I’m sitting on a “bench” made in the U.S.A. Actually, it’s a seven-foot long bomb casing outside the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I just went through the museum and now it’s gloomy and raining, a reflection of the atmosphere inside. I arrived by bus from Phnom Penh last night about 8 pm and quickly found a cheap room and went to sleep. I woke up this morning wondering about my plan for the day and I saw on a map that the museum was only about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying. So I set off towards it, but first stopped by a food street vendor for some breakfast and iced coffee.
It’s the loudest meal I’ve ever had. Packed clusters of beeping motorbikes veer pass while a truckload of chickens unloads next door. In fact, I’m surrounded by chickens: chickens in bamboo cages, a few chickens pecking their way around my feet under the table as I eat…yes, chicken morning glory and rice and I can’t help but wonder if these chickens are pecking the same meal as I.
I finish up and pay 20,000 dong ($1) for my meal and walk on to the museum. When I enter the courtyard and buy my ticket (75 cents), I’m surrounded by U.S. helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets. I feel strange as the only other place I’ve seen U.S. military equipment is of course in my home country. As I enter the building, there are black and white photographs hung on all the walls depicting the various atrocities committed by the U.S. military and Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government. Picture after picture are images of troops setting fire to villages, capturing and evacuating whole families, holding the decapitated heads of the Vietcong, and on and on. There’s also a large series of photos showing the various deformities of the victims, mostly children, of Agent Orange and other chemical dioxins used by the U.S. to clear jungle foliage. The images almost make me sick: children missing limbs, enlarged and deformed heads, paralysis, cleft palates, all among too many to describe. For each photo in the museum, there’s a caption of information describing the who, what , where, when, and how.
After walking the floors and walls, I can’t help but feel that the portrayal of the pictures is very biased. They show nothing but atrocities the U.S. committed against the people of Vietnam. Of course, I knew of some them such as the incident at My Lai before coming, but nothing prepared me for such an onslaught of violence, aggression, and outright inhumanity that the photos and captions suggested. One photograph in particular that haunts me is of a young U.S. soldier dangling half a mangled torso of a farmer who was viciously blown in half by a bomb. There are countless other gruesome photos that I don’t even want to describe, but I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.
I do not know how to feel walking among the tourist crowd of French, German, Swiss, Spanish, Chinese, and people from all around. Somehow, I feel like I am the only American here. Is it guilt? Anger? Sadness? I don’t know which one. In the lobby there is a boy with no eyes, only skin covering the sockets. He’s playing Vietnamese music on a cheap keyboard and I can barely watch him without feeling tears well up inside. Beside him are other blind young boys sewing together various trinkets made from brightly colored beads. The proceeds go to charity for these young men and others with disabilities.
I can’t help but feel grateful for everything I have. Just that I have every limb, my sight, clean water and food to eat everyday, everything we take for granted. I don’t want to toe the line and say it’s because the U.S.A. protected my freedoms and way of life after what I just witnessed. There’s no excuse or justification for the murder and atrocities the United States government committed to “protect democracy”. How do you protect democracy and human rights by viciously carrying out a war against people who only wanted to defend their own homeland and way of life? Sometimes I wish everyone in the world could travel outside their homeland and live somewhere else, anywhere, for at least one year. I think the immersion into a different culture creates an understanding that knows no thoughts of fear, hate or violence.
I have utmost respect for anyone who has served or serves any nation in uniform, but I don’t respect self-interest decisions made by governments to put others in danger. A few million Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian civilians and over 75,000 young American, South Korean, Thai, Filipino, Australian and New Zealanders were not only stripped of democracy and human rights, but of a whole lifetime of possibility and humanity.
I’m still sitting here on this U.S. bomb, as the buzz of Ho Chi Minh flys by, waiting for the sun to come out and dry the rain.