Representations of the U.S. War throughout Vietnam
Prior to visiting Vietnam, I was most curious to learn about the repercussions of the U.S. war on Vietnam. I had two opposing assumptions about Vietnam’s sentiments towards Americans: one on hand, I figured that based on Vietnam’s long history of warfare, twenty years of U.S. involvement would seem trivial, but on the other hand, the illegitimacy and violent nature of the war would surely yield negative reactions towards Americans. Having spent a month traveling through Vietnam and seeing the Truong Son National Cemetery, the War Remnants Museum, and the Cu Chi Tunnels, I have realized that the representations of and feelings about the war are very mixed.
The Truong Son National Cemetery exposes the impact of the war from the perspective of the North Vietnamese Army, in a way that highlights the devastatingly high number of Vietnamese lives lost. The cemetery consists of endless rows of identical tombs commemorating those Vietnamese soldiers and citizens whose bodies were missing. Each grave is made of yellow and gray cement, with a ceramic bowl and sand box for incense, and matching headstones revealing the deceased person’s name, position, and dates of birth and death. The cemetery takes no political position and makes no oral or written claims about the war, a small part of more than 300,000 northern Vietnamese soldiers missing in actions. Here I saw thousands of rows after rows of one single division the army whose tombs are in the identical graves to speak for themselves. The negative reality of the war sank in as I strolled through the countless rows of headstones. Its separation into provinces and five military zones amplifies the horrors caused by war, by emphasizing its numbers. Envisioning what the cemetery would look like if it housed graves from all divisions and provinces is sickening.
One of the most difficult parts of visiting the National Cemeterywas the immense amount of guilt that I felt for the war. It was nearly impossible for me not to feel grouped together with the rest of my nation and feel terribly responsible for a war that had happened before I was even born, and a war that my parents spent most of their youth protesting. I kept thinking about the number of innocent civilians, including women and children who were killed. I felt deeply saddened by Vietnamese lives lost and was struck by the disparity between the number of casualties in Vietnam and those in America, who did suffer such extreme losses because they were fighting from abroad. The Truong SonNational Cemetery exposed much of the destruction caused by a war fought on native land through sheer numbers and endless repetition of matching grey and yellow graves.
The War Remnants Museum revealed the atrocities of the U.S.-Vietnam War and detrimental nature of wars at large from a neural position. Rather than identifying the United States as the enemy, the museum recognized violence and wars as the enemy. In my opinion, the most influential part about the museum was its emphasis on the widespread destruction caused by war. The exhibit showed the events and consequences of the war from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of photographers, journalists, American soldiers, American government, the American home front, the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army, and innocent Vietnamese civilians. By showing these divergent viewpoints, the exhibit clearly represented how complicated the war was.
Upon entering, the first thing on display was a quote by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stating that the war against Vietnam was an awful mistake which Americans owe to future generations to explain. I was very pleased to see this quote, particularly before seeing any other part of the museum because it paid tribute to the majority of American anti-war sentiments during the 1960s and 1970s that continue today. In contrast with theNational Cemetery, I felt less responsible and guilty for a war that my country had been involved in before I was even born. I knew that America’s twenty-year involvement in Vietnam was being recognized as a mistake on all fronts and I was not being viewed as the enemy.
I was impressed that every time the museum took one side, it countered it with a succeeding display from another side. For example, following a section dedicated to the repercussions of Agent Orange, the museum showed articles and quotes from the perspective of American soldiers. The museum’s exhibition about Agent Orange was complete with deformed embryos, photographs of starved, and physically and mentally retarded Vietnamese citizens as a result of direct or indirect contact with Agent Orange, and pictures of U.S. military planes spraying Agent Orange and wiping out the entirety of Vietnam’s vegetation. The museum ensures that the complexities of war would not be forgotten by contrasting American violence with the deception that American soldiers faced. Quotes, articles, and photographs explained that as a result of the draft, many young American soldiers were forced to fight in a war that they morally opposed and that even those soldiers who chose to fight were mislead about the reasoning behind the war. American soldiers arrived in Vietnam with entirely different expectations than what they would actually face, and many felt cheated by the American government. Soldiers received booklets convincing them that fighting in Vietnam would help the Vietnamese people as well as the U.S. by ending “communist aggression”, when in reality they were directed to kill and arrest innocent civilians including women and children, destroy houses and other buildings, and deforest the country. In some ways, American soldiers were equally unprepared and victimized as Vietnamese soldiers.
