I was reluctant to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. I like museums in general; I don’t like venturing into the more somber ones in my free time. It took me five years of living in DC and an imminent move abroad before I girdled my loins to go into the Holocaust Museum.
While I was warned about it, the distinctly anti-American slant made me squirm. A lot. In the very first exhibit, the introduction was a quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..” directly from the American Declaration of Independence. Throughout the exhibits, they managed to pull out many quotes from Westerners, largely Americans, to enhance their case. Quotes from American politicians campaigning against the Vietnam War during elections. Human Rights committees. The museum planners clearly had some professional help on top of the usual Asian slap-old-artifacts-in-a-building museum methodology.
Exhibits featured the Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects, casualty number comparisons between the Viet Cong and the Western troops (with rather low number of the South Vietnamese), range of weapons used by the Americans, and the atrocities of My Lai and other locations. Also featured was a mock building of the prison used by the South against the Viet Cong POWs.
I am, today, still ambivalent about my reception of the museum. I know very bluntly: I did not like it. I just can’t decide if my reaction is an emotional or a fair response. I love the Vietnam Memorial in DC. It is my favourite landmark on the Mall. Every time I visit, it makes me sad and grieve, as a memorial should. It’s not a happy reaction but heartfelt one. For this museum, though, I just don’t know.
In my years living abroad, I’ve learned to take in and acknowledge foreigners’ criticism of Americans, especially American foreign policy, in stride. This museum evoked a different reaction, though. The logical part of me can’t deny all these terrible things that happened in Vietnam. A lot of people died. Some Americans acted terribly. Some tactics were brutal. I don’t know how or if one can draw the line between right or wrong in war. In retrospect, some tactics were clearly morally and humanely controversial. But was it clear at the moment?
The one-sidedness definitely raised my defensive hackles, perhaps more so because I am an American, and a very patriotic one at that. While I am of the post-Vietnam generation, I still find the history too recent to take it objectively. The war took a heavy toll on America, in mortality, morality, and ideology. Our veterans, young men then, came back with scars that time can’t always heal. So many never even made it back. We may not be blameless, but we were not antagonists in the simplest sense.
I’ve seen war-torn countries up close. I never leave with any clearer moral compass. More often than not, I leave more emotionally and psychologically torn. Sherman is right. War is hell. Pure hell for all involved.