It’s a funny thing about museums covering war and conflict; at some point, someone get up in arms about how biased a museum can be, or gets angry about the the self-promoting nationalist propaganda that a city or country’s museum takes. Prior to coming to this museum today, I skimmed a number of TripAdvisor reviews, and a few very angry Americans touted this museum as “Vietnamese propaganda,” “completely biased,” and “anti-American” (to this last point, I would respond, ‘Well, the U.S. did decide to come invade Vietnam and harm then and future generations of Vietnamese people, so if you were Vietnam, wouldn’t you be anti-American, too?’) But if you think about it, every country does this. I mean, it’s not like the JFK Presidential Library and Museum reveals that he didn’t genuinely care about civil rights for black Americans, and that he was really supporting whatever would get him reelected. The Vietnam War memorials, many of them all over the U.S., but the largest one in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mention the fact that the U.S. sprayed Agent Orange, among a whole rainbow of colors of other toxic chemicals, all over the country of Vietnam in a miscalculated attempt to destroy the food crops of guerrilla warriors, when in fact they completely screwed up and instead destroyed the crops of civilians, not to mention poisoned anyone who came into content with that substance for life, plus their second, third, and now even fourth generation family members.
In my history courses in high school covering recent U.S. history (in American history classes, “recent” means 1900s and onward), the Vietnam War is a quick few paragraphs in a textbook, and then it’s done. There’s a quick mention of Agent Orange and that the U.S. retreated, and that was pretty much it. I still remember coming back from my Advanced Placement U.S. History class on the day that our very left-leaning teacher did a lesson on the Vietnam War. He said, “The U.S. lost! We actually lost! We weren’t used to losing! So we had to get the hell out of there and FAST!”
I realized in that class that I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnam War. My brother and I were results of the Vietnam War; he and I would not exist if that war did not happen. Our dad served as a Private in radio communications on the U.S. side during the war in Qui Nhon in south central Vietnam. Our mom also somehow got a job with the U.S. Army also working in radio communications in the same city. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So, I headed home that day. And at dinner, I told my dad what my history teacher said. “Mr. Schmidt said that the U.S. lost the war,” I said naively and ignorantly. “Is that really true?”
My dad looked flabbergasted. He dropped the fork onto his plate, and he looked at me as though I was crazy. “We didn’t lose!” he exclaimed. “We retreated! There’s a difference between those two things!”
Actually, there kind of isn’t. As I read more on my own, I realized, this country really did lose. And we kind of deserved it. My dad never elaborated more than that. He rarely liked to talk about the war, and for very obvious reasons, neither did my mom. It was one of those subjects that I always wanted to ask more about, but was too afraid to upset either of them about.
Today, we went through all the exhibits one by one in the War Remnants Museum (originally called Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then renamed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, then finally renamed to this final name in 1995 after diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were normalized). I noticed callouts regarding radio communications in central Vietnam and thought about my parents. I saw Qui Nhon marked as a major combat unit in South Vietnam and learned it was designated as the tiger region. And, much to my complete disgust and horror, I saw real photos of the effects of Agent Orange on innocent south Vietnamese civilians, some of whom were in the womb when their mothers were affected by this chemical. It was an entire exhibit devoted to the atrocities that fell upon these innocent people in this beautiful country all because my home country decided to recklessly spray whatever they could in an attempt to win a war. Of the bits my dad did share with me, he said that he learned of Agent Orange while he was in Qui Nhon, and he heard the officials telling everyone not to be concerned if they got it on themselves because it wouldn’t harm them; it was only meant to harm the crops and fields. My dad thought they were crazy; he didn’t trust anything that they told him, and he stayed far away from all of it as possible. And thank God he did. So many American soldiers came back to the U.S. with terrible health ramifications that the U.S. government refused to acknowledge or compensate for decades after the war ended.
There was the photo of the conjoined twins who had their own arms and legs, but shared a torso. Then, there was the baby with a massively enlarged skull that looked as though bullets had gone through it. She had been diagnosed with hydro-encephalitis, a disease in which there is a build up of fluid in the brain ventricles, and thus the pressure of the fluid ends up causing life-threatening brain damage. She died a month after the photo was taken. Then, there are the many photos of babies born who basically look like skulls with empty eye sockets. They were blind and would never be able to see. They were doomed to never properly grow into adulthood. This is just a quick snapshot of what I remember and some of which I took pictures of. But it’s not even a smidgen of all the awful health outcomes of those affected by Agent Orange.
I started sobbing while looking at these horrific photos; it was difficult to remain composed. I’ve visited a number of very tragic and moving war museums, including the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima and the Apartheid and District Six Museums in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but for me, this somehow hurt so much more and felt closer to me. It felt more real to me than the others, and maybe it’s because my parents were there that I felt so terrible. My parents could have been affected by that; my relatives on my mom’s side were affected. My mom lost many siblings during the war, and I don’t even know all the stories to this day. I know she had nine living siblings; I know only the stories of three. What happened to the other six…? The horrors of the war still stay with my mom, and very likely with my dad, which is why he doesn’t talk about it, either. But with Agent Orange specifically, I felt enraged that the country I call home could be so reckless and stupid, and worse, actually defend what they did and even lie about it, even to their own people. And when people actually were affected, they didn’t care about them and ignored them. It’s so typical of the Land of the Free to do something so cold and cruel like this. The U.S. got away with war crimes, and to this day, this country denies the impact that Agent Orange has and claims that the 4.8 million Vietnamese affected that the Vietnamese government claims is grossly over-estimated. For a country that refuses to provide their own affected soldiers who have come back from the war treatment and compensation, that is just disgusting. More and more, I felt embarrassed to be an American standing in that museum.
And then I think of the current political situation back home, with President Dipshit, the oldest child to ever run the country, and his insipid, selfish, racist, and short-sighted government shut-down, and I think, do we really have any hope of being a better place when a large chunk of this country support this moron?