I can feel absolute anger and rage building up in my neck as I make my way from photograph to photograph displayed on the walls at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Photographs so graphic and horrific, of men, women and children killed and maimed in the Vietnam War, sprawled from wall to wall over two floors of the museum. I’m shocked beyond belief coming face to face with the reality of this war for the first time. While I had seen films about it back home, in the main, they were American or westernized productions, portraying the story from a very different perspective than that which was facing me here. It occurs to me now that these movies that I had seen had rarely, if ever, had Vietnamese actors starring in them. Looking at the photos on display, taken by photographers from many countries throughout the world who travelled to Vietnam to highlight the horrors of the war to the rest of the world and who in the main were killed or missing in action, I can only describe it as life changing. I had undertaken this trip wanting to learn about other cultures, to educate myself about the world outside of Ireland, and this is exactly what I got here, in bucketfuls! Many of the photos displayed are from photographers’ last rolls of films, taken before they were killed. They have been developed and preserved, and notes they had made about the photos they had taken are cited alongside the pictures. They are a “selective collection” at the same time, I’ve no doubt. I am seeing for the first time the story unfold from the side of the Vietnamese people. I’m trying desperately to rationalize in my mind what I am seeing as I walk around the museum. Trying not to scream out at people of all nationalities around me “what the f**k went on here? Do leaders of the world know about this too? And if so what the f**k has been learned from it?” I manage to take control of my anger and get through about two thirds of the museum before breaking down in tears and leaving, angry and distressed at witnessing the true reality of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. What they were “trained” to do to their fellow human beings! And I ask myself, Why? For what? (For the record, I say the same about any war happening today!)
I believe it’s important to explain in this blog, as graphic as it might seem, what I saw. Conscious of the fact that each side, the North Vietnamese people and the Southern Vietnamese (supported by the USA) have their own version of events. I know that as a visitor to this country that I have no real educated or in-depth knowledge of the events leading up to or after the war. I am merely stating what is on view at this museum, and my reaction to it. I know what is on display is a one-sided viewpoint supported by a now Socialist Government with a slightly Communist approach that portrays the USA military as the enemy and themselves as the outright “winners” of this war! Propaganda is a powerful tool, particularly if it’s presented in the form of a historic museum and where displays and public records documenting the past are not sugar coated, but lay the blame squarely at the feet of the USA. This is how the museum is presented. (To be fair, as we all know there are two sides to every story and there are no attempts to take one side or the other in my blog). There are no winners in this! I do however question the wisdom of the Americans in ever becoming involved to begin with given the horrors they had to endure also as a result of this war. I am sure I won’t be the first or the last to ask this question!
In a nutshell, as most people are aware, and from what I’ve learned from being in Vietnam, the war in the main was between North and South Vietnam. The North wanted a Communist regime governing the country whereas the Southern Vietnamese people, (supported by the USA), wanted a Democratic Government. (The country had previously been split following the French Colonial occupiers pulling out of Vietnam). The Northern Government referred to the Southern Government at that time as “The Puppet Government” (referring to the fact that they believed they were mere “puppets” of the USA and the French). The outcome of the war was that the Northern factions of the Vietnam military succeeded in defeating the Southerners and Americans in April 1975 and reclaimed the southern part as their own. The southern city, previously known as Saigon, then became known as Ho Chi Minh city, named after the leader of the North Vietnamese Communist party. Following the war, the country was governed by a single Government from Northern Vietnam, a Socialist Government, run by a Communist party that still exists to this day.
As I arrived at the Museum, on the face of it from the outside entrance, I expected it to be pretty much like any other museum that I had visited. Oh boy, how naïve I was! War tanks and USA military helicopters and aircraft that had been discarded after the US military fled in defeat, graced the foreground of the site in an almost boastful “we won” fashion . People were happily taking “smiley” selfies beside these tanks and aircraft, which from the small bit I knew about the atrocities of the war before ever entering the main museum, seemed a little distasteful. But in hindsight, I saw those same people inside the museum looking just as shocked and horrified as I was. I’ve no doubt they did not expect to see the horrors unfold before them either once they began the tour.
As you enter the main exhibition area on the ground floor there are photos of Northern Vietnamese Soldiers (who are incidentally referred to as “Patriots”), held in captivity in small, low ‘tiger’ cages covered in barbed wire. There is no room for them to stand and the cages are no bigger than a tiger cage, and aptly named. Within these cages prisoners were tortured and maimed and the list of the various torturing methods are posted on the walls around the cages and near the tiny prison cells where prisoners of war were held. Tortures listed included severe beatings, locking prisoners in oil drums, removing prisoners teeth, finger and toe nails, using radiation type lights to blind them, making prisoners roll on spiked iron grills, burning mouths with acid so they couldn’t eat and eventually died of starvation, burning their genitalia, boiling them in water and burying of prisoners alive. This is just a small example from the lists posted. There are more, too horrifying and numerous to mention here.
And then as you enter the main indoor area of the museum, you are faced with the most horrific photos of men, women and children holding onto each other in fear. Orphaned sisters and brothers no older than about 5 or 6, holding their baby siblings and trying to care for them on their own in the middle of roadways, where parents had been captured or killed. Women and children with guns pointed at their heads, the dead bodies of mothers lying in the huts they called homes, having been raped and beaten, surrounded by their young children who had witnessed the events prior to her death. All photographed within moments of the events happening! Children, who themselves had been shot and wounded with limbs missing. A baby boy no older than a year old sitting screaming in terror on a roadside, abandoned because his family had been driven out in fear at gunpoint. There is no follow-up as to what might have happened to this little mite and I dread to think of it! A mother trying to hold her four children’s heads above water in a filthy river as she tried to get them to safety. An American Soldier, holding up the head and torn torso of a Vietnamese Man he had just butchered. Young men who had been captured being flung from aircrafts to their deaths below! There was nothing these soldiers didn’t do in their torturing of human beings to whoever they saw as their enemy.
