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  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

War and Peace in HCM City

An eyeopening visit to The War Remnants Museum in Saigon, helps me to reflect on the cost of war.

Outside the War Remnants Museum are American tanks and aircraft left behind or captured during the war. To the victors go the spoils. But that's where the boasting ends. The museum might have the better title War and Peace as it outlines the devastating, and continuing, affect of the war on humans from all sides.

I am part of the generation born after the Vietnam War (in Vietnam, it's called the American War). I grew up in a military town and although my father hadn't gone to Vietnam, many of my friends fathers had been there, so it wasn't something that passed me by.

However, for many years the Vietnam War wasn't considered significant enough to acknowledge the vets as returned servicemen or allow them to march on Anzac Day alongside those who had served in WWI, WWII, Korea or Malaysia. It's as if the war didn't matter to our government, who had once considered it significant enough to send our young men into it. To downplay things further, my airforce school was very strict on us calling it a 'conflict' not a 'war'.

500 Australians and 50,000 Americans lost their lives during the 'conflict'. Between 1 and 3 million* Vietnamese lost theirs. The majority of those were civilians. Many more on both sides, were maimed, burned, shot, tortured or otherwise injured. Most of the country's infrastructure and agriculture was destroyed by bombs and chemical warfare that continues to affect the Vietnamese even 40 years on. Whether termed "conflict" or "war", I'd call that pretty damn significant.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. Let us sleep now. . . .” [Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen]

Foliage was such a problem for the US and its allies that they began spraying vast areas with millions of gallons of the dioxin based chemical 'agent orange'. The chemical not only burns the skin off those it falls on and is carcinogenic to those who ingest it through contaminated food or water, it causes genetic defects to their children, grandchildren and beyond. That's my generation, our children and grandchildren. Thinking of my school friends with vet dads and knowing their happy, healthy children I can't help thinking they dodged a bullet on that.

The widespread chemical warfare and bombing were only part of the equation. Some men became monsters, committing war crimes against soldiers and civilians alike. The museum only focuses on those crimes committed by the U.S. Some visitors are critical of this and ideally a war museum should give a perspective of both sides but I don't recall going to one back home that recounted my nations war crimes.

What the museum does do, however, is paint a distinction between crimes by the State and those by individuals. It also distinguishes between those soldiers and civilians that participated, those that didn't, those who protested or fought back, and those that just wanted to go home alive. In doing so it gives a very nuanced version of events that shows empathy, particularly for the conscripted GI Joe who didn't want to be there. It also outlines moments of bravery and kindness on both sides.

War is neither glamorous nor attractive. It is monstrous. Its very nature is one of tragedy and suffering. [The Dalai Lama]

The museum is broader than civilians and soldiers caught directly in the conflict. It displays the photos of journalists and press photographers killed during the war as well as those who went missing in Cambodia.

Another section is devoted to the peace protestors and the world wide campaign against the war. To show how deeply troubling this conflict was for people at the time, there are portraits of 3 Americans and a Japanese who self emulated in protest.

Outside the museum, I spoke to a woman who lived in Saigon during the war. She told me, in the fluent, barely accented English of the once wealthy, how people fled the city when Ho Chi Minh arrived but her family had nowhere to go. She was a teenager then and has no family left now. She lives alone in a small room on the outskirts of the city and comes in each day to try to earn a living giving manicures in the park.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” “None,” said that other, “save the undone years, The hopelessness." [Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen]

We are all victims of war. None are untouched. From the soldiers who fight it to the activists who protest it. From civilians unfortunately close to battlefield to those that flee. From those who report it to those thousands of miles away watching it unfold in the News. And it remains for the generations to come. The U.S. may have lifted trade sanctions and Vietnam happily accepts Americans and Australians as their visitors but there are still unexploded ordnance ripping children's arms and legs off, if they were born with them at all. In our desire to put the past behind us we can't forget these atrocities happened and are still very much the present, even the unfortunate future, for some.

An exhibition in the museum reminds us Vietnam isn't safe. China waits just off shore and some people are very scared by this. "They want to kill us all," one Vietnamese woman told me. It might seem a remote threat to many of us, but to a people once invaded by China and still suffering the effects of wars that ravaged their country most of the 20th century and, in less than a decade of that, took some 3 million lives, it doesn't surprise me they are afraid.

*figures vary widely due to differences in determining the dates of the war, difficulties in population surveys, refugee movements, 'collateral damage' estimates and whether post war casualties are included.

WHERE: 28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, District 3 Ho Chi Minh City

WHEN: Open Daily





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