Remembering War Crimes: The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam
The next station to visit was the “Imprisonment System” area, which referred to the prison system of French and American occupiers. This was clearly the least updated part of the museum, but it described the kinds of tortures that prisoners were to expect. The scope of the prison system was not clear – certainly political prisoners were tortured, but where did petty criminals go? Where did foreign nationals end up? The point was not to be comprehensive or even educational, but to show the abuses of the system.
The final room was a photo collection by Japanese journalists called “Vietnam – War and Peace.” Mostly of Agent Orange victims, Ishikawa Bunyo and Nakamura Goro attempted to provide a holistic portrait of the people whose lives the war touched after its end. The primary emotional theme was not horror or shame but compassion. The room also featured a medley of old banners, statements, etc. from communists around the world supporting the northerners.
In the same room as “Vestiges of War Crimes and Aftermaths,” meant to be last in the museum tour, was a peace exhibit featuring drawings by children. The subjects of the drawings were fairly predictable – a few images of crying people and people running from bombs, but mostly drawings of people around the world holding hands. To today’s Vietnamese children, the war is an abstraction. As such the pictures express little emotion in and of themselves, but the juxtaposition of the drawings and the massacre photographs is enough of a statement. A goal is clearly stated, and the reason for remembering: peace itself. Unlike in the European Holocaust memorials, blame or guilt is not the primary purpose of remembering. Peace is. By acknowledging or confronting evidence of crimes against humanity, (foreign) visitors should leave the museum convinced that pacifism is the best ethical choice.
I’m not sure what Vietnamese visitors are supposed to get from the museum. It is not for them. The intended audience is the same group of people who perpetrated the war. The message of peace is a simple one, and it fits the simple calculation of Vietnam=victim and foreigners=criminals. I recently annoyed a Vietnamese historian by suggesting that the Northern forces were just as out of touch with the needs and the desires of southerners as the U.S. forces were, as exemplified by the 1968 Tet offensive. To the U.S., it was a surprise because the Viet Cong had enough civilian support/military prowess to carry it out; to the Viet Cong, it was a surprise because the attack did not provide an opening for the civilian uprising they thought was just waiting to happen. The Vietnamese historian treated me to a lecture on the three phases of the Tet offensive, which was his roundabout way of telling me my facts were incorrect. In Viet Nam, history is considered uninteresting and simple, so it is hardly surprising that the War Remnants Museum opted for that interpretation as well.
The War Remnants Museum opened in 1975, in the first flush of victory. I don’t think the government would build a similar one now. The goals and attitudes nowadays are a world apart from what they were in 1975. Viet Nam does not want to dwell on the past; it makes its former enemies defensive and raises uncomfortable questions about the actions of Vietnamese soldiers, too. Unlike in Europe, there is little interest by the government or the people to explore the wounds of the wartime years. But it has also been two or three generations since the Holocaust, and barely one since the end of the American War. Perhaps in a few years, then, there will be a renewed interest in examining past atrocities, but I doubt it.
So what, then, is the value of remembering the atrocities of the American War? Unless the answer is “to prevent foreigners from attacking Viet Nam,” the War Remnants Museum cannot say. The inherent ethical dilemmas and responsibilities as presented by the museum are fairly clear, and the deeper ones absent. The voices of victims are absent. The voices of perpetrators only talk about abstract concepts such as the inherent evil of communism. In that, at least, we may find an answer: the American ideological position of the time that “communism” was so evil it justified anything to prevent it was not only wrong, but abjectly unethical. The ideology fed on itself, smoothing over the complex realities of Vietnamese and Americans. Simple thinking like that created simple “solutions” with unaddressed ethical implications. At least we can address them now. But the simple thinking of the Vietnamese, both in the government and out? The ethical implications of Vietnamese ideology, of Vietnamese “solutions” to America’s neo-colonial attack? We do not know. We do not see. We shall not see until all the war’s survivors are dust.