Saturday, August 13, 2016

Perspective

I'll take a brief pause here. A pause to paint picture of perspective. It's one informed, admittedly, by blatant North Vietnamese communist propaganda, but one which should be experienced nonetheless.

There is a museum in Hanoi known now as the "War Remnants Museum" which we visited on our visit to the city in 2014. But just a few years before it was known affectionately as "The Museum of French and American War Crimes." A few meetings with the tourism board and the American ambassador and bingo! We've got a name that as an American I can enter feeling nice and welcome like I was just going into any old history museum! But as one enters... it's clear that this is still the intended name. I felt as though a German entering a Holocaust museum. We passed a group kids on a school trip, gazing at photographs of young children fleeing terrified from US napalm attacks... An entire floor of the building dedicated to photos of communities afflicted by agent orange, a terrible chemical bomb released by the US as a way to deforest the jungle to uncover NVA and VC hiding places. I found myself ashamed. I found myself avoiding the groups of children, looking at the pictures hung of LBJ and thinking "why?", at what cost?

I left the war remnants museum with a whole new perspective. All of my history books had told me that the Vietnam war was fought to prevent the expansion of the USSR. To prevent the terrifying domino effect of Communism from taking hold in Eastern Asia. But in Hanoi... It was about defending your home. It wasn't about global diplomacy and geopolitics... It was about the defending your mom's rice paddy, regardless of if she was communist or capitalist or completely apolitical. This is something as Americans we would never come to understand, and it would be our downfall... We came to defeat the hearts and minds of communists under the thumb of Kruschev and Brezhnev, but what we ended up fighting was the hearts and kinds of Vietnamese who just wanted their families and way of life preserved. The war was lost when we began, and it is a shame that American history books don't teach our country's great successes along with our failures. Yes that's right folks, we lost the Vietnam war. And not only that, we left with our tail between our legs and a severely damaged international reputation. Was it worth it? It's really hard to say, given that if there were dominos falling, not many fell, and the impact of their falling did not result in the doomsday scenario predicted at the time. Yes, it easy to sit back and say these things in hindsight, but the beauty and curse of history is that it repeats itself and we can carry the wisdom of the past into the present. Thank goodness we'll never make the same mistakes twice.

Seeing the faces of the Vietnamese in that museum gave me perspective. Perspective that it is possible that a country can do wrong. That maybe it's not a given that we're always the good guy. That war is terrible. That I've been blessed to have never been anywhere remotely near a war zone.

We left the War Remnants Museum back into the bright summer heat of Hanoi. We walked in silence for a while, not sure how to take it all in. I wanted to be offended by the propaganda. I wanted to tell those little kids that JFK and LBJ were not evil men (despite their being Democrats). I wanted to tell them that America was just trying to help if they only had the wisdom to accept our benevolent outstretched hand. But somehow I knew that what we'd done to their country was something unforgivable. The fire bombs and chemical weapons. The buried land mines unexploded to this day making it dangerous to walk through the countryside in many places. The unspeakable tragedy of My Lai. Not to say we were the only wrong doers, but I definitely left the place not proud of the role that my country played. Those children had a right to grieve the war and ask "why?" To look at those photographs of kids their age being burnt alive after a napalm attack and to be angry.

In a world were we all want to believe we're always right, it's good to get a heathy dose being wrong sometimes. So no. I didn't leave offended. And I didn't blame them for telling their story just the way they did. In fact, I think they had the right to leave the museum with its former name. It's a tragic story they have to tell - just as tragic as the one I've experienced many times walking down the Washington D.C. Mall past the tens of thousands of names of Americans who gave their lives in the war etched onto that somber black wall. It was a tragedy worth remembering from both sides, and one which any American should experience if they go to Vietnam... Just remember this handy Vietnamese phrase: tôi đến từ Canada.

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