Being an American I couldn’t come to Saigon and not visit the War Remnants Museum. Though I was not even a thought during the Vietnam war (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it), it was a conflict that had a deep and lasting effect on many people and cultures throughout the world, but especially my own. This particular museum is unique in the fact that a large part of the museum is dedicated to the effect the war had on the civilian population of Vietnam, as well as the military side of things. It was an emotional visit, and it will likely take some time for me to fully appreciate many of the thoughts and emotions the visit elicited. It was quite a ride.
Outside the main building there are numerous US army vehicles ranging from tanks and artillery to planes and helicopters. I couldn’t help but feel some pride and awe when looking at the symbols of American military power, even if they are forty to fifty years old. It was partly the machinery and partly the history that I enjoyed so much. It was wonderful to see some of them without having to face the reality they imply. I especially enjoyed the Huey and the mobile artillery.
The other outdoor display had the opposite effect. This particular exhibit is a small remake of a piece of the Can Dao Prison Complex, which was used to house political prisoners in the lead up to and during the war. It included a pair of cells used to house prisoners. These cells were smaller then some bathrooms I have been in and during the hot and humid summers housed upwards of a dozen people. Also on display were a pair of “tiger cages.” These were literally rectangular barbed wire cages that were only big enough to lay in, not much bigger then a coffin really. They would build them in direct sunlight and leave people in them for days without food. There were also numerous pictures of people who suffered unbelievably cruel forms of torture while imprisoned, and descriptions of what they suffered. While these prisons were mostly run by the south Vietnamese government, not the US, it was a still horrific reminder of the reality of the horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon each other.
The rest of the museum is indoors, and is essentially an archive of war photos. Each room was dedicated to a specific theme, but most all of them depicted the horrors of war in one form or another. As I mentioned earlier, the museum is largely dedicated to the effect the war had on the civilian population, so many of the pictures and associated info were on that subject. Perhaps the most heartbreaking for me was the section dedicated to the lasting effects of chemical warfare, especially the heavy use of agent orange in attempt to deny the VC the use of the heavy jungle. Seeing the pictures of immediate effect it had on many of the rural Vietnamese people who lived in these areas as well as the soldiers on both sides who had to fight in the jungles contaminated by the deadly chemicals was heartbreaking. What was even more profound was seeing the photos of the deformities and reading about the effect the chemicals have had on the second, third, and even fourth generations of those on both sides who suffered in the jungles. At one point I actually had to stop looking and go sit down because I couldn’t handle it any more.
Despite the fact that a large majority of the museum is dedicated to extremely negative side of the war, and often paints the US and its soldiers in a negative light without really doing the same for the other side, there were some positive notes. There are numerous photos and stories of soldiers on both sides carrying wounded comrades. There are even some stories of the selfless sacrifice of soldiers and journalists in getting others out of ambushes and traps set by the VC. The memorials to those who served bravely and performed acts of heroism were a profoundly powerful and contrastingly positive note in a museum dedicated largely to the horrors of modern warfare.
I have had a few days to reflect on the whole thing and I have a few thoughts on the subject I wish to share. It probably deserves its own post, but my to-do list is already longer then I will likely complete, so I’ll add it here.
First, this particular museum paints the US in a very bad light, largely because of the suffering endured by Vietnamese civilians. Yet we visited the Cu Chi tunnels a bit outside of Saigon, and here much of the rhetoric is in praise of the fact that the “civilians” of the area did such a wonderful job fighting the US as guerillas. It was a wonderful reminder that in war, and guerilla war especially, the lines can easily become blurred. While I cannot argue that many atrocities were committed during the fighting, especially the use of chemical weapons, I find it very hard to judge the actions of any one involved who had to fight under the conditions that they faced in Vietnam. I cannot imagine what they must have been facing in those jungles, and I am not nearly naïve enough to think I would have done any better.
I also can’t help but be impressed by what the Vietnamese were able to achieve. They fought off an enemy who was much more technologically advanced, and much more practiced in the art of modern warfare. It just goes to show you just how much a strong belief in something can achieve, along with a good working knowledge of the land and some ingenuity.
To put it all simply, the biggest conclusions I have come to are these:
- No matter what, or where, or why, it happens, war is hell. The fact that we as a species seem incapable of living without it is the real tragedy in my mind.
- I am immensely thankful that I have never had to experience war first hand or have anything to do with it personally.
- I have great respect for all those who fought for their countries during any war. It seems to me the choice to fight is never really made by those doing the dying.