Learning about war and its effects in the United States has always been challenging. Much of the curriculum has a USA perspective on geopolitical events, morals, and consequences. All USA conflicts in modern times have been fought in far away lands. With the exception of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, the experiences of war have been so far removed from the collective youth experience that they’ll toggle a video of violence in Syria, then toggle back to the latest meme or Vine without batting an eye.
Before we left Vietnam, I wanted the family to see the Vietnam War not through the eyes of US historians and media, but from the perspective of the Vietnamese who had to live through it from their homeland.
Walking in the gates to the War Remnants Museum we saw tanks, helicopters, jets, and other large weapons of war either captured or left behind. Everything was cleaned and well kept, but all real. Placards described what they were and how they were used. But we didn’t start there, that was where we ended. The museum started on the 3rd floor. The museum was organized with a suggested path, a path we followed.
(Note: I’m not going to post any pictures of pictures. They were graphic and moving. There are plenty of places online to find these pictures.)
1: Historic Truths
A complete timeline with speeches, quotes, and pictures that laid out the run up to the war (starting in 1945), and the facts of the war, as well as who joined it and from which country. There are numerous pointed quotes from the Geneva convention highlighting the USA’s deviation of international law.
The United States bears responsibility for the use force in Viet Nam, and has, therefore, committed against that country a crime of aggression, a crime against peace…In subjecting the civilian populations and civilian targets of the D.R.V.N to an intense and systematic bombardment, the U.S.A has committed a crime of war. These is on the part of the U.S. armed forces utilization or testing of weapons prohibited by the laws of war (C.B.U’s, napalm, phosphorus bombs, combat gases, toxic chemicals). The prisoners of war captured by the U.S. armed forces are subjected to treatments prohibited by the laws of war. The U.S. armed forces subject the civilian populations to inhuman treatments prohibited by international law. The U.S. government is guilty of genocide vis-a-vis the Vietnamese people.” (Conclusions of Bertrand Russell Tribunal – Stockholm session, May 2-10, 1967 and Copenhagen session, November 20-December 1, 1967)
This section of the museum closed with facts about lives lost, dollars spent, and tonnage of bombs dropped. The numbers were compared to World War 2 and the Korean War.
The unsung heroes of truth were the photographers and journalists. Each section showed a collection of photographs from photographers who lost their lives documenting events in Indochina. From the first photojournalist casualty to Life magazine and AP correspondents, picture after picture revealed heart wrenching images of war, lives lost, horror, and devastation. The accomplishments, last photographs, and death of each photographer was memorialized in this exhibit. The photographers were not only from countries allied with the South Vietnamese, but also non western photographers embedded within the north Vietnamese army. This gave another valuable perspective.
3 and 4: War and Peace and Agent Orange
The photos in this exhibit became more and more difficult to view. Images of soldiers from both the north and south Vietnamese, American, Korean, Thai, and French all struggling with the atrocities of war.
There were images of soldiers dealing with fallen comrades. Images of proud Vietnamese women fighters caught the attention of Kylie. For me the bodies of civilian losses in Hue were difficult. People huddled behind tanks or jeeps for shelter. The Tet offensive fighting in Hue was intense. We had just been there and walked those same streets. Many non-combatants were killed by stray gunfire. People with push carts trying to sell their wares lay dead in the street.
Facts about agent orange plastered the walls in the next portion of the museum: What it was, how much was used, where it was used, and how often.
6, 7, 8: War Crimes, Agent Orange Effects, Agent Orange Consequences
The next section was extremely difficult to view. We didn’t know if this was appropriate to show the girls, but they viewed them anyway. In this section the depth of the inhumanity of this war was shown in pictures, artifacts, and remembrances.
- Photos of the devastation to tile and textile factories across Vietnam
- The My Lai massacre. There was a brief description and a small shrine bearing the names of all the victims that day.
Tinh Khe Commune, Son Tinh District, Quang Ngai Province, otherwise known as Son My, My Lai, witnessed a horrific massacre caused by U.S. troops on March 16th, 1968.
The peaceful morning of Son My was suddenly broken by prolonged shell attack waves of three companies, Battalion 1 (Light Infantry Brigade 11, American Division). Then 9 helicopters from Chu Lai landed at Tu Cung Village. Another team of 11 helicopters landed near Go Hamlet, Co Luy Village. Here one platoon of Bravo Company rushed into My Hoi Hamlet in smaller groups, rummaged houses and dug-outs one by one, shot dead 97 civilians.
At Tu Cung Village, the company Charlie led by Captain Ernest Medina landed and encircled Thuan Yen Hamlet. Platoon 1 led by Lieutenant William Calley overwhelmed to seek for civilians with the aim of killing anyone they found. Particularly at a ditch at the other end of Thuan Yen Hamlet, the U.S. troops massacred 170 people.
