Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Struggling to Understand the Vietnam War

"No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War.  It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now."  Richard Nixon, 1985
  • All war is deception. Sun Tzu            

Some of the things I saw in Vietnam were difficult to see, and are difficult to write about.

The War Remnants Museum is self-described as “containing countless artifacts, photographs, and pictures documenting American war crimes.”  There’s not much I can say about the hideous photographs and testimonies we saw in this museum.  Obviously, war is horrible and I’d say 90% of what this museum showed about American actions in Vietnam was probably true – the problem is that it was mostly very one-sided and therefore we were only getting a fragment of the true picture of the war.  Particularly disturbing were the accounts of My Lai and the effects of Agent Orange and napalm.  One room of the museum was dedicated to documenting the birth defects that are still occurring in Vietnam due to the spraying of Agent Orange.  I will add that, surprisingly, the effects of Agent Orange on American servicemen were also mentioned, but there was no mention of atrocities committed against U.S. soldiers by the Vietnamese. As a history teacher it was important for me to see this exhibit – but what are Vietnamese historians and students thinking when they see it?  Do they (by “they” I mean the non-participants) know what their own country did during the war?  What to say, what to say....

It seemed inappropriate to take photos inside this museum but here are a few photos I took outside.  The tanks and planes are part of the U.S. equipment captured during the war.  

      This is the type of experience that is really unpleasant but on the other hand is a valuable insight as to how “the other side” perceives the war and what they’re being taught, and I believe it will make my teaching of the Vietnam war (or “The American War” as the Vietnamese call it) more thoughtful and meaningful.  As I stated previously in this blog, even though the war was going on when I was a child, I was very oblivious about our involvement in Vietnam.  I had no clue why we were fighting or the politics involved – I just knew there was battle footage on the evening news every night and I guess that desensitized me to the war as it stretched on year after year.  I didn’t even know anyone who served, as my friends were too young and their parents were too old.  This trip to Vietnam has really deepened my understanding of the conflict, but in ways that I really can’t articulate. 
      It also has made me more conscious of freedom of speech and academic freedom, as the way the Vietnamese government is feeding one-sided, controlled information to not only their own citizens but to anyone else who visits is alarming.  I didn’t have to go to this museum to learn about My Lai or Agent Orange – it’s in the American History textbook used for my students. As a matter of fact a couple of the photographs in the War Remnants Museum can also be found in “The Americans” textbook used at DeLand High School. We openly discuss our mistakes.  I had assumed that the Vietnamese people must know that there was more to the story than what they were officially being told until the incident with the Vietnamese guide who honestly believed that his country strictly adhered to the Geneva Convention and that 100% of the war crimes and atrocities were carried out solely by Americans.  Scary.
Me going down into one of the entrances of the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong to carry out guerrilla missions during the Vietnam War

      One aspect of Vietnam which really intrigued me was made more clear a couple days later when we visited the Cu Chi tunnels.  About a two hour drive outside of Hi Chi Minh City we reached the area of Cu Chi, famous for being the base of Vietcong resistance and where they planned the Tet offensive in 1968.  Since Americans knew this was a crucial area, both strategically and geographically, our B-52 bombing was especially heavy in this area.  At first, the guerrillas simply built bunkers to hide in when the bombing raids were happening.  Eventually, they began to connect the bunkers and those connections became a network of tunnels used to carry out guerrilla raids.

      As with my visit to the War Remnants Museum, I was really taken aback by how heavy-handed the propaganda was at Cu Chi.  I’ve been to Communist China, to Yugoslavia when it was communist, and to Russia about a decade after communism fell, but I’ve never seen such ham-fisted propaganda in any of those countries.  Our first stop at Cu Chi was a video which was made during the war and has not been updated.  It described how peaceful and carefree the people of Cu Chi were until attacked by the American “devils”.  It described a happy little schoolgirl who became an “American Killer Hero” because of the atrocities of the war.  I was reminded of a propaganda video made by the U.S. government during the 1950s called “Red Nightmare” or “The Commies Are Coming!” – this video is also laughable in that its propaganda is so cartoonish and blatant.  The difference is that I show my students this historical sample American propaganda as an example of how the unrealistic, one-sided overkill of the message makes it ineffective and to explain that – even though Americans still may be victims of propaganda from time to time – we have become more savvy and less likely to swallow everything the government tells us.  The video shown to us by the Vietnamese was also preposterous with zero post-war perspective.  Are the Vietnamese people swallowing it?  I’m not sure.
Pre-visit presentation on the Cu Chi tunnels

