The War Remnants Museum

“I thought I’d sworn off of war museums.  All they are is depressing reminders that people can be terrible.”

That was the first thought I had, when I was dragged along to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.  The second was, “Wow, this taxi was cheap.”  And so it was that I arrived at the museum, with two other people bent on widening their worldviews.

“These helicopters are pretty awesome.  Picture that one, raining metal hellfire from above as soldiers drop down into the forest.  That is an impressive payload of explosives for one single jet plane.  That tank would be fearsome, rolling over the horizon, launching death every which way.”  These are the mementos of terror I thought to myself.  Bombs, machine guns, other equipment of war: I marveled at it all, reveling in the sheer destructive power.  And I mentioned to one of my friends nearby, “I’d probably be more horrified by machines whose only purpose was to destroy beauty if they just weren’t so awesome”
And then we entered the museum proper.  I goggled at hand grenades and ogled self-explanatory land mines.  I stared dispassionately at pictures of the recently exploded, the children flushed out by chemicals, those who had been summarily shot; I was a cruel and ruthless god, surveying the wasteland he controlled.

It was seeing the mutated fetuses in a jar that first made me feel nauseous.  The first time I was truly affected by the depictions of terrible things were the uncensored photos of those affected by Agent Orange.  Burns, amputations, birth defects, tropical forests turned into the Kalahari were everywhere I looked.  And I recalled from what I knew before, that a lot of politicians tried to deny that Agent Orange had negative effects.  And I was angry.

I felt the fear in the face of a man about to be executed.  I stared into the eyes of American soldiers, gleefully gathered over the decapitated corpses of POWs.  One of the most grotesque pictures was of the disgusted man, holding a skin that would be unrecognizable as a human, if it were not for the pained expression on its face.  I read about the soldier’s dilemma- to struggle to maintain sanity, or to become “the sick f+++ who enjoys this s***.”

On a wall hung the quote from General Lemay that he would bomb the North Vietnamese back into the Stone Age.  And I pulled my hair, and I gnashed my teeth, and maybe that made me a communist sympathizer, but so what?  Did he not realize that people, families, women and children, were dying terrible deaths, were being hunted like rats, as a direct result of his decisions?  And I was angry.

But there was resolution, of a kind. On the higher levels, there was a gallery of photos from then, and photos from now.  Where once was devastation, now were public parks and epicenters of world business.  Burned bridges were rebuilt.  Temples restored, ruined shambles of houses restored into efficient apartment blocks.  Out of chaos, came order, through guided human efforts.  And what I thought to myself, what all these clashing emotions taught me, was that eventually, it gets better.

– Bryan Dodson

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