People from many nations stood motionless, gazing solemnly at the photographs in the exhibits in the museum. The mood was conspicuously subdued, even tense. Given the content, it is no wonder why the faces of the visitors twisted and contorted as they viewed the exhibits. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam documents the Vietnam War through the eyes of the Vietnamese. While family, friends, and other citizens celebrated November 11 as Veterans’ Day back home, I chose to visit the museum. After a short taxi ride from my guesthouse, I entered the museum’s courtyard, which not only contained the ticket office, where I purchased my ticket for 15,000 Vietnamese Dong ($.75 US), but also American military vehicles and aircraft that were captured during the conflict. So as I passed American fighter jets, tanks, and helicopters with visitors milling about, taking photos, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to enter the three story building.
The museum was bustling, not uncommon given it is one of the most popular attractions in Vietnam for both international tourists and Vietnamese (The museum estimates half a million visitors per year.). The ground floor had several galleries, all open to the main atrium. The first gallery immediately to the right displayed photographs and captions that showed the establishment of normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, which occurred in 1995 under President Bill Clinton. Another gallery contained posters from around the world, all in the specific country’s native language, with slogans illustrating support for the Vietnamese. Also in this gallery were photos from demonstrations worldwide that denounced the United States and showed support for Vietnam. There was another larger gallery on the opposite side, which was a separate room; I decided to save that for last and went up the stairs to the second floor. I took another deep breath in anticipation of entering the exhibit titled “American Escalation of War”.
I walked in, noticed the exhibit was divided into several galleries from left to right. I turned left and was greeted with the first statement of the preamble to the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Thus, visitors were given an immediate frame through which to interpret the exhibits. I thought this was a brilliant and fair introduction. It served as a reminder of what America is supposed to symbolize and what it portends to value, respect, and defend: equality, freedom, and the rights of all people. Back home, Americans all across the country were honoring the men and women who serve and have served in the U.S. military forces. They were calling veterans to say thanks, flying the American flag, buying a meal for a veteran, or more in line with the times they were voicing support on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. They were taking time to remember those who protect these noble ideals at home and abroad, to show gratitude to those that enable Americans to pursue their dreams in the “land of the free, home of the brave”. However, once I moved on to the photos and their captions, these lofty words and the ideals they represent reeked of hypocrisy and rang hollow.
I began by examining each photo, which were arranged within their respective spaces on the wall, then read the captions to each corresponding photo, which were shown on a display below, accompanied by a miniature version of each photo, as a sort of exhibit inset. The photos displayed American G.I.’s in action, whether tramping through the swamps with rifles held above their heads, or marching prisoners of war along through rice paddies. The first image that stopped and held me was an image that depicted several American soldiers standing over a line of bodies, thrown side by side and atop one another over an indistinguishable span. The caption: “Body Count. A U.S. military’s yardstick to measure success for the war: ‘If it’s dead, it’s Viet Cong.’” No doubt this caption was subjective and served its purpose of depicting American soldiers as ruthless killers. And no doubt this is true, in completeness for some, and to some degree for others, and absolutely false for yet another portion. However, the picture and caption made me think of the psychology of the warrior, the soldier.
How does a human being stand over the body of another human? How does someone stand over the body of another human knowing they have just been killed by another person? How does someone stand over the body of another knowing nothing about them but their death? How did our soldiers do these things?
I was not thinking about the motives of the actual forces behind the war (and all wars), politicians and upper level military planners, private corporation leaders who gain military contracts. Nor was I thinking of the reasons justificiations excuses for war, crafted by these aforementioned groups. I was thinking of the soldier in the picture smoking the cigarette, with the battered, beleaguered, exhausted face. I imagined his life back home before the war. He could have been one of my own family members or townsperson I knew. He could have had his job, his family, his own normal life and all of the human experiences and feelings. I was thinking of him and the numerous others, past and present. Those who endure great physical challenges and intense psychological conditions to possibly probably go to war; with the chance that they will kill another person and that they too may die. Why?
I could not find any easy explanations. I don’t believe it is black and white. I had answers that swirled in my head, little fantasies that played out as if I were discussing with friends or people I know. They served as the antagonist in my head, a consortium of people I have met over the years with whom I do not agree. Just some examples of the imagined conversations, recreated from memories of actual conversations:
“We have to fight for freedom. The people want us to be there. They want to be like us. Why do you think we’ve got so many immigrants?”
“The Vietnamese/Iraqis/Taliban/Terrorists are evil and must be stopped. No one else is going to do it. The United States has been, is, and will be the protectors.”
“You have all of your freedoms to be thankful for because of the military. They are out there doing it, fighting the bad guys, so you can sleep safe at night.”