      Anyway, I decided to document my visit to the tunnels as a learning tool for my students and to separate myself from any feelings of injustice, war guilt, or the many personal tragedies that people on both sides of the Vietnam conflict experienced.  We were taken to where some of the entrance holes still exist, hidden by tree trunks, leaves on the ground, etc.  A local guide demonstrated how an innocent looking patch of ground concealed an entrance that appeared to be too small for a human being to enter – until he proved that it could be done by slipping down the hole!  Of course, Vietnamese people are much smaller than Americans but Shannon from our group was also able to disappear into the hole when coaxed to by the guide.
Some of the other exhibits included punji traps, bamboo sticks sliced to be razor sharp and placed in hidden holes in the ground so our soldiers would fall into them and slice their legs open.  The idea was not just to injure one American soldier but to slow down the whole platoon as they stopped to help him.  Other “tiger traps” were demonstrated using metal spikes in a variety of ways.  The most disturbing thing about this part of the exhibit was the mural in the background depicting American GIs falling victim to the traps.  Another thing that I was unable to divorce myself from was the sound of gunfire constantly and loudly pounding in our ears.  There is a shooting range at the site, and tourists can pay money to fire an AK-47 or some other type of weapon.  It was distressing and annoying, but I guess it did give us a better sense of place.

Park ranger demonstrating the hidden entrance to a guerrilla tunnel at Cu Chi

The entrance looks too small for anyone to enter, but the park ranger slipped right in (Vietnamese are a lot smaller than Americans!)

Kick a few leaves around and no one will suspect that there is a tunnel entrance right in front of this person's foot (the ranger was in the tunnel when I took this photo)

Then he popped out of the tunnel!

Shannon from South Dakota was tiny enough to fit into the tunnel, too!

Example of a punji trap

More hidden tunnel entrances

More traps

Disturbing mural of U.S. soldiers falling victim to the punji traps
      Finally it was time to enter the tunnel itself.  A portion of the original tunnels have been enlarged for western-sized bodies and cemented over so one doesn’t have to slog through wet clay and the brave can choose to crawl through this section.  I had been dreading this moment for the entire time we’d been in Vietnam as I am claustrophobic and don’t like being in close proximity with a bunch of strangers – but I knew I couldn’t face my classes back at school and tell them “I wimped out and didn’t go into the tunnels.”  (My students, btw, are fascinated with this aspect of history – the tunnels, the guerilla warfare, etc.)

      Well, as it usually turns out to be, the thought of the tunnels was much scarier than the reality.  I tried crouching through at first but the ceiling was just too low for comfort so did most of the passageway on my hands and knees (despite the cement it was still dirty!).  There were small lights within (even though they went out every once in a while) and, most important, the line kept moving so I never felt trapped.  The hardest thing was that there were drop-offs every once in a while that were hard to maneuver.  I emerged from the last tunnel dirty and sweaty, but with a feeling of “Yes! I did it!” buoying me.
War tourism has become an industry for Vietnam.  They have made a lot of displays such as the one above depicting a Vietcong camp (they are figurines, not real people)

The fire from which this smoke is coming is actually underground and far away.  The Vietcong had a system of funneling their smoke away from its source so their hidden tunnels would not be detected.
Example of an underground hospital unit set up by the Vietcong in the tunnels.  It was evidently powered by electricity generated by one of the guerrillas peddling a stationary bicycle.

Entering one of the tunnels (cemented and enlarged for western tourists)