In one morning of March 16th 1968, at Co Luy and Tu Cung Village – Tihn Khe Commune, the U.S. troops killed 504 civilians, among whom were:
-182 women (including 17 pregnant ones).
-173 children (included 56 one from newborn to 5 month old).
-60 men and women over the age of 60.
- Thanh Fong Raid involving senator Bob Kerrey.
- Nearly a dozen pictures of American soldiers torturing Vietnamese. Wherein history books or class write the word torture or interrogation might be used, here we saw the face of agony, pain, fear in the face of the victims, and in some cases the apathy or enthusiasm in the faces of the torturers.
- There were numerous pictures of elderly people, small children younger than Kylie toddlers, infants were all shown dead, bleeding, and contorted on the ground. In one picture there was a family with the look of absolute fear in their eyes before being murdered. Also accompanying the pictures were the photographer’s recollection about what happened when they snapped that shot. “I snapped a picture of this family, and as I turned I heard gunfire and saw the bodies fall.” Here each picture was accompanied by the name of the Vietnamese family. Most pictures I had seen growing up stated the name of the US soldier and then “a Vietnamese Person”. By attaching a name it humanized the person and I appreciated how this museum made efforts to name the victims and not lump them together in a general “Vietnamese Person” category.
- Bombing and indiscriminate fire causes what the military calls “collateral damage” or “civilian casualties.” Both of these are euphemisms seek to distance readers from the faces of war. In this museum we saw photos of stacks of bodies, and named families.
- Pictures of US soldiers celebrating the death of people in the most inhumane way. In one shot a group of solders could be seen smiling with two heads of Vietnamese soldiers – like a trophy.
- “During the Vietnam war 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed (2,000,000 were civilians). 2,000,000 people were injured. 300,000 people were missed.”
- The amount of unexploded ordinance left in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam has left a long trail of death and dismemberment that stretched into the 1990s. Some of the ordinance (mines, unexploded bombs and grenades) was on display with pictures of people without legs, arms, or the names of people killed since the fighting stopped in 1975.
- Chemical warfare is nasty. The use and its effects were so bad in WWI, that even thought all sides had stockpiles of chemical weapons in WWII almost no one used them. However, in the Vietnam War the USA widely used a chemical called Agent Orange under the guise that it was not a weapon, just an herbicide to kill plants.
From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. Army conducted 19,905 missions, spraying about 80 million liters of toxic chemical, 61% of which was Agent Orange, containing 366kg of dioxin, over nearly 26,000 villages, with an area of 3.06 million hectares – nearly a quarter of the total area of South Vietnam in which 86% of this area was sprayed more than 2 times and 11% sprayed more than 10 times.
Picture after picture of agent orange deformations and consequences. Children born without legs, arms, eyes, conjoined twins, misshapen heads, diseases and conditions with names I had never heard of. There were images of fields and forests once rich with life, now barren wastelands with nothing alive. Aborted and deformed babies were on display in formaldehyde filled jars.
4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange and over 3 million of them were its victims. The results of studies conducted in Vietnam and the world have shown that Agent Orange/Dioxin can cause complex and diverse damages to all parts of a human body including skin cancer, damages to the skin, liver, thyroid and diabetes; cause damages to the system of respiration, circulation, digestion, endocrine and nerves; play an important role as a genetic and chromosome mutating factor which causes birth defects and reproductive complications. Common diseases in children and grandchildren of Agent Orange victims include complete or partial paralysis, blindness, dumbness, deafness, mental retardation, mental illness, cancer, deformities and birth defects. Especially, Agent Orange may be transmitted through generations and its consequences have transferred to the 4th generation in Vietnam. According to incomplete statistics, in the whole nation we currently have:
-More than 150,000 victims of the 2nd generation
-35,000 victims of the 3rd generation
-2,000 victims of the 4th generation
I watched this display as many people shook their head in disgust and disbelief. A poignant image for me was of a mother nursing a baby. The baby was missing an arm and a leg due to birth deformations. The photographer’s notes stated: “She told me she wanted the picture taken so people can see.”
10 International Support for Vietnam
Images and actions of US soldiers and people from around the world who spoke out against the the war.
11-12 out door exhibits
A collection of weapons of war (tanks, aircraft, canons, and bombshells) were outside for perusal. By now we were pretty numb, but we had enough energy to look through the imprisonment system.
Returning to our hotel, the girls were shaken and wanted to talk about their experience. Alyssa asked many “why” questions which led down a bunch of rabbit holes from the JFK assassination to military politics and international relations.
Kylie cried a few times: “I can’t get the images of all the bodies out of my head.”
“Why did they kill babies and children and women?” they asked.
I had questions of my own as well: Why are we so ready to ask our young people to support war and without seeing its consequences? Are the ideas from politicians really worth the human cost?
“Did you see anyone crying?” Alyssa asked
Yes I did. I saw several people leaving the exhibit with tears in their eyes. Men and women both.