I continued to move through the exhibit, looking long at the photos, reading the captions, reimagining the scenes anew. I grimaced as I saw a photo of an American GI carrying what was left of a Vietnamese bombing victim; it wasn’t as much a person as pieces of a human with the torso up detached from the legs, which laid on the ground below like a piece of gnarled driftwood. I stopped short in front of another photo, which depicted the bodies of two Vietnamese tied to a tank, being dragged along the ground. A question continued to resurface and remain lodged in my mind: How could we have done this? How could anyone do this? For I knew the acts shown were not done by Americans alone; similar acts were carried out by the South Vietnamese against their own people. Conversely, the Viet Cong killed American soldiers and committed atrocious acts of war, too. The photos continued: they showed famous American commanders, men in jungle trenches, victims of air strikes, and one in particular showed four American soldiers over the beheaded bodies of two Vietnamese, smiling at the camera while holding the heads. The caption:
“The above picture shows exactly what the brass want you to do in the Nam. The reason for printing this picture is not to put down the G.I.’s, but rather to illustrate the fact that the Army can really fuck over your mind if you let it.
It’s up to you, you can put in your time just trying to make it back in one piece or you can become a psycho like the Lifer (E-6) in the picture who really digs this kind of shit. It’s your choice.”
There was no attribution to the caption. It very well could have been created to serve the purpose of framing the photo. Regardless, there was some truth to it. A critical example is the psychological tactics the military forces uses in the codenaming of things, specifically as it relates to other human beings. The other soldiers are no longer people, but simply the “enemy”; a village (in Vietnam) or a building (in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) is a “target”, and women, children, and other civilians who die are “collateral damage” or “causalities of war”. The renaming serves to dehumanize. It is an important dissociative process by which the soldier is taught not to view other people through a humanistic lens, but a removed objective lens. That lens is myopic and colorblind. Language represents culture. Culture is the contextual sea we swim in, hardly noticeable once we’ve been immersed. So that point stuck with me: the military retrains how one thinks, reinforces it through language and after plunging into the culture, it can hardly seem unusual, let alone wrong.
“To kill the grass, you must also remove the root.”
Two photos displayed the bodies of two Vietnamese boys from different perspectives. The bottom showed the older boy (12 years old) lying over the younger boy (8 years old). The top photo showed their bodies pushed apart and bloodied. The caption, as told by the photographer who was walking with two American soldiers, explained that after an attack on a village, the soldiers stumbled upon these boys hiding in the rice fields. The first soldier could not get himself to kill the boys; however, the second soldier fired multiple shots. The soldier explained that the older boy was trying to cover his brother to save his life, as depicted in the bottom photo.
A photo nearby showed a woman with sheer terror and anguish on her face as someone held her from behind, while the faces of several children and old men also illustrated looks that anticipate death. The woman’s face gripped me. I was looking at an innocent human murdered in the name of war, one of many listed only as a number in the casualty count. But this photo showed a woman, not a number. She had a life of her own, family and friends, daily chores and leisure hobbies. I saw terror and confusion in a person about to have all of that taken from her. I tried to imagine her life, just as I did with the American G.I. It was easy for me to imagine the life of an American, but it was no easy task with this woman’s life. How effortless it is to humanize someone who is familiar, someone with whom I can easily relate and how difficult it was with this person who was seemingly so different than me. The subtlety struck me as important—this is a crucial aspect of war. This enables soldiers to kill, and allows whole populations of a country to support the killing of innocent people, either actively or passively. If I hadn’t stopped and tried to imagine her life, would this have been illuminated?
I looked at the clock, which showed that I had already been in the museum for over an hour. I was barely halfway through my first exhibit, with three more remaining. Shock and introspection had me shuffling through the exhibit. I noticed the same people surrounding me as when I started, so I must not have been alone. I sped up my pace, partly to ensure I could see the other exhibits before closing, but also because I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle. I gazed across more images; a face with portions singed and peeled off in chunks from a phosphorous bomb, a woman with her chest melted away and scarred from napalm, a woman and her son left only as ashes after a bombing, bodies lying on top of one another after a bombing in a residential area of Hanoi. More destruction, anguish, terror, exhaustion, devastation. I walked out of the exhibit skipping a whole row of photos and back out into the atrium. I knew where I wanted to head next, but wasn’t certain I was prepared. So instead, I entered the smallest exhibit which showed the rebuilding efforts in cities and towns. Photos were before the rebuilding, which showed the destruction and devastation from a bird’s eye view. The after photos showed the cities returned to their previous state or even larger than before in some cases. It demonstrated the remarkable human capacity to persevere.
I entered the notorious Agent Orange exhibit not sure if I was prepared to see the images friends and fellow travelers had warned me about. Agent Orange was the name given to the composition of chemicals the U.S. armed forces sprayed over Central and Southern Vietnam. According to a study by scientists at Columbia University the United States sprayed over 100 million liters of toxic chemicals over Vietnam. The U.S. Department of Defense concluded it used 72 million liters of chemicals. Regardless of which study is closer to the truth, both are staggering numbers. The impact on the people past, present, and future is difficult to fathom. The destruction to the environment and the ecosystems that all living things depend on is almost an afterthought, yet just as important. The exhibit devotes its photographs and captions to showing these impacts, from telling the stories of the people directly impacted from the toxins, to illustrating the environmental devastation. The exhibit is most certainly a repulsive experience with images that can only be described as haunting; it undoubtedly stirs up the most visceral repugnance towards the U.S. armed forces; it is simply difficult to view. I took my time to look at each picture and read each caption, trying to empathize as best I could with the living victims of the chemical warfare waged on innocent people by the country I call home.
