The Cultural Impact of the American/Vietnamese War in 2008 Vietnam
Understanding Vietnam Short Term
A lottery number, which was determined by the year of birth, decided who stayed and who was sent to serve in Vietnam. Sometimes, who your father was mattered and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes, my father and his friends would sit beside the illuminated television screen and quietly wait for their number to be called. My father was lucky, but his friend was not. This was the beginning of the average American citizen’s experience with what is referred to as the Vietnam War. The aftermath of that fatal sorting made youthful populations walk in protest and general mentalities change. Whether it is Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or even Forest Gump, the Vietnam War has made the association of a foreign war as no more than a scar of hellish consequences and frustrating stalemates of service. The images that assemble in my mind were not different from the mad Captain Kurtz in the heart of darkness of Cambodia, or the dragging of fallen comrades through the bush while sniper fire reigns upon them and planes overhead drop fire bombs. In my mind’s eye, these were the events that illustrated the Vietnam War.
Across the Pacific Ocean, from the West to the East coast, there were student protests against both the US involvement in Vietnam and their personal deployment. And while some rebelled against their authority figures by smoking Mary-Jane and living a life of free-love and flower power, others besieged universities such as Kent State or University of California at Berkeley, and marched on Washington D.C. and Chicago. All this social turmoil was after Lyndon B. Johnson sent more troops overseas rather than fulfilling his campaign promise of peace. The United States was in uproar but they were not alone. In a relatively egocentric perspective, the Vietnam War, portrayed either in Hollywood or political banter, focuses mainly on the loss of American soldiers and their sacrifice, when told from the American point of view. In this short term about the culture and history of Vietnam, I have, for the first time, been at the other end of the war. Here it is referred to as the American War, and the history that is recited to us is one where the Americans are the foreign presence that was defeated in a previous war. But the Americans are also shown as responsible for the brutal actions, as in some of the museums, have become a centerpiece of that period of history.
But this mentality does not solely end or begin with the cruel realities of war, nor the chaotic bloodshed between the American/South Vietnamese forces, village militias and the North Vietnamese guerilla army. The war was a bloody stalemate in the game of chicken. However, this past does not show itself in everyday life either in the treatment of Americans or French. Therefore, the history of American or foreign aggression in general is only one side of the Vietnamese cultural background because while the more official centers of “information” might give one story, the reality of people’s experience gives a better sense of healing from the losses shared by both sides and all those who were caught in the crossfire.
The history that is told in some of the museums begins with American aggression and the fall of French colonial rule, and ends with the victory of Vietnamese endurance and stealth over foreign occupation. This message was painfully clear at the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City, or more commonly known as Saigon.
Initially, I was very excited to visit the tunnel system that had served as both a shelter during the air raids or sniper hideouts for the Viet Cong. Whether for a single night underground escape or months of earthy midnight, villagers of Cu Chi could experience many aspects of their normal lives. From commerce and cooking to even childbirth, life went on, though sporadic fighting for defense or duty, were mandatory as well. And amazingly enough, these tunnel systems, which originated during the first Indochinese War from 1945 to 1954, were not at all unique to Cu Chi but are found throughout Vietnam. Although the earth’s surface could shake form the artillery, life underground was sustained into a routine, which was determined by survival and its dependence on invisibility. Therefore, cooking occurred only during the dark of night, which concealed the smoke. But even these fumes were transferred to another spot of anonymity through two or three hollow bamboo stalks. And of the few trenched but visible stations, such as the first aid or the commanders’ quarters, many were equipped with passage in to the tunnels. In fact many narrow turns and crannies, which were obstacles in themselves for the stockier builds of Western forces (a re-occurring problem for today’s tourists), were also lined with booby-traps to hinder invaders from finding the villagers and or the Viet Cong forces.
While these facts are a significant part of the Cu Chi tunnel site, the twist of these facts made the American/Vietnamese war seem more one-sided. Sadly, one-sided is just the beginning. In Turkey, though the battle of Gallipoli is a black day for the Australian and New Zealander armies during World War I, the Turks still commemorated the Allied soldiers who lost their lives in the memorial cemetery. Here, the killing of American soldiers was an honorable act. From the illustrated soldiers falling into spiked bamboo pike-filled pits or swinging spikes smashing into heads, the soldiers of Forest Gump are the bad guys.
