Hard’n the fuck up Germans! – the War Museum

Remember that ultimate killer phrase in the Python & Fawlty Towers sketches, when the Germans showed up? „Don’t mention the war!“ For Vietnam it is very much the same. The country is tired of being confronted with foreigners interest in the war if they do run a business on it. Hence, the country is not intending to forget about history, but the image outside of the countrty is coloured by the cliches of the past,so that there is so little left of knowledge about the country in the western world. And it is maybe not even the worst thing that “Brangelina” showed up twice on baby shopping tour to at least push two or three images more in the press that are not war photographies. When you think of Thailand, you maybe think of smelly currys, smiling beauties in golden costumes and amazing beaches as Alex Garland described them. So what associations are left for Vietnam? This is unfair to these nice and incredibly patient folks, who are extremely friendly considering the little space you have to live in the cities, the heat, the pollution and all the noise. Vietnam has it all though – great landscapes, beautiful beaches, fantastic food and a recent history that is so much more interesting than the one of Thailand. It is not surprising that the image right now makes the War Museum in Saigon the most popular place for visitors by far. And still, it is wortwhile going there if you are not a redneck.
As you enter the main court, you are exposed to US equipment: Tanks, F-5A Fighter Planes, a Huey Choper and several other relicts of the military supremacy that still did not bring victory. I was a little scared of the boy in me that I would be impressed by military technology and recall some George S. Patton statements such as: „You do not win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by letting the other poor bastard die for his country.“ I know that I’m weak on that and I hate the pictures tourists take sitting on a tank as if it was a Formula One car, showing off in a pose to the beloved family that expects war content in the holiday propaganda program. Still, I’m interested in the machines and it feels like a horror cabinett. Luckily that fear of being childish was unnecessary as the first hall will have a different effect on hopefully every visitor. „Requiem“ is an exhibition of war photography and war photographers at the same time. We all know the pictures from Time Magazine or Life, especially those of Larry Burrow that are so intense, never sugarcoated and tragic. Yet I cannot recall to see that many pictures on one place and the sheer amount of brutality portrayed is shocking. Pictures from Hamburger Hill, the My Lai massacre are not simply communist propaganda. Actually nowwhere I felt to be a propaganda victim compared to the visit to the Reunification Palace I went to. What you have to admit is that there is little information on vietnamese war strategy and their tactics. Some photos I did not have on my mind, but immediately I had associations to the coal pencil drawings by Max Beckmann in the first World War and Otto Dix oil painted „Verdun“ – soldiers in a nightmare, sunken in mud, wounded, scared, hopeless, bleeding and crying for their mother to come and bring them home.
If that is not touching you, you will propably hold your breath seeing the victims of phosphor bombs and Agent Orange. The museum even shows mutated, conserved embryos in glasses, which is hard to bear. The more you see, the less you can imagine that such an ugly war could go on for such a long time. Little to see about the NorthVietnamese actions, but the military crimes committed on the US side alone and their longterm effects on the country and health of the people is a disaster that you cannot imagine when you sit in front of your computer screen. How could you not go on the streets in the 60s and 70s and wanted the war to end? And why are we so silent about Iraq? Because we do not get the pictures?
Recently we are overflooded by the similarities people draw on the failure of strategy in both conflics. But as with Vietnam it is essentially not a military mistake, it is a political mistake by the Administrations. In a broader pictures, it maybe easy to extract similar root causes: Both Vietnam and Iraq were colonies before and faced the relicts of the colonial age. Vietnam was part of French Indochine colonies and Iraq was a british attempt to create a country drawing lines on a map including tribes that never lived together under one regime and in one state. While Saddam Hussein left a vacuum for terror of issues created hundred years ago, the war in Vietnam is very much different and propably was best explained by the Defense Secretary in those days, Robert S. McNamara. In his well written book „In Retrospect“ he wrote: „Simply put, we faced a blizzard of problems, there were only 24 hours a day and we often had not the time to think straight.“ It is clear that the US did not understand the Vietminh and falsely linked the vietnamese communists to the interests of the Movements in China and the Ruskys. They were allies, yes, but Vietnam is much more similar to the Yugoslavia of Tito than China in terms of the idea of forming an independent, socialistic state. The South Vietnamese elite helped to blur the view, as their rather undemocratic, but still allied Regime and the existing French interests in the region required support to stop the Independence Movement in North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh. Dwight Eisenhowers Domino Theory was incorporated into Kennedys South-East-Asia politics, that should stop the liberation movement in Vietnam. After Pig Bay and Cuba Crisis, the Sputnik shock and the developments in North Korea, the US were freightened to loose the last resistance to communism by giving up South Vietnam. It was fear, just as today in the war on terror, that had a significant influence in the decision making process of the State Department. It was all done in good faith, but how horribly it all screwed up is a severe political failure. There was no effective weapon to find against the Vietcong guerilla tactics and the ideals of a communist system that found more and more supporters in a country of poverty and long time war casualties. The rest of the story is almost irrelevant, the deeper the US engaged into the conflict, the worse it got and the vicious circle continued to grow.
At some stage in the quite small museum, when I was looking at the pictures of victims of Napalm bomb attacks, I could first time ever understood why the 68 student movements were so keen to end the war and how desperate they must have been that they had so little influence in the political system. That resistance lead in Germany to the flamming articles of Ulrike Meinhoff, who then declared that guerilla war should take place at home as well. She founded the Red Army Fraction (RAF) that had their justification to use violence against the „system“ and kill representatives of the Elite due to the crime committed by the “system” at Vietnam. As this decision has now proved to be another historic failure, throwing stones on policemen did not stop a career generally, as Joschka Fischers way from Taxi Driver and freelance Revolutioner to Secretary of State demonstrated later, while other young men died in ricefields.
I was moved by some medals of an american soldier in a showcase. Next to the Purple Heart there was a text: „I’m sorry. I apologize to the Vietnamese people. I have not deserved these medals. It was a mistake.“ Was he a weak and crazy fool that went mad during the expedition and simply could not get the story straight? I don’t think so – it is difficult to integrate Vietnam in your CV and using the word “honour” while so much shit happened. Then again I saw some „Solidarity“-Posters of the GDR printed in german language in the early seventies and some Saxonians gathered in front of them. They discussed suncreen issues in the hot climate and what moscito protectors to use in the Mekong Delta. As a box of Napalm victims asked for donations next door, I could not resist to tell them: „Hard’n the fuck up, Germans!“
I went to the extrance when I passed a souvenir shop. Among the items on display were genuine parts of GIs – dog tags and Zippos. One dog tag showed “Knox J. . 2586302 USMC S EPISC”. A Marine? How did it get in the showroom? Was he dead or did he loose that tag? I asked the lady operating the shop: “It was found”. I did not ask any further questions, the whole topic was too sensitive and I didn’t want to know more about it. Some Zippos have engraved logos and texts: ” Is a year shortened as a day then I’ll go home soon”; “Live by Chance, Fighter by Day, Love by Night, Kill by Profession.” Enough for one day, let’s get a Tiger Beer.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    The comment about (not) seeing the pictures is spot-on. I say – show the pictures, show the pictures to the persons drowsing before the box in the evening. If your children see them too, they’ll know what war is and what they want nothing to do with in their future.
    Also, the “embeded” Iraq war reporters were heavily sensored as there were no real pictures from Iraq (it was a big con).

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