I drop the sweat-drenched Vietnamese money into the hand of the woman selling tickets to the War Remnants Museum. My shirt is soaked from the long walk across Ho Chi Minh City to reach this museum, which, I’ve been told, is a must-see in this, Vietnam’s largest city.
The woman gives me a pamphlet, which provides a suggested (though convoluted) walking route through the buildings and ground.
While traveling in Vietnam, I’ve been thinking about how, in general, people have been kind toward me, an American on their land. Just a few decades prior, people from my country—including my father—engaged in a bloody, controversial conflict known as the Vietnam War in the United States and the American War in Vietnam. Propaganda posters and billboards are still rampant throughout the country, with a kind of national pride prominently displayed for everyone to observe. I try to keep in mind that this pride, and the perspectives of the Vietnamese people about the war, is simply one point of view. How Americans viewed (or view) Vietnam, the people there and war is just as significant and slanted as the way the Vietnamese viewed (or view) the United States, Americans and the war.
No one perspective is wrong, just as no one perspective is right.
I start at the beginning of the museum, gazing at the military aircraft and ground vehicles used and discarded during the war, then move inside.
The rusted artillery and bullet casings don’t mean nearly as much to me as photographs of men holding guns and information about how the weapons are used on both sides. I walk, contemplating, through the section about Agent Orange. I study photos of disfigured children and aborted fetuses in formaldehyde. These things are not for the faint of heart. What might we be doing now that could have the same devastating effects twenty years in the future?
A number of photos are accompanied by stories about people who happened to live in the war zone. Their homes, families, lives destroyed by a difference in opinion over governance and perceived threats.
Have we learned any lessons from the war in Vietnam that can be applied to the current conflict in the Middle East?
I spend a lot of time in an exhibit devoted to the role war correspondents played during the conflict. There are stories about journalists putting their lives on the line to help save military personnel, and touching anecdotes about the people these reporters met while on the ground. The “last photos” taken by photojournalists are as common (or shocking) as all the others they’d taken during their tours; they just happened to be captured minutes or hours before another life ended. I stand in front of these photos, my arms covered in goose bumps.
Outside, rudimentary reconstructions of cells demonstrate the living conditions Vietnamese prisoners of war were kept in. Graphic photographs illustrate text about torture devises: fingers severed, toenails ripped out, confinement in spiked cages.
War isn’t pretty. Any doubts about its beauty are quickly scrapped with a walk through this section of the museum.
I sit on a step leading to the museum, looking out across the mass of people milling around the airplanes and tanks. They laugh and smile, chatting with each other, calling out to friends. There are Vietnamese and Americans here … and people from Europe, other Asian countries, Canada, Australia. Now, today, we can be in this space together, without spite or conflict or hate or violence. All of those things are confined to pictures and stories and twisted pieces of weaponry sitting behind plexiglass inside the museum.
Whose war was it anyway? Does it matter, as long as we learn from it?