War is brutal. That much I knew. But seeing images of the destruction of both Vietnamese and Americans during the war at Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, I wanted to know why we went. Was it to support our allies the French in the South? Or to fight the dreaded spread of communism? I didn’t live through the conflict myself and can’t pretend to understand military protocols. But I firmly believe that how you treat your enemies is a sign of your character and as a nation, America has done despicable things to its enemies.
Without knowing why they were there, young soldiers, some who went against their will, found themselves in the tropical trenches of a faraway land where they don’t speak the language. They were given orders from superiors who may have known very little about Vietnam themselves, often being told to “kill all enemies,” which translated as everyone in sight. The Americans had modern weapons, while the Vietnamese defended themselves with guerrilla warfare, old weapons and tunnels fitted with spikes. Brutal slayings and beheadings were commonplace, but were nothing compared with the bloodshed at My Lai, known better as Son My, a hamlet some 500 miles south of Hanoi. Hundreds of civilians, mostly elderly, women and children, were raped and killed.
Unlike with other mass exterminations, we were the ones who were to blame this time. I wanted to know how many Americans had been found guilty of war crimes during our involvement in various conflicts and the number was less than 20. I found that astounding, considering the civilian loss of life in Vietnam, and further disturbed by how many have occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. William Calley was charged with killing 109 Vietnamese of the over 500 killed in My Lai, the only soldier to be tried. He was imprisoned and now lives freely in Atlanta.
The orders in Vietnam were not only to kill suspected enemies, but to destroy everything. Fields were burned, cattle were killed, wells were ruined and villages were demolished, all so that the Viet Cong would suffer and starve. But it affected the noncombatants much more. There was even more collateral damage from the unexploded mines that litter Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to this day. Over 15,000 unexploded ordinances were destroyed by MAG in 2013.
In addition to the deaths by land mines and bullets, the thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese, Koreans and Americans have suffered and died from dioxin, a chemical known as “Agent Orange.” While it was developed as an herbicide to clear the fields for better visibility, it caused soldiers, locals and their descendants to become covered in sores or burned beyond recognition. Those born to someone exposed to Agent Orange exhibit features that look like melted wax, stunted limbs, deformities and can be born conjoined. The War Remnants Museum has a haunting exhibit of a fetus affected by Agent Orange, one of many to be stillborn. Yet the companies who made these chemicals still deny that these conditions were caused by Agent Orange.
Another shocking aspect is that among those companies who manufactured the chemical, Dow Chemical and Monsanto were the most prominent. You may know Monsanto from its work with genetically modified organisms in our food, but the company now distances itself from its dark past, calling the company that created the product in the 1960s “the former Monsanto,” which is now known as Pharmacia, owned by Pfizer. Monsanto (“the former”) also did the research that led to the production of the first nuclear weapons and the chemical DDT, which was used to mask the smell of decaying bodies at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
The companies’ involvement in a chemical that ended up killing so many is reminiscent of Zyklon B, the pesticide that Tesch & Stabenow company turned odorless for the Nazis to use in the gas chambers at extermination camps like Dachau and Auschwitz. One of the inventors was executed for his role in the massacres and now all that remains of the company is a plaque at a nondescript building in Hamburg, Germany that once served as the company offices. But Monsanto continues on.
As the world’s first televised war, Vietnam was constantly on the minds of people in nearly every country. Protests erupted worldwide to show lack of support in the American involvement in Southeast Asia. Photographers and journalists were caught in the crosshairs, many of which were killed or witnessed atrocities. Laos and Cambodia were bombed during the conflict. Soldiers who returned lived with the reminders of what was done. Post traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and suicide were rampant.
And yet, Vietnam was one of the more developed parts of Southeast Asia I visited. You didn’t see as many people begging on the street, but rather locals trying to sell you anything and everything to make some extra cash. Rice exports have pulled Vietnam out of an otherwise desperate situation. Older generations of Americans haven’t visited Vietnam for how fresh the conflict feels, which I’m sure would feel like me one day visiting Iraq or Afghanistan. But I think it’s an important trip to take for my country’s role there, despite the fact that I was never treated poorly because of my nationality.
Visiting the War Remnants Museum affected me greatly, especially what it made me think about the legacy of military conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which seems eerily similar. For more on the Vietnam conflict from a soldier’s perspective, I recommend The Things They Carried. To visit the War Remnants Museum for yourself, it will cost you 30,000 dong (a little over $1 USD). It’s open from 7 am to 12 pm and from 1:30 pm to 5 pm.