Sunday, June 7, 2009

The War Remnants Museum in HCMC

A mural of a dove welcomes the visitor to the War Remnants Museum

The Vietnamese don't dwell on the American War nor do they hold any grudges as one might expect after all the suffering and years of bombardment, and the fact that today, one can still see on the streets of Saigon war veterans that are maimed, or the lucky who can wear prosthetic limbs. 

Agent orange (dioxin) is not through yet with the catastrophic deformities, cancers and other calamities it wrought on its victims. I wish we were as frank about the legacies of war as I found this to be. Most telling is the plaque on the wall entitled "Historical Truths". It begs for recognition. The Museum has assembled a permanent collection of U.S. war materiel in a plein air fashion; among the stars are 3000 lb. bombs, an A37B Attack aircraft, land shaking bombs, guns, artillery, and a framed stone representing the image of Buddha, which was given to Viet Nam by Hiroshima in the name of peace. It stands guard as a silent protester on the outside war arsenal display.

It is worth noting that former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara lamented in a book he penned in 1995 titled "In Restrospect - The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" :

Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why
The Vietnam War, as it is known in the States, did not serve as a lesson to our leadership. Maya Lin's memorial does not begin to tell the story to our citizens of what really happened in Vietnam. It pays hommage to those who gave their lives in yet what seemed to be another desperate attempt to stop the spread of communism. However, the war killed 3 million Vietnamese and wounded another 4 million. We lost 58,000 Americans. For what?
One cannot know the whole story without hearing the other side. I urge every traveler and tourist that makes Vietnam a destination to see the War Remants Museum. I found that I learned more about the war during my visit here than at any other time. And of course, throughout the country, there are constant reminders of the destruction, especially in Hue, the former Imperial capital, where single walls are left standing, reminding us that they once formed a complete building.
 There are solidarity posters in the museum from all those countries that condemned the war, including France, who sent the above from its own communist party. Ironically, the French occupied Vietnam for almost a century.
When you enter the Museum, you will receive a pamphlet written in English and Chinese. The photographs are not very clear, mostly black and white, and perfectly capable of conveying horror. Next to each photo are data and facts. No opinions, no judgements. One of the most poignant displays is from an American soldier, Sgt. William Brown. He donated his medals, uniform and tag to the people of Vietnam for this museum, with a plaque bearing the words: "To the People of a United Vietnam, I was wrong, I am sorry".
the reflection from the glass did not help with the quality of the photos
The open air section is first as you enter the site. One is immediately faced with a barrage of weapons, bombs of various weights and sizes, shown below:
A37B Attack Craft
Left: the 'seismic' bomb weighed 15,000 lbs. and can destroy everything on the ground within a radius of 100 meters, and violently shakes up and down within a diameter of 3.2 kms. 
The description of the seismic bomb is found in the pamphlet and has much more detailed information on the blue plaque next to it at the Museum. 
A few feet further, you will see a CBU-555B (below) described as a sophisticated bomb produced by the U.S. When exploding, the bomb can destroy oxygen in a radius of 500 meters. It was used at Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province on April 9, 1975.
Did we ever get the low down on exactly what was utilized, how much of it, where, etc..? Here are some sobering facts:

6.5 million men were sent into combat
22,000 US plants and factories supplied the war machine
7,850,000 tons of bombs (all kinds) were dropped over Vietnam, including 75,000,000 liters of defoliants (incuding dioxin) that were sprayed over crop lands, farmlands, forests and villages in the Southern part of the country.
According to the figures made public by the US government, US$352 billion was the cost of the Vietnam war.
In the North, 2923 schools were either destroyed or heavily damaged; 1850 hospitals, 484 churches, and 465 temples and pagodas.
Then there was napalm. Look it up.

Fascinating is the collection of photos taken by international photographers as a reminder of the pivotal role they played in archiving the war at a time when real-time news was not at our disposal. Particular homage is paid Bun’yo Ishikawa of the Japan Press. His Nikon camera, camouflage outfit and an anti-war poster are under glass.

Some of the photos are familiar, having appeared in our own national publications, or having won prestigious awards. They are nonetheless horrific. I learned that world opposition to this war was far greater than imagined: posters in French (they warned us to stay away), German, Danish, Japanese, and many in English from the US asking for an end to the hostilities.

Several buildings comprise the exhibit, but they are numbered, and you can follow the sequence, if order is something you need. You will find facsimiles of the tiger cages (building # 3), which were built by the French in 1939 and later used by the US to house "non-combatants". If you are not familiar with these structures, please visit this link . And as expected, the entire exhibit is told from the perspective of the Vietnamese; I would not imagine any country in the world that was being invaded to do it differently. Some things strike more than others: the quasi-methodical manner by which the American War arsenal is described – factual, historically accurate, to the point. One simply cannot ignore some of the "writings on the wall" literally. At the end of one exhibit, I photographed the following:
"We would like to thank the communist parties and working class of the countries of the World, national liberation movements, nationalistic countries, peace-loving countries, international democratic organizations, and progressive human beings for their wholehearted support, and strong encouragement to our people’s patriotic resistance against the US for national salvation".
Stone carving received from Hiroshima