War and Remembrance

We have had a variety of experiences to communicate the history of the American War in Vietnam.  As someone who teaches a course on the war, there are some critical perspectives and questions that arise in now walking some of the areas where fighting took place, and visiting several museums and other locations that are key to the war, such as the prison at Hou Lo in Hanoi, the DMZ, the village at Vin Loc, Hue and the Citadel in the old city, the Mine Action Visitors Center in Quang Tri, The Presidential Palace in Saigon as well as the War Remembrance Museum, My Lai, and  the tunnels at Cu Chi. 

One thing that struck me at all of the sites was my emotional response, particularly at My Lai, but also at all the other locations.  To me, perhaps because I have served in the military, perhaps because I teach about war, perhaps because I am committed to Martin King’s vision of the Beloved Community, perhaps because I am sensitive to the location; one cannot help but to feel the spirit of the place- hallowed ground.  The understanding that in many of these places, we can still hear the voices of the dead begging us to hear their suffering and remember so that war can be avoided in the future. There is so much suffering in war, and particularly in this war on all sides- one cannot help but be affected and affected to say “never again.” If anything, this aspect of the trip has moved me to deepen my commitment to teaching the war, but not only to highlight my critique of the war and American policy, but to teach this war in a way that gets students to want to end war and work for peace.


An American soldier wounded in the war, reflects at the memorial at My Lai

An American soldier wounded in the war, reflects at the memorial at My Lai

Another issue at the sites, however, is the narrative of the particular site. One thing in common, was not an idea that “war is hell.” Rather, the ideology and commitment to the notion of victory really prevents the story of the war, as portrayed by the government, from being one that uses war as away to discuss peace, but instead glorifies war and victory at any cost with a subtext- we will do it again. I find this surprising, because in this war there is no need to propagandize what happened. My Lai needs no propaganda, nor does Agent Orange or any of the other horrible things done in this war to soldiers and civilians. Of course I recognize the
nationalistic need to keep the narrative the way it is, but that also prevents truth telling from the Hanoi side. Were the only atrocities in the American war done by Americans? Of course not. But because of ideology and the nationalistic “patriotic” idea of victory, we cannot reach a place of forgiveness or reconciliation. Roy Tamashiro and I discussed these issues at length, and one that came up was that to truly heal from the war, perhaps Vietnam and the US need some type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission like South Africa did. There needs to be a place to collect the stories of those on all sides without propaganda and glorification to hear truth and seek forgiveness- whether you were an American who killed civilians, an NVA or PLF fighter who killed civilians or a soldier on any side who killed others. Although the sites were powerful, the propaganda made the sites hollow- not hallowed.


Another issue that has become clearer to me now that I am here, is that a war I already knew was complex, became even that much more so. I had not fully appreciated the differences-cultural, linguistic etc. between North and South and until we heard several stories of brothers on both sides and what it was to be a civilian in Saigon, a PLF fighter in the south or a civilian in the North, I just had not fully grasped the internal complexities- the ‘civil war’ nature of the conflict.

In my next post on the war, I want to deal with a phrase we heard here- the ‘forward’ looking aspect of Vietnamese identity and how I see that in relation to the war.


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