War Remnants Museum

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, April 26, 2007

I loved little green army men.  You know, the little plastic figures in different poses of combat.  And I loved Playmobile too.  My mom bought me the Cowboys and Indians set.  I was always the Cowboys.  And man would I shoot those Indians dead.
 
One of my favorite childhood memories is going to a creek with my family and playing with a set of little green army men with my older brothers.  My parents had bought us an incredible collection.  There were machine gunners! And rocket launchers! And snipers! And radio men?  I was the youngest, so I always got stuck with the guy who carried the giant radio equipment and held a portable phone next to his ear.  My instructions were: if something happens, call for help.  We also had a boat to place our soldiers in and send them floating down the creek in search of communists and infidels.  Rocks would launch from the surrounding banks and try to sink the boat.  When our aim improved, it did sink.  So we spent the rest of the day sailing our troops down the rapid filled river on a Styrofoam plate.  We played war for hours.  The hills echoed with our mouth-made machine gun sounds, rocks clunking against the plastic flesh of radiomen, our agonizing impressions of the wounded, and the cries of victorious soldiers.  We experimented with matches and plastic, an intoxicating novelty for little kids.  We played out things we had seen in war movies - scenes from some place called Germany, another called 'Nam.  That's what it was to be a boy in America.
 
When I was older I fell in love with a video game my stepbrother had.  It was called Taipan and involved sailing as a pirate and trader in the 16th century Southeast Asian seas.  I had never heard of any of the exotic ports (Saigon, Shanghai, Singapore), and I didn't know much about the items that were bought and sold (arms, cannons, opium).  But I learned early on that the real money was in opium.  It was expensive and people seemed to attack a lot more when I had it, but the margins were incredible.  I was an enterprising young man.  I was making millions.  I told my mom about it and requested that she buy the game for me.  She refused.  Apparently opium was a drug.  The game was about drug dealing.  "BUT MOM!!  IT'S JUST A GAME!!"  Yes, but it was a bad influence, it sent the wrong message.  Playing a game about something illicit only encouraged such deviant behavior.  I better get back to my cowboys and Indians, my little green army men.
 
Social norms are imprinted on us at a young age, and they are things that never need to be articulated or taught in any normal sense.  Through our hours of play, our even greater hours in front of a television, or 60 minutes a week in a pew, we learn right from wrong, normal from queer (wink), and our psyches absorb a thorough imprint of what lies in and out of the realm of acceptable behavior.  Your kids are always learning from you, whether you're teaching them or not.  My parents were caring, well spoken, well read, good-intentioned Christians.  I learned that drugs were bad, family was important, education empowering, the USA awesome, and that the whole world was in His hands.  What I did not know was good guys and bad guys was just a matter of perspective, that my cowboys and Indians play set was missing tiny small pox blankets and broken treaties, and that the human versions of my little green army men in Vietnam were as likely to die of jellied gasoline and starvation as they were snipers.  Little did I know that my radiomen I so despised had all the real power.  "If something happens, call for help."  Napalm sweeps, cluster bombs, tank squadrons, naval bombardment, B52s, and the limitless killing power of the atom...they were only a phone call away.  But what I was missing most, and perhaps I should have instinctually known, was that the people of the world lacked the infinite reincarnations that my plastic figures had.  My toys didn't depict mass burials.  They never included weeping mothers and starving babies.  What I lacked was perhaps the most important lesson mankind can learn:  War is not glorious.  Death is not palatable. 
 
We visited the War Remnants museum in Saigon.  Our guidebook had less than flattering things to say about it.  According to Lonely Planet, the photos are gruesome, and the museum's treatment of the war is one-sided.  I thought, "So?"  If I couldn't suffer through a few painful photos when many of the Vietnamese citizens I had been living amongst for the last 2 months had been forced to live through it, and perhaps still see such things vividly in their dreams, then something was terribly wrong.  And when isn't war depicted in an unbalanced fashion?  I grew up in America.  I already knew our side of the story.
 
So we wandered the grounds where they have U.S. fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns on display.  What I found disconcerting was that these things didn't inspire dread in me.  They actually looked small, almost harmless.  I had seen such planes in air shows in El Paso when I was growing up.  These weren't bringers of death.  They were acrobats that performed to the music of Queen.  They dragged red, white, and blue smoke across the skies.  To me, they were still toys and performers.  My mind knew otherwise, but I couldn't make myself feel the fear or loathing I should.  Strange.
 
