One American's endorsement of the War Remnants Museum
A foreign visitor to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City contemplates the devastation of the Vietnam War
It never ceases to amaze me how many foreigners deride the War Remnants Museum as "one-sided." When I first visited the museum in 1999, I was shocked by the skill of its curators who managed to thoroughly chronicle the war in all its gruesomeness without dehumanizing the American troops responsible for so many atrocities.
I realize now that the adverse reaction of foreigners to the museum merely reflects their assessment of the war itself"”I was naÃ¯ve enough 13 years ago to think that nobody who would visit Vietnam could possibly feel that US involvement in the Vietnam War constituted anything other than a crime.
During the Vietnam War, the US explicitly and extensively targeted civilian populations, in direct violation of International Law, and the War Remnants Museum does not shy away from this indisputable fact. The specific War Crimes committed by US military personnel were especially heinous crimes within the gargantuan wrong that was traveling 6,000 miles to fight an "˜enemy' that had never attacked or threatened or posed any threat whatsoever to the United States.
So whenever the museum comes up amongst expats or tourists, I cringe, all but expecting them to start in on a preposterous diatribe dismissing it as unadulterated propaganda. Recently, for the first time I heard that sentiment asserted by a local person. He told me the museum only had "one-face." A friendly debate ensued which ended in an agreement to go there together. Within a few minutes inside the museum, my friend began nodding emphatically, repeating the phrase, "Many faces."
The museum's venue has improved markedly over the years. It's now appropriately spacious to receive its constant flow of visitors. With expanded exhibits that update the war's ongoing repercussions, the museum continues to cover the genocidal cataclysm in a way which humanizes the civilians and combatants from both "sides" of the "conflict," as it is still so often referred to in America.
Unlike the majority of Hollywood movies, which continue to find ways of depicting the Vietnam War without so much as acknowledging the Vietnamese people, the War Remnants Museum captures the complexity of the American experience, differentiating politicians from citizens, generals from foot soldiers. I am always struck by the images of American soldiers portrayed in the most humane light imaginable: a GI ignoring his own head wound to care for comrades worse off than he; the story of American veterans effected by Agent Orange (virtually unknown in America); the homage paid to American protesters, soldiers who refused to fight, those who burned their draft cards and the few who chose to self-immolate.
The protest photos from all over the world remind (or educate) visitors just how widespread condemnation of the US was at the time. And its opponents were not only students. Perhaps the most damning statement in the entire museum is rendered by Paris Law Faculty member Maurice Duverger, who posed the following question in 1966: "Will napalm, phosphorus bombs and other similar means enable a foreign power to achieve from without what the Gestapo (secret police of Nazi Germany) and concentration camps achieved from within? Such is the question posed by the US intervention in Vietnam; it is the problem of external fascism."
Indeed, the War Remnants Museum lets the world revile this particular manifestation of external fascism, the massacres and massive defoliation (and its continuing effects), not to mention the mind-boggling hypocrisy of terrorizing the people you claim to be helping. Communist propaganda is not necessary to repudiate the wanton killing of women and children or the exposure of an entire region to chemical weapons.
The plainest declaration of blame is issued by none other than the American architect of the Vietnam War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whose summative words close the museum's final exhibit: "We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."
I do not know how anyone walks away from the War Remnants Museum without a profound sense of awe, astounded by the capacity for healing the Vietnamese seem to possess. I know Vietnam is imperfect and that all the scars, both physical and psychic, have yet to heal, but I shudder to think of the divisiveness within my own country now, let alone less than forty years after our civil war.
The Vietnam War was the watershed event of my father's generation of Americans and its lessons have yet to sink in. One need not believe in karma or buy into Jung's notion of a collective unconscious to accept that the United States and Vietnam will forever remain inextricably linked. The Vietnam War looms over our national consciousness, mirroring both the unrepentant manner in which we view our genocidal history and the criminality of the current War on Terror, foretelling of a future doom which may still be averted if we can overcome our addiction to military intervention. Our continuing disregard for human life haunts our actions and inactions, informing our aggression and apathy alike.
American visitors to Ho Chi Minh City owe it to themselves to devote a few hours to the War Remnants Museum. I wish there were a replica in every city in America, where the Vietnam War is rarely discussed anymore. Everyone lucky enough to end up in Vietnam owes it to themselves, as members of the human family, to bear witness to what took place here, and perhaps, begin to fathom the resiliency of the Vietnamese people.
By Jeremiah Twain
The writer is an American freelance writer who is living in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.