Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Toll of War

By Kathleen Broadhurst

We have arrived and safely installed ourselves in Phnom Penh. Cambodia seems pretty rad. But before we get to the joys the ‘kingdom’(of Cambodia), let us wrap of Viet Nam.

I don’t know if it came across in our posts, but we didn’t have such a great time in Vietnam. Now, before I begin, I would like to say that everyone has a different experience traveling and our opinions are just that, ours, no one else’s. There are many people who have had and will have completely different experiences in Vietnam and we do not intend to discourage others from seeking their own adventures. That being said;

While we found Viet Nam to have some serious highlights, the food was amazing the architecture was like a mirror in time and the land seemed itself immortal and unchanging, like seasons, our interactions with the local Vietnamese were, most of the time unpleasant.

Unpleasant means in this case a variety of things from outright hostile to just more frustrating than usual. There were exceptions to this of course, as there always are but except for some great people at our guesthouse in Hanoi and a friendly high-schooler on the all night train, most smiles were met with a frown.

Strangely, while I suspect much of this is due, in part to our American passports and accents, it did seem that the Vietnamese even when going about their own business, seemingly unobserved had scowls on their faces.

This has been the first time being someplace that somebody has actually knocked my camera away from me while I was taking a picture (of her beverage offerings nothing exciting).Or yelled at me when I asked a simple question (Where’s the bathroom?)

My first time in India was not great, and so I understand that first impressions can be misleading, however at least my first time in India left me wanting more. Our time in Vietnam left me supremely elated to be crossing the boarder in Cambodia. I had the sense of “ well glad that’s over” and “ hope I don’t have to do that again” which aren’t the best feeling to have after dropping a chunk of time and change on something.

In hindsight I think that our trip would have been smoother, or at least the attitude of people better understood, if we had journeyed from South to North, starting not ending in Saigon.

Saigon, exotic and romantic trading city of the east, (or at least it was, now it is more of a tangled concrete mess of motorbikes and neon signs) has very few tourist sights. A few pagodas, a fairly tame market that’s sells mostly t-shirts and the War Remnants Museum. The War Museum is really the main one, the one you have to see, the one you haven’t really been to Vietnam unless you have seen.

It didn’t take us long to get through, it’s not very big just one main building, the outside littered with forgotten tanks and helicopters, artillery and fighter jets. Inside is three floors of horrible nightmare memories, captured in black and white and color so the people of Viet Nam never forget the atrocities that happened to them. The atrocities that American’s inflicted on them.

The photography collection is one of the best photojournalism collections anywhere and should be seem even if the history of the war has no interest to you.  However, it is not the splendid exposure levels or the framing that will catch your eye, it is the macabre subject matter. Corpses blow to bits by nail grenades or charred beyond recognition by napalm, picture of babies ripped open by mines, or guns or knives. Snapshots of the faces of old men in terror, taken only moments before the gun blew their head off.

And then there is the collection that makes you reach out a hand to steady yourself, or sit on the floor, or a bench and cry (as some were doing). This is the gallery that showcases the depths of human sickness, the image of a man setting a match to the home of a peasant, the group of three young spoilers grinning as they sat around the beheaded corpses of supposed ‘viet cong’, the smiling solider in the process of witnessing torture.

Photos that showed you the darkest reaches of the human soul, the places we all try to ignore, to turn away from and to deny in the hope that maybe somehow never ever again will it surface. We are always wrong. Looking away from evil has never caused it to cease just as remembering suffering has never caused it to heal.

On the bottom floor was a gallery dedicated to those people, across the world, who had stood in solidarity with the Vietnamese or who had protested American involvement. Italy, India, China, Egypt, Russia, Norway, Great Britain, Japan. As many countries as there are there were represented. In one corner a picture from the Kent State massacres.

Earlier in our trip, while we were at Hoi An, we had met up with a woman who had majored in Culture studies, her focus on the American anti-war movement. She had been frustrated by the lack of recognition that was afforded to those Americans who had protested and advocated for peace.

I can sympathize with her, and her frustration, in this case and in many others, though I do not expect the Vietnamese to dedicate large portions of their museum to this subject. This was their story, not ours. What frustrates me is that our story did not more affect their story, that the protests and outcry did not reach the shores of Vietnam, or the doors of the White house. What frustrates me is that is still the case.
The museum in Saigon gave context to the rude and often hostile attitudes we encountered. It did not make me like Vietnam any better or to think that I, as somebody who was never involved with the “American War”, should have been blamed for these actions. It did not make me want to stay longer or to go back, but it did help me understand.

Understand that American citizen have to pay the karmic debt on the actions of our country’s government. That traveling abroad we become ambassadors for our country and we become, in local eyes, responsible.

Understand that to someone that has suffered a tragedy at the hands of war, invaded by a country far far away, one that they will likely never see, that any person from that place is as guilty as those who committed the crimes.

Understand that as I walked through the halls of the museum, shocked by the graphic photos of atrocities forty years in the past, in that same moment atrocities were being committed all over the globe. Are being committed right now.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, horrible things are still being done, will be done.  By guns and bombs and machines and robots, by Americans. And that our citizens have sunk into a state of silent acceptance.

The U.S has succeeded in leaving behind another legacy of pain and suffering of hatred and distrust. The world is less safe for future generations, future generations will find their travel more restricted that my own and that will in fact make them less free.

But staring at the frozen faces, across the silver of time, thinking about the Cultural Studies girl and the photo of the woman at Kent State. It made me understand that our silence is heard.

1 comment:

  1. How much do we in America learn about that war in our school studies. I'd guess little or nothing. History is so poorly taught in our schools and the result of that is no one is concsiouse of what happened so that we are not well loved all over the world.