I'm American. Born and bred, both sides of my family have been “Americans” for more than one generation, with one side dating back to pre American Civil War. I was born in the states, indoctrinated with all of the American versions of history and educated in the US. I (for the most part) am proud to be an American, but I am an American that understands that there is a world beyond Sea to Shining Sea, that the northwest passage never existed, and maybe the British weren't that terrible in the first place.
I have been fascinated with the world beyond the States since I was young. I was obsessed with Madeline and Babar, dreamed of visiting the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and eating all the food in China and Japan. I did history projects on places outside of the continent and dreamed of living in a different country. Until I was able to move to that faraway place I vowed to travel the world and soak up as much culture and history as I could and bring it back with me.
My first experience facing something my country did during a war was when I visited Nagasaki during my visit to Japan in 2003. I went to Nagasaki knowing the story of Sadako, I knew that in Mrs. Smith’s 7th grade class we sent 1000 cranes for health and peace, but what I didn’t know is that I wouldn’t be ready for the brutally honest museum that had been created. To this day, it was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life. Going to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was really the first time that I saw history from a completely different point of view.
The museum had graphic images, melted artifacts (specifically a wall clock to the time the bomb dropped that was melted like Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”) and an incredible Peace Park. The main monument, the Peace Statue, has one hand pointing to the sky where the bomb came from and the other hand to the earth to remind us that peace should prevail from earth and the sky. The monument in the Peace Park that affected me the most was a water feature to commentate the survivor's who needed water after the bomb evaporated it all, leaving only oil to drink. I left a changed person and committed to understanding both sides of every conflict, focusing on peace and knowledge so disasters like this would never happen again.
I have since been to Hiroshima where the message was again "never again". Peace was the main takeaway, not hate, anger, or blame. As you leave the memorial museum the last picture is of the first plant that bloomed just months after the bomb annihilated the area, reminding us that hope and defying the odds is possible because experts said nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years. Last winter I visited the first concentration camp, Dachau, in Germany where the message was exactly the same: never again. I feel that through knowledge and history we can prevent these wartime acts from repeating themselves. The memorials and museums were harsh, sad, and sometimes utterly terrifying, but they were honest and clear: peace will prevail and war is horrible and people do horrible things in the name of it.
I went to Vietnam for more than the history of the war. I went for the food, the scenery, and the chance to experience another Asian culture apart from Japan. The war happens to be a part of my and their country's history, but it wasn’t the reason I went on the holiday. However, I felt like if I visited Vietnam and didn’t visit the museums and war attractions, I would be ignoring a huge part of their history, as well as American history.
Our first stop on our Vietnam history tour was the War Remnants (formally War Crimes) museum in Ho Chi Minh City. This museum has three floors with the Vietnamese view of the ‘American War’. I choose to start on the second floor even though it was meant to start on the 3rd. The second floor had rooms on Agent Orange and a photo exhibition of photos taken by the press while covering the war. The third floor was mainly documentation about the war, facts and history of people killed and troops that were in Vietnam. The third floor also housed another photo exhibit by a Japanese photojournalist. All of the floors had graphic explanations to accompany the pictures of the atrocities the US committed to towns, people, and Vietnamese citizens during the conflict.
All of the content was sobering. The majority of the exhibits were explicit photographs showing death, dismemberment, and destruction. There were snippets of the war crime trials against the United States and the declaration of the guilty verdict against them for their war time crimes. Unlike the other museums I’ve visited, I felt that this one was very anti-American, from quotes, to pictures, to documentation. The US clearly did terrible things in Vietnam, and unlike the other museums this one made it seem like this was a one sided war. Looking back, I wish I would have started on the third floor and gone chronologically through the museum, but at the same time I saw what I needed to see. Photographs don't lie, they capture a moment in time that can tell no less than 1000 stories. These photographs were raw, tragic, and vivid representation of the war.
I made it to the ground floor where there was some mention of peace and prevention, but it was definitely not an over arching theme to the entirety of the museum. After I had finished the three floors of the museum, you could go out and see a recreation of a prison (not any less gruesome than the inside and about 20 degrees hotter) and some airplanes used in the war.
My hour and fifteen minutes were up and I left feeling torn apart. It seemed that my countrymen took pride in killing the Vietnamese like some sort of hunting safari. That our side was evil and killed for sport instead of war. I had to remind myself that the pictures are just one moment in time and there are two sides to every story. I know that both sides committed war crimes, that both sides suffered, and both sides had huge losses. I was quiet for the rest of the day and really just wanted to be done being a “responsible” tourist.
War is war. No one wins. There is not a single good reason that I can think of that can justify war. I had to continually remind myself of that as we went into the next day. Read about the next day in An American in Vietnam: Part 2