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A conscientious objector unearths the lessons of the 'American War'

Photo: Photos by Steven G. Kellman, License: N/A

Photos by Steven G. Kellman

Skulls from the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Photo: , License: N/A

Captured U.S. tank.

Photo: , License: N/A

The author climbing out of a cramped secret bunker used by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.


Nowhere in the War Remnants Museum will you find any remnant of the war crimes committed by the North Vietnamese Army and their guerrilla allies in the South, the Viet Cong. That indignant American I walked past at the entrance was, therefore, right to suspect that the museum is an instrument of propaganda designed to portray the United States and its South Vietnamese clients as heinous aggressors against a peace-loving people. Following its victory, the Hanoi government threw more than a million Vietnamese into prison and reeducation camps. Hundreds of thousands were executed, and more than a million were desperate enough to flee in rickety boats. So an honest War Remnants Museum would also acknowledge that atrocities were widespread and committed by both sides. Nevertheless, spreading blame is not the same as granting absolution. To dismiss our country's mistakes and misdeeds as merely "crap" is to encourage a repetition of the folly.

While campaigning for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan deplored what he called "the Vietnam syndrome," a collective failure of nerve caused by the United States' disastrous experience in Southeast Asia. "There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam," he told the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace." But a more obvious lesson is that if we are not forced to fight — as we were not in Indochina (or Iraq) — we should not fight. As I made my way out of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I lingered over a poignant exhibit of drawings. Done by children throughout the world, they constituted a collective dirge over the horrors of war and an eloquent plea for peace. In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara admitted that the war that he, as secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson, had administered was "wrong, terribly wrong." Cambodia and Vietnam have something to teach in their refusal to cry over spilt blood. After Iraq as well, can we learn not to spill any more?

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