Wednesday, December 8, 2010

War remnants

Writing from Hoi An after a whirlwind couple days in Saigon without writing so it's time for an update. For the first time, The Year of Living Volcanically welcomes a guest blogger—my former officemate and current traveling companion Jenn Mack—for a counterpoint to the ceaseless ambivalence that normally characterizes the site.

Power lines in Saigon.

But before Jenn gets a chance at the keyboard, some thoughts on the one-time South Vietnamese capital, a place of significant cosmopolitan bustle and, for this Indonesian resident visitor, a surprising number of English speakers; the Communist party's commemoration of the American War of Aggression; the impossible determination and self-sacrifice on display at the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city; and why every single person reading this should make plans to visit Vietnam, regardless of their interest in tragically misguided, criminally vicious Postwar containment strategies, etc. To wit: Jenn and I averaged just over one 60-minute, full-body Thai massage per day (each including masseuses who walk on backs; who apply hot rocks to backs they've walked on; who bend and crack every joint in the back, hands, arms, legs, neck and feet; and who finish the thing by hoisting you onto their knees—them somehow under you and you propelled forcefully into the air, your lower back pushing onto their knees with all your weight, the pain sharp then dull then gone, or mostly gone, as your body finally gives up and collapses into itself, the muscles unable to tighten anymore) for about $12 per with tip. This after dining on multi-course meals of oysters, pork, chicken, lamb, Indian samosas, pho, coconuts, coconut milk, beer, wine, coffee, and excellent chocolate croissants and fried doughnuts and never spending more than about $10 each.

So, then. To the War Remnants Museum! A highly effective Hall of Monstrosities from the American war, this place is a case study in the use of historical narrative as a contemporary (or near contemporary) ideological brickbat, as a national creation story, or as political justification for the rightness of control lying in the hands of Ho Chi Minh's heirs and not in anyone else's, especially the former “puppets”—the puppet governments, puppet armies, puppet police and puppet peasants—who at one time fought against Ho and the North. You enter the museum complex through a parking lot filled with American war machines—tanks, bulldozers, howitzers, jets, a Huey and Chinook helicopter—and the closer you get to the museum entrance itself you begin to see American ordinance. Rockets, cluster bombs, napalm canisters, Agent Orange barrels, mammoth, ground-pounding bombs from the bellies of B-52s. It's a tableau of mechanized and often impersonal death, financed and imported by a superpower enemy that could spare almost no expense in its efforts to obliterate the Vietnamese patriots. Look here, the museum invites visitors. They had all this shit, metric fucking tons of it, and it didn't matter. We would never have let these machines, or their pilots, beat us. It's not explained in the display but I'm guessing the war machines were captured as the Americans gave up on Vietnam; none showed any battle damage. They are just big trophies for the winners, and they sit in a parking lot with their rubber wheels rotting and their Plexiglass windows turning the color of skim milk.

A remnant of the French colonial period.

Inside, the museum focuses on the past and present violence of the war. The past is shown in photos of schools and nurseries leveled by American bomb attacks, dead kids stacked like cordwood atop piles of rubble. There are pictures and stories of My Lai and of Thanh Phong, where Bob Kerrey and a band of Navy Seals killed about two dozen Vietnamese people. The American government awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star for the action but inside the War Remnants Museum Vietnamese authorities claim Kerrey and his men targeted women and children, killing many with knives. A cement sewer where several child victims allegedly hid before being found out and gunned down by American servicemen is on display inside the museum. Color photos of dead boys and girls frame the display, while a spotlight shines down on the sewer.

The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.

Multiple walls of the first floor are dedicated to commemorating the use and aftereffects of Americans' use of Agent Orange, or Dioxin, for defoliating the Vietnamese jungle during wartime. This display, which includes dozens upon dozens of photos of crippled and malformed Vietnamese children and young adults, victims of genetic deformations caused by the toxic chemical. In another section of the museum, visitors will find black and white photos of, to borrow directly from Glenn Danzig, hideous, deformed monster babies: encephalitic heads, Cyclops eyes, multiple eyes, multiple faces, limbless bodies, just impossible and unnatural, unlivable and evil fucking debilities and malformations that, propaganda or no, are an ongoing national shame for us. The Vietnamese ask us to consider just how viciously we poisoned their country and people—and for what. Many pictures are of children born more than a decade after American troops left the country, the lingering malignancy of our might and malice. A story board from the display informs us that in May of last year the International People's Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange suggested the U.S. Annually pay $1.52 billion in remediation and reparation to Vietnam for the damage done to its people, land, flora and fauna by Dioxin. This money wouldn't buy a new torso for the 29-year-old who lives without the use of his tiny, atrophied legs nor would it absolve us of responsibility for the sufferings of month-old infants who are physically incapable of survival given their painful and sensory-depriving handicaps and who expire before they ever begin but not before they're able to suffer, but it's money we owe this country and we ought to be paying something. We owe it.

Although not officially part of the Agent Orange exhibit, the museum features a first-floor charity booth for people living with chemical-related diseases and deformities. On the day we visited, the booth was manned by three very small, quasi-dwarfed people in wheelchairs. They lay very deep in their chairs, mostly unmoving, and I'm not sure how much muscle control they had. Also manning the booth was a young man, a musician, who played an electronic keyboard and sang along in what sounded like a high-pitched, wordless tone. His face was completely devoid of emotion, in large part because he has no eyes or eye sockets. His upper face is a flat canvas of stretched skin, forehead to upper lip, on either side of his nose. No opening of any kind for eyes. I left a donation in the box and signed my name in the register after being told I had to. Among maybe three dozen other names and hometowns visible on the ledger, mine was the only one from the U.S.

OK, Jenn wants a turn so I'll come back to the Cu Chi tunnels and the many charms of Saigon. And soon, a discussion of bespoke clothing and shoe shopping in Hoi An.


  1. Another section of the museum is reserved for horrors visited on communists and communist-sympathizer Vietnamese by their enemies in the South. These included so-called tiger cages, rabbit-hutch-sized barbed-wire cages where one or two of even five men might be locked up, unable to stand or even sit up. Of course there's no mention of North Vietnamese torture--kind of a telling omission--but the stuff on display makes clear that terrible suffering was a commonplace throughout the wars with the French and Americans.