The Fog of Peace: Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Economy of Memory

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Common Dreams

The Fog of Peace: Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Economy of Memory

My father remembers. When I ask him why he volunteered to join the Air Force in 1972, he remembers: "Because otherwise I would have been drafted into the Army. My draft number was 38." When I ask him how he knew he had to get out of the service in 1976, he remembers: "There was a crash. My friends hadn't gotten any sleep because they'd had to fly the hardest route: from the Philippines to Japan to Tacoma. They were exhausted -- they made a mistake. And when they died, everyone in the chain of command blamed someone else. Finally, they blamed my friends, who were dead on the side of a mountain."

John Kerry remembers the war, and so do John McCain, Daniel Ellsberg, and Robert McNamara. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton remember it, too.

No matter what you were doing at the time, you remember. And even people my age, just 20 years old -- we feel like we remember. We have seen the movies, heard the stories and the sound tracks. Vietnam is our country's most famous mistake, and we can't forget it. Always there are voices that tell us that if we forget, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes we made there. That if we don't remember, if we don't make the pilgrimage to the black granite wall in Washington, D.C., the Americans killed in Vietnam may have died in vain. We may have lost the war, but we want to think that still something was gained. We are wiser now, surely.

I went recently to Southeast Asia because I had no doubt that the Vietnamese remembered. I wanted to sit along the Mekong River with a middle-aged woman who would tell me how it was during the war, and how she would never forgive us for it. I wanted to come to terms with what we did to their country not so long ago. I wanted proof that we were screwing up the world -- I wanted witnesses.

VIETNAMESE PEOPLE asked me where I was from. The United States, I told them, bracing for their cold response and prepared to do penance for the mistakes of my government.

"Oh, America! I like your country very much," they'd say. What? This wasn't how people had said it would be; I was prepared for outright hostility. I brought up the topic of America with waiters, moto drivers, hotel receptionists, most everyone I met. One evening I talked with a young man who works in real estate. We were sharing a bratwurst at the only club in Hanoi that's open past midnight, and I pretended not to notice the prostitutes who sidled up to Western men. "No, I am not mad at Americans," he told me. "I know some Americans. I help them find homes here. They are my friends. The rest is the past." He didn't really want to talk about it beyond that. Neither did many other people.

I knew that there must be rage somewhere. When I spoke with some Vietnamese men in their 60s and asserted that their people had plenty of reasons to hate us, one of them just waved me off.

"C'est passe," he assured me in French learned long ago. "We are looking to the future."

Was it because they had won? Was this the luxury of defeating a superpower? But it couldn't be so simple: Too many Vietnamese died, too many lives were ruined. Besides, they're communists. Shouldn't they be dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism -- that is, the American Way of Life?

A week later, I was sitting at the temple called Wat Phnom, in the center of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A young Khmer man asked if he could sit down beside me and explained that he is a student practicing his English for marketing school. We got talking, and when finally I asked him how he felt about the United States, he said he had no hard feelings toward my country. I was still baffled: Even after we invaded Cambodia in 1970? Even after we propped up the Khmer Rouge regime against the Vietnamese? How do they teach this in school without breeding a generation of students who despise the United States?

Easy, he said: "They don't teach us anything after 1970."

I couldn't understand how a government could fail to educate its children about the most important events to happen in Cambodia for hundreds of years. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, and Pol Pot's reign of terror killed nearly 2 million of its own people before Vietnam successfully invaded in 1979. At least a fifth of Cambodia's population was killed in perhaps the strangest genocide of the century. The guards and executioners were mostly between the ages of 10 and 20. That means that many of Cambodia's middle-aged citizens today are former members of the Khmer Rouge; they were almost the only ones of that generation to survive. No wonder the Cambodian schools shy away from the recent atrocities: It isn't easy to tell a child that her parents were executioners.

I thought back to Vietnam, and I realize that there, too, the government had made a calculated decision. They could be hostile toward the United States, actively disseminating anti-Americanism. Or they could curry America's favor. They could work toward normalization. They could do their best to help us find MIAs. And in history classes, they could move quickly through the part where we invade their country. Throughout the early 1990s, the United States began lifting sanctions on Vietnam, and President Clinton normalized relations in 1995. Vietnam's government skimmed over the recent past, didn't point too many fingers, and we agreed to trade with them. And the kinder they were to Americans, the more Americans wanted to come as tourists and spend their money visiting the places they had once seen bombed on television.

STILL, I COULDN'T HELP but feel it was irresponsible to leave out a big chunk of recent events that were so vital to the present. I got to thinking about what I had learned of Vietnam in school, and then I realized: I never have learned about it. I went to a very good prep school, and I am halfway through college as an American history major, but I have never studied the Vietnam War in any class. Okay, once during high school we were given a list of suggested readings, and after an American history exam, my teacher let us watch Apocalypse Now. But that is a typical solution; what we didn't learn in class, we could learn from a movie.

I am not proposing that all of my history teachers over the years were part of a government plot to forget that the Vietnam War happened. But it is unfortunate, and strange, that most of my history teachers ran out of time after World War II. Students in my generation can tell you all about the Allies, concentration camps, and Pearl Harbor, but things get a lot foggier if you ask about Korea or Vietnam, and we are useless if you ask about Lebanon. Even here in our own country, our recent history is regarded as optional education.

