War and peace. Vietnam

In the past the Vietnamese spent decades fighting the Chinese and the Khmer and themselves. In the 20th century they fought the Japanese, the French and the Americans, and with the US several allies who also took part in the «Vietnam War». Maybe that is the reason why western visitors of today feel no tension at all between the Vietnamese and their former enemies. There has been so many wars, there might not be enough hate left to go around.

DHH visited the Vietnam National War museum first time in 2004. This tank ist still there, but most of the museum has been redone since.

There are several museums and monuments that can be visited if you are a tourist in Vietnam with an interest for recent history. The first one we went to was the «Hanoi Hilton», the Hoa Lo Prison, infamous hell hole in the middle of town where American pilots ended up if they were unlucky enough to be shot down and lucky enough to survive. The stories of mistreatment and torture are many, and most of them probably true. The most high profile American prisoner here was John McCain, US presidential candidate for the Republicans against Barak Obama in 2008.

When we went there we were at first surprised to find that so little of the prison was dedicated to the Americans. On second thought however, this is logical. «The Hilton» was built in the 1890ies, and its first half century of existence was all about the French putting away Vietnamese rebels. We are told of torture and starvation and beheadings at the hands of the colonizers. The Hoa Lo still has a working guillotine set up and frequently used less than a hundred years ago. We see live size dolls chained up in long rows in big rooms, or isolated in small cells. We hear heroic tales of those who escaped and those who never gave up their comrades, and we find the stories believable. We know enough about history to be aware that European rulers in foreign lands were not always nice people.

No, the Hanoi Hilton is not mainly about American airmen. Many more Vietnamese suffered there during the building’s one hundred year service as a prison.

There is however a section of the Hoa Lo dedicated to the American prisoners, and that one we find less credible. We see pictures of pilots playing volleyball and opening parcels from home, we see a glass box with a guitar and some playing cards and a sign telling us of relaxed evenings in a confined, but friendly environment. We see pictures of Americans being treated by doctors and texts telling us how much effort was put into keeping the «visitors» at the Hilton healthy and happy.

It is a fact that after any conflict history is written by the victors, and so also here. John McCain was shot down over Hanoi city centre and parachuted into a lake (there is actually a monument at that spot too, but we did not go to see it) and what is clamed to be his flight suit is on display in the prison. McCain was badly injured in the crash, he broke a leg and both arms, but his story of how he was dragged to the shore and bayonetted before being taken to jail is not on display. His tale of how it feels to have an arm, broken in three places, bent back and forth by unqualified «medics» pretending to treat him has also gone missing.

John McCain did not play much volleyball, neither in prison nor later after being released. His story is one of the most terrifying, but he was by far not the only American to suffer beatings and brutal questioning by hostile prison officials, army and police.

You can also visit the Vietcong’s wartime hiding places outside Saigon and you can praise yourself lucky that you never fell into one of their spiked traps.

A week later our trip to the prison we visited the official Vietnamese Museum of War in Saigon. DHH was at the museum first time in 2004 when it was a low building full of anti American rhetoric, with a few planes and tanks parked outside. The planes and tanks are still there, but the museum has been totally rebuilt and the rhetoric is very much toned down.

The ground floor is dominated by pictures and souvenirs from the European and American war resistance movements. To a Scandinavian who became politically conscious during the second half of the 1960ies it rings quite a few bells to see the banners and posters that in their day dominated the streets of cities like Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen.

Further up we are shown the deformed babies from the American chemical warfare (the children of Agent Orange), we are told about the US massacre at My Lai and we are told about press casualties. We are also told about the independence war with the French. As we have stated earlier it is only in the mind of the West that the «Vietnam War» started in the mid 1960ies. We are shown weapons, we are shown what the men who used them looked like and we are shown what the men and their weapons did to innocent civilians.

The museum is good in the sense that the language is not politically vulgar like it once was. As visitors, we are taken thru the history of the wars in a sober and believable way. But again it is of course only one side talking. We are not told about the atrocities committed by the North and the communists, many of them dwarfing the cruelty of My Lai. My Lai was the place where American troops massacred 500 unarmed civilians in March 1968. One lieutenant was convicted for 22 cases of murder, but William Calley was rather promptly pardoned by president Richard Nixon. So much for respect for life!

But Calley was, of course, not the only villain of this war. There were a good bunch of American crooks, and a few of those have their rightful place on the walls of the Vietnam War museum. Those who did their dark deeds serving the side that won however, are very conveniently forgotten.

But that is to be expected. Vietnam is not a democracy and an official institution like this museum does not allow history to be impartially told. But even with this in mind, the memorials of the «Vietnam War» are all worth being seen and remembered. As reasonably educated «falangs» we can watch the American war crimes on the museum walls in Saigon, filling in in the blanks with the knowledge we carry with us from elsewhere.

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