The only thing I remember learning about the Vietnam War in school is that America has won every war we've ever fought, except Vietnam, which we didn't lose, we just kind of left. We talked more about the hippie generation and protests against the war. The topic always felt a bit hushed, and I think it made Vietnam more intriguing to me. What really happened there? Why does everybody hate communism so much? What is communism and why is it so terrible that we fought wars over it? What is this place, this country where the people were such strong fighters and where we couldn't figure out how to fight in their jungles?
So I bought a big book, which I haven't finished yet. But it's a little bit surreal to be reading the history while also physically being in the places it's talking about - like a story has been brought to life.
The tour I did the other day was a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) with a Vietnam War veteran. He actually fought with the US, for the south. We went and saw different places where fighting took place. The pictures of the tunnels are where people in one village dug a huge area underground where they slept at night. They lived in tiny tunnels for 6 years, trying to protect themselves from US bombs. The picture of me on the bridge is a picture with one foot in the north of Vietnam, one foot in the south. There are still unexploded bombs in that entire area of Vietnam, so you need to have a guide with you.
I also went to a prison in Hanoi, built by the French for Vietnamese prisoners, then later used by the Vietnamese to imprison US soldiers. You may have heard in the last election about John McCain being a prisoner - that's where he was held.
But what really drove all of this home for me was visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.
The museums in Vietnam are blatant. They are in your face. They have graphic photos that would not be displayed elsewhere, some so graphic I did not want to photograph them. This museum tells their side of the story, although it sources a lot of its material from US media at the same time.
So many photos. Photos of children, bleeding, dying everywhere. Photos of soldiers. Photos of innocent civilians, dead. These journalists were not afraid, in this war. They were up close to everything.
I cried seeing the babies. I cried looking at photos of US soldiers, trying to imagine a boy my age, my friends, in that brutal role, being forced to kill others. I cried seeing photos of people torturing one another. There is a photo of a US army vehicle dragging two Vietnamese prisoners along behind it, that was their method of death.
I tried to think of the things you would need to tell yourself to justify treating other people that way. The way you would have to view other people as different, as less than you, as stupid, as people you were better than and couldn't understand.
And I really cried looking at the entire section on agent orange. I imagined it being sprayed on the beautiful rainforests everywhere, leaves falling off all the trees, dying. I tried to imagine whose idea was this? Who wanted to kill the entire rainforest to make it easier to fight? Who said yes, this is a good idea, let's do it? Why were we fighting this war again?
This chemical produced deformities in people that I didn't even know could happen. And it didn't just happen to those people. It happened to their children. It happened to their CHILDREN'S CHILDREN, two entire generations later. That chemical still affects and kills families in Vietnam today, so many years later. How is that possible?? That humans did something that terrible?
We literally got involved in this war - started this war - because we didn't like the way Vietnam was going to govern itself.
And so, millions of people died, brutally, on both sides, pretty much for no reason at all.
I tried to imagine how it felt for Vietnam, this country that was constantly plagued by war, trying to be taken over and ruled, or at least taken advantage of, by other countries. For some Vietnamese, it wasn't even about defending Communism. It was about their sense of nationalism, about them loving their country. About wanting these foreign people out of their country, out of their business.
And you know what makes it a million, billion times worse????
This hasn't stopped.
It would be one thing if this had all happened so many years ago, we had all learned from it, and decided it would never happen again. But it didn't. This still happens in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq. This happens all over the fucking world by "better" countries trying to control "lesser" countries, for one reason or another. We still go to war, we still drop these huge senseless bombs on schools, on innocent children, on civilians. We try to kill people to prove a point. "America is the most powerful country in the world!!!!!" People say. "Bomb them all!!"
How can you look at all this violence and think it is okay? How can you explain it away?
There is something I admire about the northern Vietnamese in this situation. Their willingness to keep fighting, to suffer as many losses as it would take, to not let anyone else tell them what to do. To stand up for themselves.
The Vietnamese, at least, were not going into places where they were not wanted, trying to "do the right thing" with violence.
And yet, unfortunately for the Vietnamese, America lost the war, but America got to move on. Vietnam suffered so much that their economy was totally destroyed, they basically had to rebuild from scratch, they still have unexploded bombs that go off and kill people, and the chemicals from the war still affect them. It is no wonder so many older Vietnamese have a sort of "hardened" look to them. Why some might not like westerners, why we get scammed so much. How could you fault them for that?
Likewise, refugees fleeing war today will never be able to go home. Their homes as they knew them were destroyed. People they loved were killed. And if you educate yourself on the actual history of the Middle East, you can see how we (along with some other countries) created this conflict.
Why doesn't it stop? Is all of this violence ever going to stop?
And what are you actually doing to stop it?