Of the many shocking moments during our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the introductory video from 1967 was definitely…interesting. The obvious propaganda film, which was understandably made in the middle of the war, used phrases like “angry devils” to describe American soldiers. Of course, all of this was nicely translated into English for the many Western tourists. And it was these foreign aggressors who destroyed the province, known for its gardens and abundant village life into a No Man’s Land. The many ditches created by B-52 bombs and the destroyed campsite are currently popular photo opportunities. But the Americans also indiscriminately fired at women and children before the Viet Cong with full villager unity defended and sheltered them. Therefore, many of the glorified freedom fighters, from schoolgirl to farmer, were rewarded with the honorary title of “American-killer hero”. At one point, though there is plenty of blood on the United States’ hands, the ridiculousness of some inspirational music to the “hunting down of Americans” was too much and some of our nervous snorts were quickly reprimanded by a European tourist for being ignorant and insensitive to the actual history. But truthfully, our ignorance, though present, is lightened by the realization that primary source shown before us was not at all objective and far from an accurate portrayal of the war.
Though my sarcasm has been present throughout this reflective essay, it has not been without the sad realization of the violence that was inflicted upon many innocent Vietnamese citizens, as well as the carnage endured and committed by soldiers on both sides. That reality of the common Vietnamese experience is right in front of us in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and all around us by thay Trian’s childhood. In the museum, photographs, artifacts, and personal accounts recollect the heartless massacres of life such as that in My Lai. Much to the shame of justice, it took until after the beginning of the twenty-first century before one of the commanding officers, now the former US Senator, Dean Kearney, was investigated. But the victims of cluster bullets, napalm or the defoliant, Agent Orange also greet the visitors on every wall. The effects of American use if dioxide did not end with the North Vietnamese victory over Saigon in 1975 but present themselves even today. Thousands of children were born with deformities that condemned many to a life of limitation and hardship. And since then, through all the streets that our bus has traveled, many people have been passed that makes us stop and wonder if they too, are victims of a war over thirty years ago. The napalm, seemingly so fragrant to one commander in Apocalypse Now, burned bodies of children, many of whom were photographed running towards the camera, now show their charred skin decades later in one of the many exhibits. The further cruelty of the American forces, in a similar fashion to the presentation of the French in Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, is shown by the tiger cages where Viet Cong prisoners were kept during the war. Cages are propped with skeletal figures in chains, some which peek outside of their solitary cell, while the main tool of punishment and execution, again with a French overtone, the devilish guillotine. The author of these brutalities is oddly represented by the many tanks and American aircraft that dot the lawn in front of the museum.
However, what is not talked about here at the war museum nor even in the schools, is that while some Americans attacked quiet villages, so did the Viet Cong. But that is not the impression that is left here. The Americans, like the French, were armies who landed in Vietnam with only imperialism on their minds. And it was not just the Viet Cong that resisted their ambitions but Vietnam as a whole. There seems to be no difference between the villagers in Cu Chi or the Viet Cong who hid there. Of course, this unity is more of a advantage than the actual complexities. While the torture devices used by the French are on display for all to see in Hanoi, the treatment of American soldiers, including John McCain, is shown as being significantly more humane. The comments that have been made as to McCain’s experience with torture, and his current stance on the issue now, seem to present another side to that story. Therefore, the terrifying moment when thay Trian was caught in the cross-fire between the North Vietnamese army and the American forces, in Quang Tri, and forced to walk the Bloody Road at the age of 10 is a far better analogy to the American/Vietnamese war.
It should be clear, however, that whatever the violence that was inflicted, there is not the feeling of bitterness. Whether American or French, smiles are exchanged everyday. The museum and the mentality of everyday life of the Vietnamese are separated. The Cu Chi tunnels are not for the Vietnamese because it is the foreign travelers who take photographs themselves in booby-traps and who pay a few thousand dong to fire semi-automatic weapons at the nearby shooting range, which keeps the war audibly alive and well. In Truong Son, each province is remembered for the soldiers that it conceived and forfeited to the North Vietnamese, or as otherwise simply argued, Vietnamese cause. As a symbolic equivalent to Arlington Cemetery in the United States, Truong Son has over 10,000 empty graves, of out more than 300,000 Northern Vietnamese soldiers who were missing-in-actions during the American/Vietnamese war. And seeing this place, makes the prospects of war all the more tragic and one hopes that like the many B-52 bomb cavities throughout Quang Binh and Quang Tri provinces, the wounds of the American/Vietnamese war will be filled up with water and turned into a tool for a more productive and peaceful future. This lesson is for both sides and all those in between.