The brutal reality of the Vietnam War

Posted: March 23, 2011 in South East Asia
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On Monday afternoon we took a stroll to the War Remnants Museum on Duong Le Qui Dong, a museum that documents the effects of the Vietnam War from 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30th April 1975. Our perspective on the war has long been influenced by an array of films, from documentaries through to classics such as Apocalypse Now (for the Pompey boys – Apocalypse Today, Apocalypse Tomorrow etc) and the not-so spectacular Hamburger Hill. What we hadn’t fully appreciated was the extent and impact of the war and just how long Viet Nam had to endure foreign aggression. We also never understood that this war lasted so long and followed the First Indochina War fought between Northern Vietnam and its Communist allies and Souther Vietnam, supported by the US and other anti-communist countries.

The museum is set over three floors and contains a wealth of information in written and visual form. There is also an incredible photography exhibition, called Requiem, that represents the work of wartime photojournalists from all countries. It was the brainchild of a US photojournalist who was determined to collate the efforts of those who were willing to put their lives on the line to photograph the realities of war, regardless of nationality and without no consideration of politics.

The brutal reality of Western aggression

If the first floor is a testament to the propaganda machine churning out anti-US posters, as well as evidence of the global protests against the war, the 2nd and 3rd floors display often-brutal images of the impact of the war. No punches are pulled and walking through the displays pulls at your heartstrings. What blew my mind was the fact that protests, sometimes millions strong, took place all over the world yet nobody brought the US to account. How the hell does that happen? Look at Libya today and see the fuss the Western world is making. Why didn’t they proclaim moral outrage and do something proactive when the US was murdering millions of Vietnamese? Was it because Vietnam had no oil to offer?

London Protests against Vietnam War

Amidst the emotional barrage, one photo saddened me more than others. It was of Senator Bob Kerrey who had been a Lieutenant in the Special Forces during the war. He and his troops were responsible for the massacre of innocent women and children. They stabbed to death two young boys and disemboweled another. They killed a pregnant woman. They systematically hunted down and brutally killed entire families. All this is the name of liberation. The disgraced Senator finally admitted his guilt sometime in the 90s but as far as I can tell, he was never held to account and made to atone for his crimes. Welcome to justice US style. So much for the international law courts that are meant to prevent such atrocities or at least punish the perpetrators.

By the end of the war in the 1975, it is estimated that between 2 and 3m Vietnamese had lost their lives, not to mention the large number of American GIs killed or missing in action. The war had also extended to Cambodia and Laos (the so-called ‘Secret War’ that comprised indiscriminate carpet bombings that created waves of refugees) which resulted in a further 400k – 500k deaths.  One section of the display provides stats of the volume of materials used by the US during the war, year-by-year, including the bombs dropped. It amounts to millions of tons of destruction and millions of litres of chemical agents.

The dirty bombs the scientists contributed

During the war the US leadership (under the successive administrations of JFK and Lyndon B Johnson) approved the use of chemical weapons, contravening international law and the Geneva Conventions of 1954, conventions that the US was a signatory to.

The most heavily used of all the chemical agents was Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a dioxin and intended as a defoliant, destroying the pristine jungle and mangrove swaps in which the Viet Cong (VC) resistance fighters hid. The US army believed that the only way to oust the VC was to strip away their camouflage and give the US soldiers a chance of wiping them out.

The US air force ran spraying raids, covering vast areas of fields and jungle with the dioxins. The result was the destruction of the land. One photo showed the before and after from a mangrove swap; the after was a barren expanse of cracked mud. The chemical weapons destroyed the livelihood of the peasant framers who lived in the countryside, killing their crops and plunging their lives into chaos and worsening poverty.

The effects of this chemical attack are being felt still today. Many people were horribly disfigured with brutal burns and in extreme cases, whole bodies torn to shreds. Napalm stripped people to the bone. Generations later, children are being born with deformities and the photos of twisted bodies unable to walk upright took our breath away. We were too upset to cry. These words aren’t an adequate account of the emotional impact of absorbing the facts this museum presents. This war was an act of savage aggression, a genocide disguised as a war of liberation.

Vietnamese children damaged by chemical weapons

The legacy: failing to hold the US to account

A tidal wave of resentment spread through the US in the 80s and 90s and pressure groups arose to hold the Government accountable for the damage its wartime policies inflicted on its people. Many servicemen suffered terribly form the effects of chemical agents; some suffered physical complaints such as severe headaches and skin rashes, others developed malignant cancers, others still witnessed the birth of disabled children, some badly deformed and unable to function properly.

After years of legal pressure through the US courts, the companies that supplied the chemicals to the Government, making $billions in the process, admitted liability and established a compensation fund of more than $200m. Small changes but at least it represented a legal and moral victory for those affected.

However, the litany of damage was far greater amongst the Vietnamese people. Proceedings were started in the 90s by a group of Vietnamese victims, both 1st and 2nd generation, and taken to the US courts demanding financial recompense for their suffering and the cost of dealing with severe illness and disability. The US Supreme Court rejected the case against the US chemical companies and continues with this stance.

It’s appalling that the legal system can recognise the US victims but deny the Vietnamese victims. It’s morally bankrupt to adopt such an insidious attitude. I personally believe that until the US Court faces up to its obligation to the Vietnamese people, the ugly stain of the war will continue to taint the reputation of the US in South East Asia. Most people can dissociate the people from the US administration but the leadership has an enormous debt to pay.

A poignant letter is displayed in the museum from one of the Vietnamese victims who is leading the legal battle. She wrote to President Barack Obama after he had published his letter to his daughters in which he dreamt of a fair and just world for his daughter to grow up in. The letter asks the President to extend this fairness to the people of every country in the world, not just his own family. Whether or not he chooses to act on this beseeching request remains to be seen and perhaps will be a true test of his character. Can a man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize dare to ignore it?

Will the world ever learn?

You could accuse the museum of verging towards nationalistic propaganda because the entire display is staunchly anti-US. However, that would be a churlish accusation. The museum handles the history and aftermath of the war in a delicate and sensitive manner, documenting the devastating impact on all victims regardless of nationality.

The facts are clear; the US illegally invaded Viet Nam to execute its violent foreign policy on the pretext of defending the liberties of the Southern Vietnamese people. Following JFK, Johnson and McNamara presided over an administration that flouted international laws, the same laws that the US just loves to invoke when criticising other regimes. There is no justification for murder and perhaps the US ‘war’ should be relabeled in history as state sponsored terrorism. The Viet people lived in fear and terror for decades and the impact is still being felt.

That the US has never been held accountable for its crimes saddens us deeply and indicates that justice is served based on economic and political influence. Perhaps in the future as other economies emerge, the US will find itself isolated and brutal interference abroad will no longer be tolerated. Yes, that is idealism at its most adventurous but in the words of John Lennon, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.

Love jamer & Muneeza x


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