Thursday, May 26, 2011

Vietnam: Remnants From A Stricken Land

I got up early and then went back to bed again, and then eventually got up and caught a taxi to the War Remnants Museum to see the sort of conditions Ngo Van Toai was held in. Well, about a mile short of there. I got fed up sitting in traffic, so I walked the rest of the way with my T-shirt stuck to my back in the midday smog.

I got lost, and then there was a cloudburst so I scurried for shelter under the porch of a posh-looking hotel. I asked a porter for directions, and was looking at my scrunched-up map when a loud, irritating Aussie, dressed in the international sex tourist kit of shorts, vest, and money belt, butted in.

He was looking for the museum too. I tried to get rid of him, and sat on a step as the deluge continued, hoping he’d wander off. But he continued to strike up conversation.

“I was only going to the museum to shelter from the rain,” he said looking up at the sky. “What else can you do on a day like today?”

He was soon eyeing one of the club signs. “Karaoke AND massage bar,” he leered. “Wonder what happens in there...”

“Maybe you get a singing masseur?” I shrugged.

Thankfully, a receptionist with good English appeared and asked me where I wanted to go.

“I think that’s a polite way of asking us to move on,” said the Aussie.

Us? He’d definitely said “us”.

I told him that I’d head down to the museum later, and pretended to walk round the corner, and watched as he slouched off in the bucketing rain. I left it for 30 minutes, worried I’d bump into him in one of the torture exhibits.

The first thing you see when you go into the War Remnants Museum (it used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes until officials finally got fed up with the complaint letters) are a collection of US helicopters, tanks and planes.

They’d polished them up so much, they gleamed like muscled beasts of the apocalypse. Round the side, past the bins, was the rusty North Vietnamese stuff – two tins connected by a piece of string, and a World War One starting pistol.

A Dutch couple walked past me, smoking small cigars. “Oh lovely,” the woman said, pointing at an A-1 Skyraider (below) that had been used to drop napalm and phosphorus bombs on starving villagers.

I’d read a lot about the museum’s propaganda, but I was still surprised how blatant it was. One of the exhibit rooms was called “Historic Truths”. There wasn’t even an attempt to get any balance in there, but I suppose history is written by the victors. When you compare it with the hundreds of war films America’s Hollywood PR agency has pumped out, and the US still calling the war to this day “the Vietnam War” despite the fact that it engulfed all three countries – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam – that had formed French Indochina, it’s a drop in the ocean.

An all-enveloping, digital smog of an ocean that will no doubt leave Americans in 100 years thinking they single-handedly saved the world from speaking German, defeated terror, and helped Mel Gibson kick the English out of Scotland.

There was no mention of the atrocities carried out by the North Vietnamese Army, or the way it had backed the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of up to two million people, or its invasion of Cambodia – an invasion that much of the world saw as a greater evil than the Pol Pot regime it overthrew.

In every fact box and poster, Vietnam was portrayed as a victim of America’s Goliath might. There were statistics of the number of aircraft and tanks the Americans had given to the “Saigon Puppet Government”, together with the money the US had spent on the war compared with World War Two and the 1950-53 Korean War, but no mention of North Vietnam’s capabilities or the Soviet billions.

A large area was devoted to the tortures inflicted in Con Dao Prison on Phu Quoc island. I thought about Toai and what he would have endured in his years there. Burning in the relentless sun, day after day in a tiger cage.

It was shocking and extremely depressing to read the victims' stories, and I left the place feeling strangely guilty that I had never been through similarly grotesque experiences. I’d never suffered true hunger, or seen my loved ones shot in front of me, let alone been guillotined, or had live snakes shoved down my trousers.

I felt dreadfully inadequate, and as I say, extremely lucky to be living in an age when I was far more likely to be bitten to death by a shark than forced to sit under a drip with my scalp shaved, so that every drop of water soon felt like a hammer blow.

There was waterboarding too. Seeing it being used alongside seemingly far more mediaeval interrogation methods obviously shows how effective it is at freaking people out, and why it is such a favourite at Guantanamo. And it makes it even more bizarre to read how some politicians still insist it shouldn’t be classed as “torture”. I don’t know where they stand on the use of live snakes.

There were brutal methods going on elsewhere in Vietnam, particularly with the US military’s use of jungle-clearing Agent Orange. It was terrible to see photos of the mutations the toxic herbicide caused, particularly of infants and young children, and there were plenty of pictures of them. You couldn’t help wonder at the crazed minds that decided on that appalling campaign, deforesting huge areas of Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia just to flush out the Viet Cong they couldn't find.

On the way out, victims of Agent Orange - Vietnam claims up to one million of its people have died or been left with serious birth defects from its use - were singing to raise money for their charity.

I left, bloated with sound bites from defected US pilots, draft-burning students, and world figures critical of Washington’s obsession with controlling tin and tungsten resources in Indochina to underpin the manufacturing growth it so craved.

Anyway as I say, it got me thinking about the USA’s napalming and bombing, and widespread use of chemical herbicides, and then I realised how hungry I was and stopped at a KFC on the way back.

My Zinger meal was extremely dry. The burger had obviously been sitting there for a while, so I went back to the counter and ordered two pieces of hot and spicy chicken because they hadn’t bothered to cook any of the original variety (no-one seems to buy it in Vietnam). It came with proper cutlery - I couldn't see them dishing those out at KFCs in Brixton.

I glanced at my plate. It said “finger licking’ good”. Not when the chicken is properly eaten with a knife and fork, I thought, and then went back to thinking about the atrocities of American imperialism again.


Anonymous said...

Been reading your blog for the last few months and the last few posts have been especially good. Top stuff!

Lennie Nash said...

Many thanks Andy. Really appreciate that. I think it's important to write about this stuff, even from a view 40 years later.

It's amazing how many people have stopped commenting since I stopped writing solely about food - guess the smell of napalm in the morning doesn't sit too easily with their musings and Tweets about the delightful Sunday roast smells coming from the oven, while staring out from the cottage window.

All best,


Anonymous said...

I don't think many people have an idea of how hideous war is. Both of the Gulf wars were wars beamed into people's living rooms rather than experienced first hand a la WWII. War became a spectator event for many so the significance of history is lost on them. I'm sure many people wouldn't understand the significance of the capture of Ratko Mladic today for similar reasons. Personally I was educated as to the horrors of WWII by my now deceased grandfather. He didn't speak often on the subject but two times he did stayed with me.

"When you compare it with the hundreds of war films America’s Hollywood PR agency has pumped out, and the US still calling the war to this day “the Vietnam War” despite the fact that it engulfed all three countries – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam – that had formed French Indochina, it’s a drop in the ocean."

That's the key paragraph. It was a brutal conflict.