In August 2017, I took a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon, in southern Vietnam to obtain a work visa at the Thai consulate. While I was there, I had the opportunity to visit a few places of interest, including the War Remnants Museum.
As you approach the museum, you cannot fail to notice the outer courtyard full of captured American fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, and artillery pieces. They’re proudly displayed, and are surrounded by tourists, domestic and foreign alike, who snap pictures of themselves and their friends standing and smiling in front of the metal machinery.
Inside the museum, however, the atmosphere is quite a bit more subdued.
Early impressions of war
I was born during the middle phase of the war, in 1968. My father was serving in the Army nursing corps at a hospital base somewhere over there at the time, having been drafted after finishing medical school. He never talked much about it to us.
I have vague childhood memories of reports about the war being read on camera by the likes of Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor. Fleeting recollections of hearing “Viet Cong” and “Tet Offensive” mixed in with “withdrawal” and “Watergate”. The climactic scenes of helicopters evacuating refugees desperate to leave Saigon.
The Vietnam War, as it was known in the US, was still a bit fresh in our country’s collective memories when I reached middle school history class, but I don’t remember there being much material about it in the textbooks. The main education I got about it was from movies and television series that recounted the “glorious” and “valiant” struggles of American troops and platoons while providing derogatory depictions of Vietnamese soldiers played by Thai actors.
So my visit to the museum was going to provide a different perspective of the war.
What’s so civil about war anyway?
The first few displays on the ground floor were simply storyboards on the wall outlining the geopolitics from as early as the 1910s that led up to the situation that later became a shooting war between the northern communists and the U.S.-backed southern democracy. It felt like reading a dry history with some names and dates provided along with the narrative.
The chronological history of the war continued as I walked up to the higher floors of the building. I began to see the true brutalities those involved went through, both soldiers and non-combatants.
The stories and pictures of massacres of civilians, the awful (and perpetual) effects of Agent Orange, and other war crimes were prominently displayed on the next two floors, inside glass-covered, air-conditioned galleries. I was aware that both sides committed atrocities, and it was interesting to see the “American War” from the viewpoint of the “other” side.
War fucking sucks. The only people who seem to benefit are those making riches from the sale of war materiel, and perhaps the politicians whom are propped up by the global military-industrial complex. It’s devastating to witness what man is capable of doing to his brother in the name of king and country, god and religion, or simple tribal/ethnic differences.
After viewing one such gallery, I needed a break. I sat outside the glass walls on a bench next to the entry. Joining me from time to time were others who had just walked out and were overcome with emotion. While not completely unmoved by the human depravity that was cataloged inside, I felt strangely calm.
I observed in detached fascination as a small insect on the floor in front of me attempted to make his way across the walkway. People filed past, completely oblivious to his presence. I watched him get missed by several pairs of flip-flops, but he was eventually stepped on, his sentient existence snuffed out, ending his turn in this game we call life. I imagined him as a nameless, faceless civilian who gets in the way (or can’t get out of the way) and is ended by the war machine we humans have created.
Inside the gallery was a placard showcasing the infamous quote by U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay. I reflected at that time that the same sentiment was being expressed about the inhabitants of North Korea, whose leader was engaged in a chest-thumping battle of words with the current leader of the U.S.
These calls to arms came from people whom I am sure never experienced war first-hand. People who have only seen it played out on screens in movie theaters or on their televisions when they participate in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Special effects are exciting, but they never truly depict the suffering of those who continue to cling to life after the Michael Bay-style explosions are long gone. Real people don’t get to reanimate and continue to collect points.
On the wall adjacent to the quote by General LeMay hung the iconic image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, more commonly known as “Napalm Girl”. The photo clearly illustrates one result when you decide to bomb another people “back into the Stone Age”.
Had it not been for the camera and quick humanitarian actions of photojournalist Nick Ut, Kim Phúc would have been just as nameless and faceless as the bug that got squished on the floor in front of me. Fortunately, she lived. Many other weren’t so lucky.
Later, when I stepped back outside into the heat and bright sunlight sifting its way through the tall trees, I was again confronted with the tourists gleefully taking selfies in front of the 1960s and 70s- era aircraft and armored weaponry.
I had zero desire to do so myself.