One of the first images in the exhibit is of a soldier standing behind one of the sprayers used to distribute the chemicals with the name “The Purple People Eater” painted on the metallic side. The reference to the whimsical song of the time exemplifies the dissociative process soldiers undergo in order to proceed with their duties. Adjacent to this was a photo showing American troops donned in gasmasks; below the photo was a display case filled with some of those masks. As a person raised during the advance of visual effects in cinema, it was difficult to differentiate images stored in my memory from movies and trying to envision this as reality. It was hard to grasp that this was not science fiction, but history. I walked further to my right and in the corner was a wall dedicated to the environmental destruction due to the chemicals. Research has shown that over 20% of forested land in Vietnam was contaminated by Agent Orange, causing immediate destruction and lasting ecological impact.
The first photo showed a vast field of trees, or rather what used to be trees. There is nothing but tree stumps for as far as the eye can see in the photo, with the outline of a mountain on the horizon. The caption informed me this was once a mangrove forest, just like the ones I see every day at home in Southwest Florida. Except this photo showed a similar forest obliterated. I tried to imagine the mangrove forests of Estero Bay, near my home, completely destroyed. I thought of the problems currently facing the area due to high numbers of nutrients from fertilizer flowing into the Bay from residential and commercial run-off. How would the area’s ecosystems and consequently the animals and people be impacted if the amount of chemicals dumped on the area in the picture was dumped into the Bay? I couldn’t imagine the complete devastation. I could not fathom the long term impact. The people of Central and Southern Vietnam do not have the luxury of only imagining this; they are still living the nightmare.
The remaining walls displayed dozens of photos of the human victims of Agent Orange. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that over 3 million people have been directly affected by the chemical, including over 150,000 people born with birth defects due to their parents’ exposure. The first photo showed a woman who suffered from dwarfism, being born to parents who both were exposed to Agent Orange. There were numerous photos of others who were enduring a similar fate. A photo to the right showed a man with two enormous protrusions from his tiny body, both a hump in his back, as well as his chest; the next was an older man with white lesions covering his body, a result from direct exposure. As I continued to walk through the exhibit, it was more of the same. Terrifying effects on people who were both villagers living during the spraying and the children that had been born into their conditions. Faces that were completely disfigured, missing limbs, extra toes or fingers, lesions, mental retardation, ghastly deformations of the human body. One photo in particular resonated with me. It showed a woman with large, gruesome black spots covering her body. She was born in 1985, the same year as me. That could have been me. What would my life be like if I were a victim born with effects from a war I had never known personally? How would I feel about life if I was born into those circumstances? That my health and consequently my life were adversely affected by other people, and for what? How could I even imagine this? I could not. This woman deserved her fate no more than I deserved my fate being free from these incomprehensible burdens.
I exited the Agent Orange exhibit overwhelmed with shame and sorrow. I walked back down the staircase to the first floor with the intention of making a quick exit. However, I recalled I skipped one of the exhibits downstairs and gave it a look. A description explained that the government sponsored an art competition for children to create images of their ideal Vietnam. I entered a room filled with paintings and drawings from Vietnamese schoolchildren. The room was brightly lit and burst with vivid colors. The art depicted a range of Vietnamese life, from a drawing of children and adults in the fields with oxen, to children and soldiers standing side by side with smiles, to my favorite which showed a globe with children in different types of clothing holding hands in a circle over a city with a rainbow overhead, all of which was surrounded by birds I interpreted as doves. I was overwhelmed in quite a different way. The exhibit reminded me of an important lesson I have learned: Travel the world and you will find the language of children is universal; it is one of innocence. This saved me from my hopelessness and despair. I exited the museum devastated by the tragedy that is war. The memory of the victims and survivors left me with a heavy heart. Clouds huddled overhead and threatened to open up. As I walked through the courtyard past the war machines, the artwork of the children flashed in my mind; a glimmer of hope, a ray of light peeking in through the clouds.
I acknowledge and understand that the War Remnants Museum is only one side of the story. But it is one that is rarely told or given a thought in the United States. The stories and images contained within are not what I learned growing up in small town America. I was taught that the Vietnam War was an unfortunate debacle; a lesson for our military not to underestimate the enemy. I learned that while it was an unpopular war, it was still done in the righteous name of democracy. The problem wasn’t in the waging of the war, but in losing the war. I grew up believing the Vietnam War was simply unpopular because some misguided and unrealistic weirdos believed in peace, love, and doing drugs. I never heard the stories of the victims or was encouraged to consider the perspective of the Vietnamese. I was ignorant of the environmental devastation that occurred. Never was the morality of the war discussed. The world was painted in simple black and white for me: Us and them. We were always the good guys. They were always the bad guys. I am confident this is true for most Americans.