Previous entry Next entry

Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 12 Feb 2007

Location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


Was it the cheap Vietnamese vodka we drank on the street, the expensive B52's cocktails in Apocalypse Now, or the rum and coke in the bar/whorehouse we briefly frequented? Most likely it was all three combined with one hours sleep. There was little chance i would crawl out of bed and make it on the trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels we booked the day before. Though everyone else managed to go, i decided to stay in bed.

Gallons of water, and a salty breakfast later i decided to take a look (with bloodshot eyes) around the War Remanants Museum.

The aim of the institution according to the leaflet is to "systematically study, preserve and display exhibits on war crimes and aftermaths of foreign aggressive forces caused for Vietnamese people."

A balanced exhibition of the atrocities committed by all sides in the Indochinese Wars this was not going to be.

Though the courtyard was full of helicopters, planes, tanks and guns, the museum, rather than sanitise the war through the sole use of such exhibits revealed the ugly face of armed conflict; the effect of these weapons on individuals and the environment.

I have never before seen such horrific pictures.

The photograph of a GI from the 25th infantry division carrying debris of a Liberation Army combatant was deeply disturbing. I could not make out what part of the body he had scraped up, but he posed with it like a prize catch on a fishing trip.

More distressing were the pictures perfectly capturing moments of intense emotion; the harrowing photo of a mother and her children frantically crossing a deep river to escape American bombs, or the peaceful, resigned expression of an old woman, a gun pressed to her temple.

The museum also showed in graphic detail the effects of chemical weapons employed by the United States such as Agent Orange and Phosphate. A wall was dedicated to image of men and women with the skin on their faces peeling, with no eyelids or with bodies that looked like hot wax. The most infamous chemical weapon, Napalm was the culprit in one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century; a naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming as the skin on her back melted. Kim Phuc, the girl in the picture claims that "Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine...Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius." And to think Saddam would be condemned for using chemical weapons.

Alongside visual reminders of the horror of this conflict at the individual level, the museum detailed the madness at a national level. The United States systematically carpet bombed the country, a terrorist policy indiscriminate in its targets. Basic infrastructure such as water pumps and power stations were destroyed in order to "bomb them back to the stone age" as General Curtis LeMay put it so delicately. In clear breach of the Geneva conventions schools, hospitals and medical facilities were bombed.

The sheer scale of the damage is enormous. Twelve million square metres of brick buidings and ten million cubed metres of dykes were destroyed.

Thirty five million trees were erased from the landscape in (purportedly) the first attempt in human history to eradicate the living environment.

Thousands of towns and villages disappeared - acts of US apocalyptic violence that paradoxically destroyed in order to save.

Three million Vietnamese were killed, two milion of which were civilians. A further two million were injured. The casualties did not end with the cessation of hostilities however. Agent Orange affected later generations in the womb. Two malformed foetuses preserved in jars was one of the most upsetting exhibits.

The museum therefore largely successed in its mission statement, my only comment would be that it did not detail 'war crimes', this term is a misnomer. War itself is a crime. The atrocities diplayed in the museum are war, not abnormal exceptions to its ordinary conduct.