One photo of a beautiful young woman holding her baby on her hip caught me right in the gut. She was surrounded by her not much older children, who were clinging to her in fear as they looked down the barrel of a gun pointed at them. The photographer records that he was passing by and saw the scene in front of him and quickly took the photo. He continues “by the time I had passed, I heard the rain of bullets and the thud of each of them falling to the ground”! Young American and Vietnamese soldiers (younger than my own sons) lying in mucky ditches with such fear in their eyes, injured and maimed. Every photo had the same theme. Fear in the eyes of every one of the subjects being photographed. I have often heard of the war in Vietnam being described as “Hell on Earth”, and that is the best description of what was unfolding before my eyes. And the horror was that these were real people, real events, captured live in a moment in time. Most photos were taken only moments before these people were killed.
And then, a wall dedicated to all of the photographers who had taken the photos and who inevitably had been killed or lost in action. Men and women who had come to Vietnam from across the world, to make a difference, to try to bring the attention of the rest of the world to the real atrocities happening here. They were not spared and were tortured and killed in the same fashion as those who they were filming.
Barely holding it together, I moved to the next area of the museum. Within minutes of seeing what was behind these doors I was feeling physically sick and crying uncontrollably and had to leave. I hadn’t ever read or known about the chemical warfare that had gone on during this war. The “Agent Orange” chemical that was used to spray the wooded areas to burn down the trees and shrubs in order to force the North Vietnamese soldiers out of their camouflaged camps worked, but what has been left behind in this beautiful country is an absolute shame on mankind. The effects of the chemicals some forty years later are still evident to this day and graphically displayed for all to see in this museum. Photos of fetuses severely deformed as a result of the side effects of “Agent Orange” have been preserved in jars to show to the world what this war has done. Photos of the deformed bodies of these babies looking out at you from jars as you pass by. Photos of children with deformities I’ve never seen before and are images that only nightmares are made of. Children, who made it through the birth and are suffering to this day from the illnesses caused by the after effects of these chemicals. Young babies, beautiful innocent children and teenagers still suffering as a result of these goddamn war tactics. And the saddest moment of all. When I left the exhibition to gather myself together, I went outside to sit down outside the children’s crèche that’s available on site for parents to leave their children as they visit the museum. A beautiful Vietnamese young boy caught my eye inside, laughing with the children (main photo above). He was sitting at a keyboard playing it for the young children. And as I looked closer at him I saw that he had no eyes. Not even eye sockets. He was laughing happily with his friends, and it was just then that I remembered seeing a photo of him on the wall inside. He was another victim of the war, working at the museum. A beautiful child with his whole life ahead of him. No older than 15. And I couldn’t help thinking what sort of a future might he have. He would probably never be able to marry and have children of his own, given that he too had clearly been effected by the “Agent Orange” chemical and most likely wouldn’t risk having any more children himself where there was such a high risk of possible horrific side effects. His work prospects would be severely limited, and here he was, laughing happily like he hadn’t a care in the world. And I thought, for a fleeting moment, I will never complain about insignificant things in my life again! No doubt that won’t last too long
(Photo: Beautiful Vietnamese boy I saw at the Museum)
Since visiting the museum, I understand that American Soldiers also suffered horrific side effects from this chemical. Many have been compensated by the American Government. The Vietnamese people however have not.
Separately, the Vietnamese people cannot use huge areas of rich farmland because of land mines left over from this war. Landmines that still threaten their safety to this day! A country that is struggling with poverty on all fronts, is confined to restricted areas of the country to provide for its people because to use these lands would risk more lives!
I had planned to visit other historical sites in the city, but cannot bring myself to see anymore. Days later, I am still seeing these victims of war every time I close my eyes. Not only have the people of Vietnam suffered as a result of what I can only describe as greed, or absolute lunacy of war no matter where it happens, but is it any wonder that the Vietnam Vets in the USA suffered severe mental illness on their return to the US after the war? These young army men on both sides were trained to injure and kill other human beings like this? When we were in the States, many of the older homeless men that we met were Vietnam Vets with mental illnesses because they clearly could never overcome what they witnessed here. I get it now! I’m sure there are many articles and blogs written about this long before I have ever touched a keyboard, but lads. We seriously need to get our shit together when it comes to this kind of stuff. The leaders of the world are seeing similar atrocities happening all over the world to this day, and still allowing it to happen!
Vietnam and the USA since 2013 have thankfully begun a process of negotiations and healing, which is great. But this won’t fix the young children that have been so badly effected by the chemical warfare that took place here. It won’t bring back the men, women and children that were lost, both on the Vietnamese and American side. But Jesus, the world needs to learn some hard and fast lessons from this country’s history! With wars still going on today that are just as horrific, where innocent children are victims of a fate similar to what has happened here, (and Syria in particular comes to mind, not to mention all of the other countries), and for what? At the end of the day…we ALL need to ask ourselves….FOR WHAT? FOR BLOODY WHAT?!!!!! In the words of one of our own historically revered Irish patriots, Daniel O’Connell, “no country is worth the spilling of one drop of blood while killing a man in duel”. Wise words indeed!