Having one of those pesky “Good Mood” days? Good moods are the worst, right? So pointless! Let’s face it, your fellow humans are awful and the world is screwed. To be reminded of that, head over to the War Remnants Museum. If you’re still in a good mood after visiting this place, you have some serious issues.
The War Remnants Museum is hands-down the most depressing museum I’ve ever visited. By far. Never before have I cried inside a museum. But here, it happened multiple times. The images and stories from the Vietnam War were simply too much for me to handle. Whenever I felt a tear coursing down my cheek, I would escape to the hallway and start playing with my phone. “Pop them bubbles, pop them bubbles, just don’t think, tra-la-la!”
The museum used to be called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”, which is actually the more accurate name. As a token step down the long road toward reconciliation, it was renamed to the “War Remnants Museum”. Still, the focus is the same: this is a testimonial to the tortures and abuses perpetrated against the Vietnamese people on the part of the United States and South Vietnamese armies.
“But isn’t it just propaganda, designed to make the Viet Cong look like angels, and their enemies look like murderous monsters?” Well… yes. Propaganda is undeniably a huge part of the War Remnants Museum. This is not a nuanced look at the atrocities committed by both sides in an ugly war; the division between “good” and “evil” is too neatly defined. The victors erected this museum, and their version of events is slanted.
But, oh well! You know who else engages in propaganda? Let’s just say, the only thing I learned about the Vietnam War in school was that the USA didn’t really lose, because we decided to withdraw before the war ended. “Basically a draw” was the entirety of my state-provided education on Vietnam, and I’m not even joking.
People can whine about “propaganda” all they want (and a cursory glance through the museum’s guestbook confirms that they do), but the truth is this: the USA was an agent of great evil in Vietnam. And, yes, I’m using the word “agent” deliberately. Our dispersal of the nerve toxin Agent Orange is one of the most horrific things I can possibly imagine doing to a population of people. It’s a matter of record that we slaughtered entire villages. That we indiscriminately napalmed women and children. That we tortured prisoners. True, the War Remnants Museum shows just one side of the story — but it’s a side that I’ve never really been forced to confront.
How are we supposed to feel, when seeing photographs of the deformed victims of Agent Orange? Generation after generation, the mutations continue. What are we to say, in front of the soul-wrecking images of children running from napalm clouds? That it’s all propaganda? It’s not! Here’s a picture of a family, with their names and ages, right before their summary execution. This might be history that we don’t want to think about, but it’s history nonetheless.
I’ve never seen such a devastating display of how monstrous the USA can be. Trained by Hollywood, a lot of us are guilty of imagining the Vietnamese as faceless and interchangeable. But the people of this country have names and stories and lives and families, just as real as ours. And we treated them like cattle. We came to their homes, and tortured them, and shot them, and poisoned them, and murdered their children, and mutated their children’s children. And for what?
This has turned too dark, but I can’t stop typing. The Vietnam War was awful — it’s not like that will come as a surprise to anyone. But you know the most amazing thing? A few hours after visiting the museum, we went out to dinner. This guy, actually the owner of the restaurant, asked where I was from. Still stinging from shame, I almost lied, but eventually squeaked out “America”. And he breaks out in this huge grin! “Cool, I spent a couple years in Texas. Loved it!”
And this hasn’t been an isolated incident. The Vietnamese seem to have truly moved on. We’ve been greeted with nothing but friendliness from everyone we’ve met, young and old alike. If the lesson of the War Remnants Museum is that people are awful, the lesson of Vietnam is that they can also be awesome. Both are true, and both are worth remembering.
Note: Some of the images which follow depict corpses and deformed victims of Agent Orange.