Flag flying war memorials litter the center of Ho Chi Minh City, which is what the Vietnamese renamed Saigon after the American War. Most of these memorials feature captured American war materiel, such as intact helicopters, jet fighters, tanks and artillery pieces. You’ll run across them in parks, in the front yards of the aforementioned government buildings, and, of course, at the war museum sites.
The most visited tourist site in the city is the War Remnants Museum.
The Museum used to be called the Museum of American War Atrocities.
The Vietnamese government changed the name to be a little less “confrontational” with the American tourists who tend to visit the Museum, and with the American government, with whom they reestablished relations during the Clinton administration.
The current name doesn’t do justice to what’s inside the building. If they wanted to be accurate, they should have left it the way it was. There are some “calmer” rooms, such as the one full of posters and photos of the world anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s. (If you look real close at the demonstration photos, you might see me in one of them.) But the ones that stick are the rooms full of photos of the war itself and of the Vietnamese children (and one American child) deformed by their exposure to Agent Orange.
If you’re my age, and some of you are that old, you probably remember the photos from the newspapers of the era, and especially those from Life magazine. (Remember when we had great mags like Life? Sigh.) There are large prints of the two most famous photos from the war: the execution of a Viet Cong soldier in Saigon and the naked burning little girl running from her napalmed village. If you are too young to remember, here they are. Strangely, most of the photos from this exhibit were taken by American photographers, and are testament to the bravery of those people who still risk their lives to cover wars.
In fact, there’s an entire wall of photographs and names of photojournalists killed in Vietnam. There were lots of them in the more than thirty years of wars with the French and Americans.
They give an entire section to Robert Capa, one of my favorite photographers, who was killed in 1954 by a land mine while covering the war with the French. Capa had covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II and had made some of the most poignant photos ever there.
The exhibit in the museum here includes the photos from the two cameras he was carrying when he was killed. He once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He wasn’t afraid to get too close.
One room was full of photos I hadn’t seen before–images of the children who suffered horrible burns from the napalm or awful defects from the Agent Orange.
One doesn’t really need to say anything about these. Just look and think, “My country did this.”
Note, too, that there were photos and testaments from American soldiers who also suffered from contact with Agent Orange, including photos of a beautiful blonde American girl born without arms–a defect attributable to her father’s handing of the deadly defoliant.
Of course, there were photos of the My Lai massacre, including some taken by Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle of a group of villagers just before they were shot and dumped in a ditch.
Another of Haberle’s photos shows the bodies of old people and babies.
Critics of the museum’s displays point to other well documented atrocities committed by the Vietnamese communists against their own people during the wars. They certainly happened, but you won’t see mention of them here.
The victors get to write the history and rename the cities, after all.