There was a portion of the museum dedicated to the photojournalists who covered the war.  I was impressed that the people of Vietnam so appreciated the work that they had done.  These journalists risked their lives to tell a story that might have remained hidden if not for their work and sacrifice.  These were the people who showed the citizens of the world the consequences of the war.  They gave the victims faces, which made them much harder to ignore.  As a writer I am a great admirer of the written word and print journalists, but photos do something that a typewriter can't.  Reading the names of victims does not have nearly the effect of say...flag draped coffins.  The word "napalm" is one I grew up hearing.  "Jellied-gasoline" and "setting the world and its inhabitants on fire" is not something I was familiar with.  It was a photojournalist who gave us "The girl in the picture."  She is the young lady running naked from her village that had just been bombed, her clothes and much of her skin burned off of her body.  She is impossible to ignore.
 
When I first came to Vietnam, this was the only image that would not leave my mind.  I mentioned it in an earlier blog.  I had read books on Vietnam, seen gorgeous travel photos, I knew some of its ancient history, but that Pulitzer Prize winning image would always resurface.  Many people might think this makes war photography dangerous.  No.  The war is dangerous, the photos necessary.  It's like the depictions of cancerous lungs that many countries put on cigarette packages.  The girl in the picture should be on any declaration of war.  Maybe it would be harder to sign.
 
I was impressed with this initial exhibit.  It didn't even discuss the war really.  It was dedicated solely to those who covered it.  There was no propaganda or nationalism.  They simply sung the praises of journalists, many of them American.
 
The main exhibit is much more painful.  It is put together to tell a story.  It almost assumes some previous prejudice on the part of its visitors.  It is a counter-argument to American nationalism and our projected hero status.  Is it one-sided?  Yes.  Is this understandable?  Of course.
 
It discusses our most heinous actions and presents vivid photos depicting them.  It starts out sobering and escalates to excruciating.  The curators of the museum seem to have read the same arguments I had - that Agent Orange doesn't cause birth defects.  They show us otherwise.  They show us why napalm should be considered profane.  They tell us of the old woman whose grand-children must cover her face with a blanket every night so she can sleep.  Napalm stole her eyelids.  It is the sort of place that makes you weep, but it is not cathartic.  You don't feel better afterward, and I guess you shouldn't.  Because now you know.
 
I will now pre-emptively refute all the, "Yeah, but...." comments.  If your immediate reaction to all of this is that "They did it too," then you have some soul searching to do.  Whatever the other side of this story, this is a tragedy that deserves sympathy.  These victims deserve to be mourned.  A war with more civilian casualties than any preceding it should inspire people to forget about what country they were born in, what flag decal is on their bumper, what their textbook listed as the cause of the war's initiation, and simply recognize the brutality and suffering that occurred.  We can utilize another childhood lesson and forget about who started it, whose fault it was, and simply recognize the consequences of it all. 
 
I wept at The Wall in Washington DC.  Not because so many Americans had died, but because so many people had.  Sixty thousand names is a lot.  They all had siblings and parents that I ache for too.  The suffering that comes from death is exponential.  Now remember that three million Vietnamese died during that war.  Three million.  People.  To think about this and be affected by it is not unpatriotic.  It's human.
 
Napalm, land mines, phosphorous bombs, pellet bombs.  These are the tools of wholesale slaughter.  They should have the same stigma as gas chambers and atom bombs.  They are the bringers of death. 
 
And I use words like "we" and "us" when discussing U.S. actions.  I do this even when things happened before I was born.  I think Americans must take some accountability for the things we have done and continue to do as a nation.  Do we, the lowly citizens of this country, sign the declaration of war?  No.  But we offer our complicity through our silence.  It's okay to hold a dissenting opinion and speak out.  As Einstein said, "Nationalism is a dirty disease.  It is the measles of mankind."  It silences us and divides us, with only the myth that it unites.  We are all people, and the line between good guys and bad guys is rarely clear.  But the most important thing I got out of that museum is that civilian casualties are the greatest cost of war and must always be foremost in our minds.  Paid soldiers aren't lining up on an open battlefield anymore.  We can't declare or support war thinking that they do.  It's the girl in the picture that suffers.
 
Like I said, the museum was excruciating.  And as all of this ran through my mind, and I looked at these photos of napalm victims, I again remembered my little green army men and the consequences of childish brutality.  Plastic melts, but so do people.  And that's never okay.
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