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And I studied it in school. But considering that my US History class was tailored to the AP Exam, by the time we got to studying Vietnam, it was largely passed over in favor of drilling for essay questions.
In short, I haven’t studied the war as in-depth as I should have.
But at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, I got to see the Vietnamese viewpoint of the war – and it was horrifying.
Is this museum filled with propaganda? Yes.
Does it exaggerate for Vietnam’s benefit? Absolutely.
I can understand why they do, but honestly, I think they would get more mileage out of the museum if they were more truthful. There’s no need to exaggerate. The truth is powerful enough.
The War Remnants Museum is filled with devastating photographs, artifacts and first-hand accounts from the war. There are also sections showing weapons and propaganda from other countries supporting Vietnam.
But to me, the worst part was the Agent Orange exhibition.
During the war, the US dropped this herbicide, made from the deadly chemical dioxin, on much of Vietnam. The chemical had devastating effects. People living in dioxin-contaminated areas began getting cancer. Birth defects became rampant in affected areas of Vietnam, and even today, children are still being born with deformities due to dioxin exposure.
How in God’s name could anyone with a conscience order an attack like this, an attack that would disable innocent civilians for generations?
How could my country do something so vile and unconscionable?
I’ve never felt so much shame for my government.
While the government has compensated American soldiers exposed to Agent Orange, many of whom have since had children with birth defects, nothing has been done for the Vietnamese.
And there was a beautifully written letter from a young girl, an Agent Orange victim, to President Obama, telling him how much she admired him for trying to create the best opportunities in the world for his daughters and all American children, but she wished he would think of the Vietnamese children exposed to Agent Orange as well.
Beyond Agent Orange, what horrified me the most was the brutality of the attacks on civilians in Vietnam.
Most famously, there was a massacre in Thanh Huong that left more than a dozen women and children dead, murdered with knives. Two young girls were disemboweled. Only one was left alive.
The man who ordered the attack? Former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.
This was first reported by the New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes in 2001, and Kerrey admitted that yes, he authorized the attack, but he did not carry it out. He thought that it would be an attack on Viet Cong soldiers, not women and children. He says that he deeply regrets the act:
“You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.”
That’s what Kerrey says.
But one of the men in his unit, Gerhard Klann, says that Kerrey fully participated in the attack, helped kill an elderly man, and rounded up the women and children before shooting them. The lone survivor of the attack says that Klann is telling the truth.
What shocks me the most is that Bob Kerrey continues to have a political career. He was even floated as a running mate for John Kerry in 2004 (albeit probably just because people loved the aspect of a Kerry-Kerrey ticket).
You would think that ordering the deaths of innocent women and children, whether intentionally or unintentionally, would be a political death sentence. Not so much in America.
It was a difficult day for me. As the lone American among my friends, I didn’t have anyone who would understand these feelings — most especially, the shame and guilt I felt and continue to feel on behalf of my country.
It was particularly poignant to visit the War Remnants Museum at this time, when our country is at war once again. It’s abundantly clear that the war in Iraq, just like in Vietnam, should never have begun.
And I’m even more afraid for the civilians in Iraq than I was before. Remember how shocked the world was when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke? WHO KNOWS the extent of what’s going on there?!
Here’s what I know for sure: I will never support a politician who is quick to encourage war. I’m proud to support President Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq War before it began, and who is keenly aware of the many costs of war.
We can’t let this ever happen again.