Memorials, Historical Memory, and the War in Vietnam

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Near the DMZ – Memorial to the Communist advance into south Vietnam

A week ago, The Hermeneutic Circle got a makeover. I also made a personal commitment to offer a minimum of one post per week for one year. I admire others who can post daily, but I’ve come to realize I’m just not wired this way. That being said, I kicked things off with a review of John Fea’s new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Then I populated the blog stream by revisiting some older posts, many of which I wrote for The Pietist Schoolman. Today I settle into a schedule of weekly posts with a plan to offer new content each Monday …

As Americans debated how to remember the Civil War and what to do with symbols of the confederacy this past year, I had the privilege of co-leading (with my colleague, Mark Norris) a student trip to Vietnam. The trip, which was during the month of March, focused heavily on the Vietnam conflict and corresponded with the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, which took place on March 16, 1968. Not only this, but Ken Burns had just released his landmark documentary on the war. So it was a good time to make the trip.

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Our fantastic students

I have covered the war in Vietnam, including the My Lai Massacre, in my American history courses, so this was a great opportunity to learn on-site along with our students. We jumped right into the history and culture after arriving in Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Minh City) with a stop at a noodle shop that served as a front for a Viet Cong headquarters. We crawled through the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, which were deadly obstacles for American soldiers. The first few days also found us at the main war museum in Saigon. Later in the trip, we traveled to war-time sites, including battlefields and more tunnels, near what was once the DMZ in the central part of the country. One of our final destinations was the site of the My Lai massacre and the museum and memorial there. Though we did visit older sites related to Vietnam’s imperial and colonial eras, my main interest were those related to the war and how it has been remembered by the Vietnamese. There were plenty of opportunities to reflect on this.

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Presentation at the Cu Chi tunnels from a disabled former Viet Cong fighter

In Vietnam, the war is both past and present. It is past in the sense that diplomatic relations with the US have been normalized, the Vietnamese people have largely moved-on, and Vietnam is actively pursuing western investors and fostering a burgeoning tourist industry. But the war is also still very present. Though the style of communism in Vietnam has opened up, government propaganda and communist symbols are visible all over the country. It is a reminder that the North Vietnamese won the war and united the country under Communism. Tour guides, including those for our groups, spoke of family members who died in the war or parents who lived in the underground tunnels to escape U.S. bombs. Memorials and museums abound, all with captured U.S. weapons, and especially “Huey” helicopters, preserved on-site as relics.

In the U.S., of course, the war is remembered in conflicting ways. Perhaps the most pervasive legacy is our tendency to want to avoid “another Vietnam.” With our own memorials to commemorate the war in Vietnam, Americans tend to see the conflict as a tragic episode, but also see the importance of showing respect to our veterans, remembering their sacrifices, and lamenting the way they were treated when they returned home. And in some minds, the effort to check the spread of communism remains a legitimate reason for intervention.

Its different in Vietnam of course.

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Memorial commemorating the NVA victory at Camp Carroll, a U.S. “fire base” near the DMZ

Not surprisingly, war memorials and public historical sites are opportunities for a narrative quite different from anything that one might find in the U.S. At the Cu Chi tunnels, site employees show visitors an old, grainy propaganda film in the same way that Americans are accustomed to seeing a short instructional film at historical sites in the U.S.  This film was so anti-American, our tour guide didn’t want to show it to us. (I assured him that, as good students of history, we knew how to handle propaganda. You can find it on YouTube here but the English translation with this version softens the narration.)

At the war memorial museum in Saigon, the narrative was presented with more sophistication. It wasn’t simply the inverse of the American narrative — that Communism prevailed and expanded despite the United States’ best efforts. Rather, it was a more powerful interpretation that went like this: U.S. intervention was a continuation of western imperialism begun by the French; The U.S. waged an immoral war of many atrocities and the rest of the civilized world joined with America’s own anti-war protesters to condemn U.S. action; in the end, the north Vietnamese waged a war for liberation and justice to expel the invading colonizers. (I couldn’t help but think of the way a similar narrative is constructed about western crusaders, including modern western coalitions, by Middle Eastern interpreters.) One of the exhibit rooms was dedicated solely to American “war crimes.” I’ve been to holocaust sites in Europe and the mood the exhibit created was similar.  This same narrative could be found in one form or another at all the country’s war memorial sites. Perhaps the heaviest and most gut-wrenching site we visited was My Lai.

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Close-up of Camp Carroll memorial

At one point in the trip I gathered our students together to unpack what we were seeing and experiencing. We talked about the fact that it was good for us to experience the anti-American narrative since the war in Vietnam included, as all wars do, shameful acts and horrible atrocities. If knowledge of this shatters our naivety and tempers our sense of exceptionalism as Americans, so be it. But it was also an opportunity to talk about historiography and how public history sites serve as exercises in interpretive memory. There is always a narrative and in this case, much of it was recognizable as propaganda, dictated by the communist government. As I thought about the recent debates over civil war memorials back home, I couldn’t help but be reminded that public history sites, whether in Vietnam or in the U.S., are not neutral spaces.

This was a great learning opportunity for all of us and if you get the chance, I would highly recommend Vietnam as a destination. It is a beautiful country with gracious hospitality and layer upon layer of culture, history, and historical memory.

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Memorial to both the dead and the survivors at My Lai

 

3 thoughts on “Memorials, Historical Memory, and the War in Vietnam

  1. Pingback: Check Out Jared Burkholder’s New Blog! – The Pietist Schoolman

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