The photo was the ultimate statement of the fragility of human life as well as the human mind. I sat staring as the soldier’s expression for, perhaps, 15 minutes. Was he laughing? Was he about to cry? It was one of the most powerful war images I have ever seen. Equally powerful is the world-famous image of the young girl, Kim Phuc, crying in pain as she runs naked along a village road after a US napalm attack. This single photo is largely credited with altering the course of the war.
Further into the exhibit, one wall documents in detail the massacres at My Lai challenging Americans and others to reexamine good-guy/bad-guy visions of the world. The exhibit includes both Vietnamese and American testimony on the attack. Here statistics and recollection shock more than the associated photos, as no single image can capture the magnitude of atrocity. Quite interestingly, the exhibit takes time to detail individual American soldiers who ignored orders and instead helped save the lives of many Vietnamese villagers.
An entire hall is dedicated to world-wide protests against the American War showing demonstrations from the Soviet Union and Eastern block to Western Europe to the United States. One wall recalls three Americans who, like the famous monk Thich Quang Duc, set themselves on fire to protest the conflict. Another wall documents the shooting of protesting students at Kent State.
Perhaps most disturbing was the exhibit on the long-term consequences of the war. Endless photos of a generation of Vietnamese born with deformities caused by the defoliant Agent Orange. The photos are verified by the large number of birth defects you see in the population around you while traveling here. Quite generously, the exhibit took time to document how the use of Agent Orange had impacted the lives of American soldiers, showing soldiers with skin ailments and the children of soldiers born with birth defects. This particular exhibit left me asking personal questions as well. My father was in the war and I was born with a deformed foot, which was luckily broken and reset shortly after I was born. Could I myself be one of these cases?
Visitors to Ho Chi Minh City should definitely include the War Remnants Museum in their itineraries. Thomas and I see museums all the time, but this one is unique and important. Above all, Americans need to visit the museum to witness history which is often forgotten and contemplate what relevance this history has on the current state of the world.