17.11.2012 - 20.11.2012
In Saigon it's possible to walk around all day, even with the heat and noise and overcrowding, and still feel positive towards the human race. Admirable human qualities are writ large everywhere and you can feel pleasantly benign towards what seems to be an intelligent and creative species. That is, until you visit the War Museum.
Saigon people are cheerful, bright and likeable, on the whole. Every inch in the city's tiny living spaces is used - micro-balconies, roofs, walls and beyond - in all sorts of inventive ways. Every home has plants growing somewhere, somehow. Children are treated with affection. Parks are busy and truly public places where people of all ages go to eat, chat, dance, eat, relax, play games, exercise, read and eat. There's surprisingly little waste: everything that can be reused, recycled or resold is. The streets are teeming with activity: people making things, mending things and selling things; preparing, cooking and eating meals on the same tiny patch of pavement; playing with children, and eating, eating and more eating. It's not a beautiful city but it's buzzing with a tremendous positive energy and busy with ingenious, resourceful people.
And then you go to the war museum and witness the absolute nadir of human innovation and endeavour.
The War Remnants museum was until recently named the Museum of American War Crimes. I don't know the reason for the change, but maybe it was felt to be discouraging to visitors from the US. It's a museum that Americans absolutely should see, particularly anyone with a vague belief that the Vietnam War (or American War as it's called here, more accurately) had some basis of moral validity or political necessity. Once you've seen the images of experiments in interrogation methods (early forms of waterboarding for instance), sadistic execution techniques (dragging to death by tank, burial alive), all the amazing innovative new bombs and chemical weapons designed to kill and maim children and animals and leave vast areas of land uninhabitable for years after, and all the countless images of the pure horror and terrible suffering inflicted on millions of innocent Vietnamese - it's surely not possible to leave with the conviction that the moral or political ends justified such means.
The most harrowing exhibit in the museum looked at the effects of Agent Orange and biological weapons. I'm not going to describe the foetuses and stillborn babies that were photographed. Just imagine the worst deformities you can - these were worse. Children whose parents and grandparents handled the most toxic chemicals ever created are still being born in the USA with physical deformities, missing limbs and brain damage. The manufacturers of the substances in question have admitted liability and are paying compensation and pensions to the former US service personnel and their families. But they deny any such liability for Vietnamese victims. It's impossible to imagine the how the US Supreme Court recently upheld this astonishing position and decided that the final legal appeal by Vietnam's victims should be thrown out. But they did.
Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, and those born with physical deformities and brain damage long after the war ended, have little or no means of earning a living. They will often have no access to medical treatment or health care, and there is no support from the state or other agencies. There were photos of two emaciated twin teenage boys with twisted limbs who lie on a mat and scream all day, in constant pain, watched over by their mother - who can do nothing for them. One of a young man with a deformed spine and arms who has to walk on all fours like an animal, but who still somehow manages a rice field of his own. Another young man born without arms or legs who supports himself as an artist, painting with a brush in his mouth. Orphanages full of children who can never have an independent life, abandoned by parents unable to support them, who will spend their lives in grim institutions that can barely care for them either. All born decades after the end of the war.
Vietnam embraced communism as a response to French colonial rule/exploitation, as have many colonised countries on their path to independence. Their grievance was with France, not the USA. Vietnam remains communist now, yet with its culture of individual commercial endeavour, no-holds-barred free-market enterprise and thriving economy is probably in a sense one of the purely capitalist countries there is. Vietnam is a nation of avid entrepreneurs, under the hammer and sickle flag. So, really - what was the point? And in the forty years of invasions, occupations, military 'interventions', puppet governments and regime changes since the supposedly watershed moment that was the Vietnam War*, has the USA changed? Not as far as I can see.
My abiding memories of Saigon are of the crazy traffic, the sparky people, the noise, the swarming street life and the distinct feeling of being in a vast hive. And at the war museum, a gaze into the abyss.
- The 'Vietnam War' is a misnomer. From 1964-73 the USA carried out a little-known secret war on neighbouring Laos. Millions of tons of explosives were dropped on Laos in daily bombing raids over nine years in an attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of supply routes to the Vietnamese forces. Most of it is still lying unexploded; about 200 people are killed or maimed by these bombs every year, mostly children. Another post on this will follow.