In March 2019, my daughter, Alex, and I visited Saigon. On the fourth day of our trip, I suggested adding the War Remnants Museum to our sightseeing itinerary. Alex liked the idea. We walked from our apartment all the way to the War Remnants Museum. We thought is was going to be a leisurely walk but the heat and humidity took the leisure out of the walk. Outside the War Remnants Museum building, I saw tanks and took photos.
A short story about the tanks at the War Remnants Museum
Yes, I am aware that it isn’t a good photo. The colors are dull, the angle is awkward and the composition seem to scream, “You don’t know how to use a camera!” The dull colors, I cannot fix. If I try to Photoshop the image to brighten it up, I might end up with gold-colored tanks and that would be destroying realism. With the angle and composition, I could have done better — if I had more time and there were fewer visitors to the museum.
It took me ten minutes to take that photo. Before I finally hit the camera button, all I could do was look — watch fellow tourists with their funny faces and contrived whacky poses in front of the tanks to have their photos taken by their companions.
The worst lot was a group of fully grown women — on tiptoe and with hands clasped around the main gun of the tank as though they were being dragged away by the tank. They laughed loudly as they took turns posing and having their photos taken.
It wrenched my heart. The War Remnants Museum exists to show the world what horrors Vietnam has gone through and those middle-aged women were treating a highly deadly war machine as an amusing backdrop for taking playful photos. They could have shown more respect.
It took the group of women quite a while to finally feel satisfied with the whacky posing. As they moved away, another group moved toward the tanks. A group with children. One boy who had been watching the women earlier tried to climb up the tank to imitate the “I’m being dragged away by the tank” pose. The adults in the group laughed and obligingly took photos of him.
I watched. And I waited. When I saw a small window to take photos without including those callous people in the frame, I started to shoot. I only had a few seconds before more groups approached the tanks. Sadly, the only usable photo I could take was snapped from a horrible angle.
But the tanks are only a part of the museum display. And they weren’t exactly the reason why I wanted to go there and bring Alex with me.
Inside the museum
I was born two decades after the end of the American colonial period but the American presence remained strong long after the Philippine flag was raised as a symbol of independence. I grew up watching American movies. My parents were particularly fond of John Wayne. As a grade schooler, what I knew about the Vietnam War was gleaned mostly from watching “The Green Berets”. I wouldn’t know better until I set foot in college.
My daughters, both born in the 1990s, knew just as little about the Vietnam War as students. While they hadn’t heard of “The Green Berets”, they grew up a decade or so after Oliver Stone’s films about the Vietnam War — “Platoon”, “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth” — were released and became bywords in cinema talk. Thankfully, their idea of a proper war movie was “Mulan”.
Their father, a teenager in the 1970s, had a summer job as a waiter at the Pagsanjan Hotel where the cast and crew of “Apocalypse Now” were billeted for the duration of the shoot for the scenes at the Pagsanjan Falls. He told us stories about the insane amount of alcohol that accompanied the cast and crew.
In others words, we all grew up with American propaganda about the Vietnam War. I managed to shake most of it in college but I was hungry for a better perspective. And I thought that with the opportunity staring right at us, it would be good for Alex, who had never experienced learning about the Vietnam War in school except in passing and always with an American bias, to know what it was about.
I thought I knew a lot about the Vietnam War. Then, I viewed the exhibits and realized that there was even more that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that, for years, a huge part of the world had been pressuring America to pull out of its unjust intervention in what was essentially a civil war. Still, America continued to hold on until withdrawal became inevitable and “loss” had become synonymous with close to 60,000 American deaths — in a war America had no business being involved in.
Alex experienced some kind of emotional shock. Until then, she did not realize how her expensive education had betrayed her and cheated her out of real history lessons. In one afternoon, the phrase “Vietnam War” became an endless parade of widespread carnage, and political documents and newspaper reports that belied American propaganda. What she didn’t understand, she asked about. And there we were, while walking between exhibits from floor to floor, discussing Agent Orange and how landmines killed and maimed unsuspecting civilians. Two million Vietnamese civilians died in that war.
By the time we reached the room where drawings and paintings by young children, who were maimed, orphaned or displaced by the war, were displayed, I was ready to cry.