Rather than taking a political side, The War Remnants Museum’s unbiased representation of the war raised crucial moral questions directed at the human race rather than individual nations. Including photographers’ and journalists’ perspectives exposed the trauma and decisions they faced, which is an aspect of war that can be easily overlooked. The museum paid tribute to these reporters by displaying photographers’ last rolls of film, and contextualizing their pictures through quotes. Some photographers explained that they had taken the picture, ran away, and the next thing they heard were bullet shots. Others stated that they were in the middle of a battle, and were torn between the decision of taking pictures of the violence to expose the realities of war to the home front and helping the wounded victim. Further parts of the museum disclosed gruesome details about military strategies including Agent Orange and torture tactics, which brought up additional questions of morality centering on what degree of violence remains appropriate during warfare. The museum’s neutral standpoint becomes particularly significant when its Southern location is considered. Because the American forces and the Southern Army fought against the Viet-Cong and the Northern Vietnamese Army, the U.S.A. policy was to stop the communist government spread throughout Southeast Asia, a museum located in Saigon seems more likely to paint an extremely anti-American picture of the war.
The Cu Chi Tunnels did just that; they represented the Vietnam-American War in an aggressively pro-Viet Cong manner. The first thing shown to visitors of the Cu Chi Tunnels is what appeared to be a Viet Cong propaganda film from the late 1960s, but it is not presented as such. To us at least, the film was presented as an informational video. I expected to hear about the daily life of the Viet Cong and the thought processes behind mapping out the tunnels. Instead, the video described the Viet Cong as innocent civilians trying to make a difference as they were victimized by “American devils”. The film made absolutely no effort to be politically or historically correct, which yielded two main reactions from me. First, it undermined many of my feelings of guilt and sadness brought on by the National Cemetery and theWar Remnants Museum, and secondly, it made me substantially less willing to enjoy the remainder of the site.
I came to Vietnam with particular sentiments about the war. I knew that America was mistaken in invading Vietnam and was ready oppose my own country’s actions and sympathize even more thoroughly with Vietnam after being here. Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and viewing such a biased, outdated, uneducated video made me do just the opposite. My newfound strong sense of patriotism even came as a surprise to me. I felt angry that a video being shown to hundreds of tourists from around the world each day could be so uninformed and anti-American. I even wanted the Viet Cong to be recognized as war heroes for Southern Vietnam, but I was entirely unprepared to see my country be so inaccurately and incompletely represented. I was particularly stunned by the fact that this film was being shown in a museum without being contextualized.
It was difficult for me not to laugh at the absurdity of some of the film’s claims, and I found myself snickering with astonishment after being referred to as an “American devil”. Following the movie, a British lady confronted one of my peers, asking her what we found so amusing, since we were the ‘enemy’. This shocked and upset me. I could not believe that this woman was calling a group of twenty-year-olds who held no responsibility for the war ‘the enemy’. She was mislead enough to ignore the rampant anti Vietnam War sentiments during the 1960s and 1970s, and overlook the fact that France, her neighbor, had colonized and invaded Vietnam for roughly one hundred years.
Despite my negative feelings towards the Cu Chi Tunnels as a result of the film and the aforementioned comment, I believe that this experience was an informative one. Not only did it present a unique perspective about the war, but also it forced me to take a deeper look into America and its wars, without feeling free of blame. I was also able to apply the British woman’s comment to the Iraq war going on today and partially forgive her, by recognizing that there are many Americans who post September 11th, are likely to make a similar comment to Middle Easterners, who are clearly not at fault for any terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Since being in Vietnam and visiting the Truong Son NationalCemetery, the War Remnants Museum, and the Cu Chi Tunnels, I have realized that sentiments towards Americans and the war are varied. Each of these historical sites takes a different standpoint in its representation of the war: the National Cemetery shows the devastation from the point of view of the North Vietnamese Army, the War Remnants Museum remains neutral, and the Cu Chi Tunnels assumes the perspective of the Viet Cong. Seeing the reality and representations of a war that I had only read about makes me even more anxious for the U.S. to elect a new President whose primary goals are healthily ending the war in Iraq and foreign policy. It is crucial that the U.S. mend its international relationships, and ensure that the war in Vietnam not be forgotten, but apologies continue and its details be revealed.