The Remnants of War: I Just Don't Understand

WARNING: Some graphic content


I’m going to admit, I had a really hard time yesterday, emotionally. Ricky and I visited the War Remnants Museum here in Saigon. The outside of the building mostly met what I expected—a bunch of leftover American planes and tanks and unexploded bombs.  I expected more of the same inside, because we had seen so much of this type of museum before.

What I got was something I wasn’t really prepared for.

See, it wasn’t really “war remnants” the way that rusty tanks left in the jungle are war remnants. No, these remnants of war were a lot more intense.

First we walked around and saw a lot of war propaganda posters and books and things. There were hundreds of photographs of protests throughout the world against the US’s involvement in Vietnam. We read stories of attempted peace talks and Ho Chi Minh’s letters to leaders of countries thanking them for their support.

We walked upstairs and my mind was filled with that neverending sense of “I don’t really understand” that I always get when faced with the atrocities of war. But I was not prepared for what would meet us on the second floor.

The first room we entered showed photographs taken of certain areas of Vietnam during the war, after being heavily attacked with bombs from American war-planes. The after pictures—of current day Vietnam—clearly showed the bomb craters dotting the land like chicken pox. These remnants of war would take a long time to be forgotten.

We then entered the Agent Orange room, the walls painted a ghastly and oddly suitable orange color. The first photographs to greet us upon entering were those of children with deformities due to AO contamination. The thing is, though, is that a few of these kids were born within the last 15 years or so. Let me explain.

American soldiers, in a brutal act against all laws of war, utilized powerful defoliants (plant-killing chemicals) like Agent Orange that contained a chemical called dioxin, which has been identified as the most toxic chemical  currently known to man (a few grams of the stuff can wipe out an entire city of millions).  American soldiers used chemical grenades and sprays from planes to kill the jungles and forests where the Vietnamese may have been hiding and hopefully kill a few in the process. This chemical, however, did more damage than expected. Contact with dioxin causes malformations in the DNA and can lead to numerous types of cancer and physical deformations. Because the change takes place in the DNA, a man that was in contact with the chemical will most likely pass on those DNA mutations to his children, and they (if having children is a physical possibility) to theirs.

So as we walked around the room, we read of children born with no limbs, with hydroencephalitis, with various types of cancer, mental retardation, and of stranger problems, such as one girl who has to live her life locked in a cage because anything she can get her hands on she will chew up and swallow, or a boy whose arms have to be tied behind his back to protect himself and those around him as he cannot control the constant flailing.

At one point, as we looked at pictures that would break anyone’s heart, Ricky looked toward me and pointed to something. As I took a closer look I realized, with horror, that it was a large glass box filled with liquid. Inside the two compartments were preserved fetuses affected by AO. There was a set of malformed Siamese twins and another fetus that was missing part of its face.  It was gruesome. And that’s when I started to lose it.



From that point on I was fighting back tears—angry, sad, frustrated tears. How the hell did anyone do this?  Who felt ok about what they were doing? What was the point of all of this? People are still suffering because of this.

I could tell others felt the same way. I stood and read the stories of three men in the US that performed self-immolaation (that is, burning oneself alive) in front of government buildings in protest of the war and the use of AO. As I read, a girl about my age stood in front of me, slightly shaking her head as she read.  Her shaking got more intense as she read through news reports and saw pictures of other AO victims (including US soldiers). We were both in unbelief. None of it made any sense.

Still fighting back emotion, we entered into the Crimes of War room. The first thing we saw upon entering was the preamble to the US Declaration of Independence:


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I only lasted about 5 minutes in that room before I had to leave.

Being faced with those “self-evident” truths and then seeing how the US obliterated them, I kind of lost it.  There, I was faced with statements like this:

Not shown is the photograph of a ditch filled with hundreds of bodies of men, women, and children.


...and photographs like this:

An American GI holds up the remains of a Vietnamese soldier killed by a grenade.


I left immediately and waited outside for Ricky to finish walking through.

We’ve written a lot about war and tragedy on the blog, because frankly it’s not something you can avoid when traveling in this part of the world. But this museum gave me a whole new perspective on it. It made me wonder if I had been alive back then, what would I have done?

I think I can honestly say that I’d have been one of the thousands at Washington, with signs and flowers, and the whole hippy thing because the war was a mistake, something the US should never have taken part in, and it would be nice to hear more sentiments like this:

The plaque at the top left states: The the people of a united Vietnam, I was wrong..I am sorry.

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