[ Remembering. ]
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 twenty years old -- we feel like we remember. We
have seen the movies, heard the stories and the soundtracks. 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, DC,
those boys 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,
I went recently to Southeast Asia because I had no doubt that the
Vietnamese remembered. I wanted to sit along the Mekong 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.
[ They forget. ]
Vietnamese people asked me where I was from. I guess they could tell
I wasn’t from around there. “The United States,” I told them, bracing
for their cold response and prepared to pay 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 sixties, and asserted that their people had
plenty of reasons to hate us, one of them just waved me off.
“C’est passé,” 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, i.e. the American Way of
A week later, I was sitting at 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 trying to practice 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 towards
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 U.S.?
Easy, he said: “They don’t teach us anything after 1970.”
I couldn’t understand how a government could fail to educate its
children on the most important events to happen in Cambodia since the
14th century. But the more I thought about it, the more it made
sense. The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1972, and Pol
Pot’s reign of terror killed nearly 2 million of its own people before
Vietnam successfully invaded in 1979. A quarter of Cambodia’s
population was killed in perhaps the strangest genocide of the
century. The guards and executioners were mostly between the ages of
ten and twenty. That means that most 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.
In Cambodia, people speak of the Pol Pot regime, or Angkar, but rarely
of the Khmer Rouge. For them, Khmer Rouge is too broad: it implicates
so many of the living who were a part of it, but who were only
teenagers at the time. 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 realized that there, too, the
government had made a calculated decision. They could be hostile
towards the United States, actively disseminating anti-Americanism.
Or they could curry America’s favor. They could work towards
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 90’s, the U.S. 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 TV.
[ We forget. ]
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. 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 the AP 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
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. Perhaps many
teachers feel that the war in Vietnam is one topic still too
controversial and complex to be taught without trouble. Maybe our
teachers think that our parents can catch us up on what they don’t get
to. I wish they would.
[ The problem is. ]
The Vietnam War has become a major part of our national ideology. It
means different things to the right and left, and that is part of its
mystique: Vietnam divided us. Time has softened the edges a little
bit, 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. Amidst 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, when asked on whose side of the war the United
States fought, 26% of Americans didn’t know, and 18% guessed that we
were allied with North Vietnam. If you asked those same questions to
people my age, the accuracy would be much lower.
[ The more things change. ]
If I couldn’t get regular Vietnamese people to criticize the U.S., I
thought maybe the Communist government would. I didn’t quite have the
connections to get a private meeting with Vietnam’s President Tran Duc
Luong, so I went to the museums, which are as good of a government
mouthpiece as anything.
The exhibition at Saigon’s War Remnants Museum begins with a quotation
from Former Secretary of State Robert S. McNamara 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
I gasped when I turned the corner and saw a pair of photos from the
war. I was in Saigon just two months after the details of the abuses
at Abu Ghraib began surfacing. It was a difficult time to be
traveling as an American, to defend my countrymen, when with each new
photo we looked more vicious. There, on the wall in Saigon, was a
photo of an American infantryman with a Vietnamese captive on a
leash. Another photo shows four smiling young American soldiers
holding the decapitated heads of two Vietnamese. I had never before
seen these photos. The caption under the leash photo read: “The
soldiers of the first US Cavalry captured a prisoner. He was dragged
to the interrogation Center in a forest where the Division quartered.
The prisoner was stripped out and thrown on the ground, then the
question was begun: heels of the boots trampled on his head, rifle
butts were ready to rain in on him.” The caption is also given in
Vietnamese, French, and Chinese.
The museum used to be called the Chinese and American War Crimes
Museum, but the government feared they were scaring off some tourists,
so they 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, however, 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.
[ What now? ]
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, where 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
58,000 Americans and nearly three million Vietnamese were killed. Our
presidents had told us that if we didn’t win, communism would
triumph. But thirty years later, no one walking down the street in
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 Iraq war 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 is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is a Morehead Scholar. She is studying American History and International Relations, and is spending the semester in Prague. In September 2001, CommonDreams.org published Laurel's 'Granfalloons, Toy Balloons, and American Flags". Her e-mail address is email@example.com