A witness to lasting ruin in Vietnam

The War Remnants Museum in Saigon. PHOTO: Sistak
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My wife and I recently traveled to Asia for a vacation, off-guard for what we were to see in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The city is huge and teeming with people, up to nine million in the greater metropolitan area. It played a pivotal role in the U.S. war on Vietnam, and was the focal point of the U.S. defeat by the National Liberation Front. Dramatic pictures and film of military and political personnel being airlifted in retreat from the embassy still resonate amongst those old enough to remember it.

The war seems a distant memory now, even to some of the youth in Vietnam today. The country is a budding center of low-cost capitalist production of retail and technology goods, sometimes preferred over China. Gentrification abounds in all its forms — fancy cars, apartments and restaurants, and exclusive districts for the most well-heeled of the population. The statue of Ho Chi Minh sits at the end of the square with his namesake, and you can stroll from it down the promenade of Nguyen Hue Boulevard, lined with luxury shops and hotels to the Saigon River. It is an eerie feeling considering the devastation that occurred there not that long ago.

The one percent continues to rise and the 99 percent falls, just as they do in Chicago, Shanghai and London, proving that capitalism is a global system. And in Vietnam, this system prevails over another workers state that started off — after the war — with both hands tied behinds its back.

Yes, the war ended 44 years ago, but profound harm was done and simply cannot be denied or wiped from history. Its impact is presented with striking relief in the War Remnants Museum. We spent one sweltering afternoon there and were drained not only from the heat, but from the deeply disturbing depiction of the dead and injured, and the earth’s devastation caused by French colonialism and the direct hot war inflicted by the USA.

The front lot of the museum is a collection of military remnants captured primarily from the U.S. Small aircraft, jeeps and even Huey Helicopters are amongst them, as are disarmed missiles and bombs.

But before we entered the main building we walked through the “tiger cages,” which were torture chambers built by the French and prolonged by the U.S. They were used to torture rebels into giving up comrades and disclosing rebel hideouts. This sent shivers down my spine as I thought about the countless tiger-caged victims over the decades, brutalized (or eventually beheaded with the guillotine left by the French) by both imperial powers.

As we moved into the main building, the horror worsened. An entire room documenting the use of chemical warfare (the most famous form being the defoliant and herbicide “Agent Orange”) sickened us. There was a map that showed the use of chemical weapons throughout the whole country. It showed areas bombed one time, two times, three times and more than three times! The long-term impacts of these weapons boggle the mind. Their destruction of food sources, poisoned water supplies, and heart-breaking birth defects have passed down through the generations to this very day. We almost couldn’t bear seeing or reading any more.

But there would be no relief. The statistics of the dead and wounded through French and U.S. intervention stirred the soul. Two and a half million dead, one and half million of those civilians, one million injured. After the U.S. war, another 500,000 died or were disabled because of wounds, starvation or cancer. While not to minimize the deaths of U.S. soldiers (many who did not want to be there, and over 20 percent of which were people of color), Vietnamese deaths were 50 times greater.

Despite the devastation, the Vietnamese people defeated the U.S. and its right-wing South Vietnam collaborators, because of their courage and righteous cause. And they were aided by a large and quite global anti-war movement.

The Vietnam War is often now described by U.S. politicians and military leadership as a “mistake,” and a war the U.S. “did not fight to win.” The War Remnants Museum reveals the opposite. The USA, like France before it, went all out for annihilation of the country and its people. Not a mistake or a misguided policy of power-hungry individuals, but the logic of a system hell-bent on global domination.

This is not ancient history. Vietnam’s torment was part of a long line of capitalist conquests that continue to this very day.

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