History is like a multi-faceted gemstone that reflects and refracts the light brilliantly from the many directions in which it faces. All too often, we are taught the story that shines the brightest from the direction we’re looking, and forget that from the other side, the view is dull and dark. We have a tendency to admire its brilliance from our own side, ignoring the other sides to the same story. But turn the gem a just a little and it shines again.
This was never more apparent to me than in Saigon or as it’s now called, Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnam war is a murky period in American history, rarely discussed and never with any amount of clarity. Why?
It was, of course. Complicated. Decades of miscalculation and underestimation, dating back to Eisenhower led us to that opaque bit of history that, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, we really didn’t learn.
Rarely is it a successful plan when a nation goes to war “against” something, rather than “for” something. It was the height of the Cold War, and America’s focus was on preventing communism from spreading.
The fight was against a different economic and sociological model. The fight was not to liberate a people from tyranny. The fight was to limit the power of a foe.
How can your heart be in a fight, if you’re not passionate for its cause?
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City was confronting. As you enter, you’re surrounded by US relics from the war – an enormous Chinook helicopter, tanks, heavy artillery and fighter jets.
Those helicopters are eponymous with the Vietnam war – we’ve all seen photos of them hovering over rice paddies or streaming over battles. I was awed by their size – as big as a city bus, each rotor twice that length.
The museum itself is a series of rooms containing photographs of the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Each room tells a different part of the story. It’s done well, but certainly of a particular point of view: that the American Aggressors (as they were called) were far nastier, far more brutal, and far more destructive than the pastoral Vietnamese.
I get that the photos we saw and the stories we read were teetering on propaganda. I do. But a glimpse into the other perspective made me understand my own much better.
The first exhibit told the story of the American GIs and Officers who not only opposed the war, but took an activist stance against it. My history books told me it was the free love, flower waving, pot smoking hippies that protested the war. In fact, these hippie protests were led by former soldiers who had been in Vietnam, who had lived the war, and knew there would be no good way out.
My mind opened to the fact that I never learned the whole history – here was something I didn’t know, and it seemed such a common fact.
That was followed by artefacts from the dozens of countries who supported Vietnam against America. There were letters, banners and posters of protest from around the world. European countries, South American Countries, African countries – every continent was represented, even North America.
Nobody sent troops of course, but they were certain to register their discontent. The only country who was obvious in its omission was France, whose Indochine war had preceded the American war, and was in actuality 80% funded by the US.
Just these two exhibits on the ground floor alone made me realise that America might have been the “baddies” in this fight. After all, we occupied a country (Vietnam) to keep another country (Russia / China) from gaining strength.
What stake did we really have in the game?
The next two floors of the museum were a horror show of atrocities. Photos of mangled corpses and displays of increasingly nasty weapons used by the Americans to wreak havoc on an enemy we couldn’t identify filled the large rooms.
And then there was Agent Orange. We’ve all seen the photos of naked children, screaming in agony after being burned with napalm. But have you seen the birth defects and deformities that are now carrying through to the fourth generation? And it’s not just the Vietnamese – the pilots and soldiers who handled or came near the substance have also suffered, as well as their children.
It was this display that truly disgusted me. Not because of the the hideous photographs of malformed and mangled humans, or the deformed foetuses suspended in formaldehyde. No.
We knew then that Agent Orange was “the most destructive substance known to mankind”, and we dropped it on those villagers anyway. It didn’t end the war, it didn’t stop the enemy, and it didn’t help us win. But in the end it caused generations worth of destruction that will carry forward through generations to come.
Only a bloody bastard would do something like that, and America, on that day, you were a bloody bastard.
The exhibits ended with a lovely tribute to the photographers who lost their lives covering the war and telling the stories for the world to see. There were photographers from around the world represented here, and it’s through their work that we can now start to understand what happened. Their photos spoke more than just a thousand words – they spoke volumes, showing agony, terror, disgust and hopelessness. Through their work, we now have a record of how war feels, on both sides.
The haunting empty eyes of American soldiers, bsaid more than any history book or documentary. This war had stolen their souls. The Vietnamese soldiers told a different story through their eyes. Their fight was to protect their homes, their families and their country. They were never in doubt about their success and charged forward, bouncing back from every defeat.
Men of a certain age
That there were a high number of American men of a certain age slowly making their way through the museum, made me wonder whether they had been here…whether they had fought, and if so, what must they be thinking now?
I didn’t dare ask. I was desperate to…but we had been so conditioned not to ask about Vietnam growing up, that I felt it would be insensitive and selfish. After all, if I was struggling to process what I had seen, how must they be feeling?
Remember that Saigon is technically an occupied city. The civil war that divided the country into North and South / Communist and not-Communist was won by the North when they made their way south to conquer Saigon as everyone who could, fled, including the Americans.
It was renamed after the communist leader of the North, Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh wasn’t always communist, by the way. It was only after seeking support for his people that never came from the west, that he turned to China and their Maoist doctrines. America would make the same mistakes with Castro a decade later, and neither of those would be considered a success.
I know that the War Remnants Museum in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City showed one side of the story. There’s always more to history than the versions told by the victors – or even the losers in this case. It was difficult to see, and has taken weeks to fully process.
War is nasty, and sometimes necessary. But not always, and the more I’ve studied about this one, the less I believe it was necessary. After all, Vietnam is communist, although you wouldn’t know that at all by looking around. Fighting that war did nothing for America, and nothing for Vietnam. It didn’t unite them as a country, and it didn’t advance Russia in the Cold War.
I’m left wondering what it was all for…and whether the powers of the world will continue to make the same mistakes long into the future. I do know this…if we write history according to the shiny parts of the gem, we’ll never learn what sits on the other side.