A conscientious objector unearths the lessons of the 'American War'
Published: August 8, 2012
To experience a hint of what Vietnam was like as a combat zone, I traveled to Xeo Quyt, a dense, swampy cajuput forest that served as a secret base of operations from which Viet Cong embarked on commando raids throughout the Mekong Delta. The minimal wooden structures have been preserved, and perhaps enhanced, as a lesson in the fortitude of those who fought to undermine South Vietnam and reunite it with the North. I crawled into tunnels and bunkers so cramped that the guerrillas who hid in them for weeks must have been neither tall nor claustrophobic. Foreign tourists now stalk the trails, but local youth groups are also regular visitors, marveling at the grim oddities of their nation's recent past.
But more Vietnamese seem intent on scooting through the nonstop swirl of motorbikes that spill through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. On one of those streets, Vo Van Tan, lies what was the final stop in my search for traces of wartime Indochina. It is a museum designed to tell the story of the Vietnam War, or — as it makes more sense for an Asian to call it — the American War. In Vietnamese, the long, violent conflict is known more formally as Kháng chien chong My (The Resistance War Against America). The successive names that the building on Vo Van Tan has been given are a perfect reflection of the post-war evolution of the Vietnam-United States relationship. Initially called The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government, it later became the Museum of American War Crimes. Then it became the War Crimes Museum. Today it is known as the War Remnants Museum. The change in name was not enough to appease a proud American tourist who told his wife to go on in without him. "I don't need this crap," I overheard him insisting.
In the courtyard just beyond the gate is a sculpture garden consisting of captured or abandoned American military hardware — including an F-5A fighter, an M48 Patton tank, a UH-1 Huey helicopter, and an A-37 Dragonfly attack bomber. Nearby are samples of the 7 million tons of bombs that were dropped on Vietnam. Immediately inside the museum, panels — in Vietnamese, Japanese, and English — outline the causes, chronology, and casualties of the war. Much of the exhibition space on the building's three floors is given over to photographs, mostly by Western photojournalists, documenting the brutality of the American invaders and their South Vietnamese allies. Caught on camera are torture, the murder of unarmed civilians, and other war crimes. Among the most recognizable images is AP photographer Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning shot of a severely burned nine-year-old girl running naked from her village following a napalm attack. Exhibits also illustrate how the war did not entirely end, how napalm, phosphorus, Agent Orange, and land mines — souvenirs left behind by thoughtful Americans — are continuing today to maim and kill the people of Vietnam. Particularly disturbing are photos of hideous birth defects caused by carpeting the fertile landscape with toxic defoliants. Perhaps some day the fearsome prison at Abu Ghraib will be transformed into a similar museum of American War Crimes.