Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How can you say that your [version] is [truer] than ours?

Disclaimer, this blog post is about my impressions of the residue left on Vietnam from the Vietnam War. I will be including some photos that really affected me and as these are photos of victims of Agent Orange they are not pleasant to look at. I will post these at the bottom so if you don't want to scroll down to view them you won't need to. 

Imagine being in a dark tunnel, deep and winding. There is no light to guide you and you need to move fast around the bends crouched low so as not to hit your head, breathing in the dust. At points, your feet give way and you fall to a lower level and for a few steps you crawl forward until you hit  a wall. Reaching up, you drag yourself back to the higher level. Pushing forward, panic sets in as you hear the drone of the airplanes above you. Have they discovered this deep and secret place you and your village live in?

Before arriving in Vietnam, I didn't know much about the Vietnam war - the little I knew was garnered from TV shows/movies where the American veterans were being honoured. What else I knew was about the protests and  it was all from the American perspective. Vietnam changed that for me and opened my eyes to another piece of the truth.

On our first day in Ho Chi Minh, we visited the War Remnants Museum. I can't begin to describe just how profound an affect this had on me. I couldn't stay in one room because the images and words I was reading were causing me to feel overwhelmed. This room included photos taken by American and International photographers. Some included statements from former soldiers long after the Vietnam War had ended. The most disturbing of these photos was of some women and children which had been taken just moments before they died. The photographer left a statement with the photo that he knew they were going to die right after he took the photo and a result he wouldn't turn around to look back as he heard the shots.I had to leave and go sit outside. I just felt heavy as if there was huge weight on me that I couldn't shake.

Agent Orange was a pesticide that was sprayed to clear away the forests of Vietnam so that the Vietnamese would be easier to spot for American soldiers. What the soldiers spraying this pesticide didn't know was the effects this would have on them, their bodies and the families even to this day. The effect on the Vietnamese landscape, water supplies, natural habitats and lives is even more disturbing. The men and women who came in contact with this pesticide directly either were killed or maimed. In Vietnam alone it is estimated that number may be as high as 400,000 people. Sadly, it's effects did not stop there. Even now sterility and birth defects are a considered a common side effect of this herbicide. Since the Vietnam War around 500,000 children have been born with birth defects directly linked to Agent Orange.All this we learned on our first day. While there were some things that were obviously propaganda and contained some Anti-American sentiment, it was also understandable to us why this would be so. After all, America was the one that sprayed the country with this horrid pesticide that was still affecting them all these years later.

 When we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels a few days later we were shown an extremely obvious propaganda film that looked as if it was as old as the Vietnamese War. Whilst there, we got to experience life as a Cu Chi Tunnel fighter. We able to see the weapons and traps they used against American soldiers. Some of these were extremely lethal - doors, when opened let a trap fall from the ceiling full of spikes that you stab you in the chest and face. The most telling experience I had was here. We got to enter the tunnels which were widen for tourists. I had to crouch/crawl at some points, short as I am and at others I felt claustrophobic. In fact, I told my friend goodbye at one exit and went part way up the steps to breathe with the intention of not re-entering. However, this was something I wanted to experience. There aren't many chances where you can actually feel the way someone felt in a situation you have never experienced. I couldn't let that go by me. So I swallowed my fear and gave it my all and fought through what was increasing panic and being in a dark, tight place. Harder still was it to imagine that this tunnel had actually been widen so I could get through. I can't put myself in their shoes, not really. I don't hear the planes roaring above me, the panic seeping in as I wind my way through the tunnel knowing that there is a soldier behind me. I don't know what is to run blind through this tunnel, I have lights to guide me. I don't have to sleep in the doorway of a tunnel that is my home, blind in the darkness that seeps into my core. This was the life of the men, women and children of the Cu Chi area.

So you might think I am mad to have let what could probably be considered blatant propaganda to affect me so deeply. However, no matter how hard I try I can not escape the reality that this truth is there and that the American truth is not better that theirs. It's just another version that gives us their all - their piece of the story. Whilst there may be some lies mixed in with the truth some things that America did were truly awful. One only needs to look at former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey to know that it's too easy to let evil slip into our lives especially when there is the heat of the battle to influence you and allow you to commit terrible atrocities.  However, there is still hope, a chance that if America makes proper reparation for it's part in maiming the lives of people that America and Vietnam could one stand as brothers, shoulder to shoulder, who carry no arms.  My takeaway from this experience is that apathy is our enemy but a bigger one may just be allowing ourselves to be caught up doing evil in the name of doing right.

PS This post was inspired by what I saw and experienced whilst in Ho Chi Minh and visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. I don't believe that this blog can ever give justice to how I feel about the Vietnam war and the terrible atrocities committed there and the effects they still have. I was listening to Mumford and Sons recently and their song "I gave you all" brought back to me some of my feelings and I realised that as strongly as I had felt whilst in Vietnam I had yet to really vocalise just how much this trip affected and changed me.
This post only records my impressions and feelings on finding out the Vietnamese perspective. This is not meant as a condemnation of anyone.





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