Though the Vietnam War and its lessons may not be taught in school, it has become a major part of our national ideology. It means different things to the political right and left, and that is part of the mystique: Vietnam divided us. Time has softened the edges a little, if only because we have narrowed our focus about what is worth remembering. The more time I spent in Vietnam, the more I realized we aren't remembering many of the important parts. We spend all our time focused on the Americans, as usual. Amid the talk of draft evasion, Purple Hearts, and protesters, we forget about our own cruelties, and we have repeated them.

We talk about the war so much that we actually think we have remembered. We watch Apocalypse Now, Forrest Gump, and Born on the Fourth of July, but they tell us only one part of the war: what it felt like to be a soldier, an American one. So we know war is hell, but we have no better idea how to avoid being in one. We don't learn more complex arguments for why a war won't work. That's because movies tend to scrub out the complicated parts, the politics: In a 2000 CBS News poll, asked whose side of the war the United States fought on, 26 percent of Americans didn't know, and 18 percent guessed that we were allied with North Vietnam. If you asked those same questions of people my age, the accuracy would be much lower.

IF I COULDN'T GET regular Vietnamese people to criticize the United States, I thought maybe the communist government would. I didn't quite have the connections to get a private meeting with President Tran Duc Luong, so I went to the museums, which are as good a government mouthpiece as anything.

The exhibition at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City begins with a statement made by Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. secretary of state, in 1995: "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." The museum has added a caption: "It was a mistake that has caused severe results for the country and people of Vietnam."

I was in the museum just two months after the abuses at Abu Ghraib began to surface. It was a difficult time to be an American traveler, to defend my countrymen, when with each new photo from that Iraqi prison we looked more vicious. In the museum, I gasped when I turned a corner and confronted a pair of older war photos I'd never seen before. One showed four smiling American soldiers holding the decapitated heads of two Vietnamese. Another showed an American infantryman with a Vietnamese captive on a leash. Its caption, in English, explained that American soldiers had dragged their prisoner to an interrogation center, stripped him, and thrown him to the ground. As the questioning began, "heels of the boots trampled on his head, rifle butts were ready to rain in on him." The caption was also given in Vietnamese, French, and Chinese.

The museum used to be called the Chinese and American War Crimes Museum, but the government feared it was scaring off some tourists and renamed it. One Vietnamese tourism Web site says that 6 million people have visited the museum, including over a million foreign tourists. On the day I went, nearly every person there was a foreigner. The grounds of the museum complex are filled with American bombs and tanks, but the gripping displays are all indoors: photographs of napalmed children, the massacre at My Lai, an arrested man being dragged to death behind an armored car, and stillborn babies with birth defects inside jars. I fought back tears and, sometimes, the urge to throw up.

I tried to reassure myself that it was all propaganda. But the fact that it's propaganda doesn't mean that it didn't happen. The photos are real, and all the more jarring because they are so similar to the ones taken at Abu Ghraib.

MY FATHER HAD NEVER known anyone who had been to Hanoi, even during the war. He was more than a little surprised when I wrote home, "I love Hanoi -- the French architecture, the narrow streets, the motorbikes, the Red River, and sidewalk vendors. I could stay here for a long, long time." Imagine your child writing to you that Baghdad has a mysterious charm, that Basra is quaint and lovely.

This will happen, if we don't screw everything up entirely. It may not be a desirable end -- the whole world opening up for an influx of Western tourists. But it's certainly better than what is happening now, at a time when both Iraqis and Americans live in fear, and we don't know who to trust but we do know we're in trouble, that our friends and brothers and daughters are dying.

We lost the Vietnam War. We finally gave up and left in 1975, after more than 58,000 Americans and at least 2.5 million Vietnamese were killed. Our presidents had told us that if we didn't win, communism would triumph. But 30 years later, no one walking down the street in the former Saigon would be able to guess that they were in a communist country. Motorbikes whiz by, SUVs creep through the traffic, and people call out to you to buy their wares. Communism looks a lot like capitalism these days. Maybe we won after all.

It's too early to tell what the legacy of the war in Iraq will be, because it's far from over. But if we don't force ourselves to realize that the war isn't just about us, that our military isn't just a metaphor for the American tale of heroism, then we will go through all of this again. The Iraqis will put up a museum that shows we were inhumane and cruel. We will wear comfortable walking shoes, and we will go to see it, shaking our heads at the atrocities. "Never again," we will say. And we will be wrong.

Laurel Wamsley, the daughter of a Vietnam-era veteran, went to Southeast Asia looking for the answer and was surprised to find herself so welcomed. When she wrote this piece she was a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Morehead Scholar. She studied American History and International Relations. As a high school student in September 2001, CommonDreams.org published Laurel's 'Granfalloons, Toy Balloons, and American Flags".

Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a finalist in 2006 for a Rhodes Scholarship. She has worked for Slate Magazine and as a producer for NPR. As a high school senior she wrote "Granfalloons, Toy Balloons, and American Flags" on September 16, 2001 as a book review for her English class. And as a college student wrote "The Fog of Peace: Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Economy of Memory" in 2004.

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