A visit to the Museum of War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City is not a pleasant holiday experience. I would say it is a must-do when travelling in Vietnam but viewing photograph after photograph of terrified soldiers, even more terrified villagers, and beautiful children tragically deformed as a result of chemical warfare, is far from enjoyable.
It is something I felt compelled to do when I was in Vietnam, maybe because I had some idea that would somehow make me a better person to become vividly aware of the suffering I have been fortunate enough to avoid. It must be acknowledged that it is also partly due to the car-wreck-watching voyeur that is in all of us. This is most easily demonstrated by the brilliant collection of war correspondent photography in the museum and the memorial to the journalists who died trying to get that last up-close action picture.
More than all this, and unexpectedly, my visit to the Museum of War Remnants highlighted a piece of my personal history and prompted an examination of New Zealand’s role in the Vietnam War.
One of the most rewarding features of travel is in trying to gain some insight into the culture of the country you are visiting. This makes the War Remnants Museum a must see on any tourist’s sightseeing list. There is no denying that a significant element of Vietnam’s cultural psyche is shaped by the century of warfare the country has endured. For western visitors, there is also an awareness that some of the wars that have been fought in Vietnam have impacted the history and consciousness of the United States of America, Europe and, therefore, the world.
Not least at this very moment in world history, when public opinion in the US polarises around the war-time and peace-time actions of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. This Purple Heart winning Vietnam veteran, turned anti-war protestor, turned politician, seems not to know where to look when faced with accusations that his public opposition to American involvement in Vietnam not only rendered support to the enemy in time of war, but was a cynical use of the plight of soldiers and returned veterans to kick-start his political career.
There is a photograph of Kerry in the War Remnants Museum, which hangs in the “American protestors” section. It shows the 1993 meeting of then Congressman Kerry with the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party as part of a veterans’ delegation. In the eyes of some Americans, this constitutes recognition by the Vietnamese communists of John Kerry’s contribution to their victory in a war which claimed the lives of so many Americans.
My most vivid memory of the Museum, however, is not a photograph of a public figure. Nor is it the heart-breaking photographs of human suffering. It is one small black and white photograph of a group of white people, including a lady pushing a pram.
As an image it is unremarkable. It expresses no controversy or emotion. It is further diminished by being surrounded by huge anti-war posters from around the world, all broad brushed letters and open-mouthed protest. The photograph has a simple caption: “Anti-war protest march, Myers Park, New Zealand, 1966”.
When I read those words, the room around me reduced to a tiny space with a whoosh like a cinema special effect. Suddenly, I am not in Saigon but in Auckland, listening to my grandfather talk about a protest march, a protest movement, and a family history.
In 1966, when the Myers Park photograph was taken, the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Things didn’t really kick off until 1968 and it wasn’t until the early seventies, after the Cambodian invasion, that the nationwide protests reached the tens of thousands.
My grandparents were at that march in Auckland. They were there all the way; they painted and carried placards, attended meetings and raised money to assist the North Vietnamese. My grandfather’s brother spoke at the Myers Park demo. The use of loud hailers had been banned by the Police and I have a wonderful mental image of my grandfather running around the back of the crowd signalling to his brother that he could be heard.
The Vietnam War has been described as New Zealand’s longest and most controversial military experience of the twentieth century. We got involved primarily for alliance reasons and because the expansion of communism in South-East Asia was considered against our national interest. We had already played our part in the defeat of a communist insurgency in British-ruled Malaysia.
New Zealand surrendered to US pressure and sent combat troops into Vietnam in July 1965. The 161st Battery, RNZA, equipped with L5 pack howitzers, were based at Bien Hoa air base to the north of Saigon, where they came under the operational control of first American and then Australian regiments. The 161st were joined by V Company and W Company in 1967. The official number of service personnel who served in Vietnam is 3890. Of those 37 were killed and 187 wounded.
From the mid-60’s, New Zealanders from universities, trade unions, churches and peace organisations took a stand against the war. The Committee on Vietnam was formed in 1965 and spearheaded the protest movement for the next ten years. My grandfather talks about the in-fighting that beset the Committee, made up as it was of many disparate groups of people protesting out of different motivations. It must have been an amazing time, when people were collectively expressing their outrage about the wrongs happening and trying to change the world.
The New Zealand government was sceptical of the likely success to military intervention in Vietnam and endeavoured to keep our involvement to the minimum necessary to meet the expectations of our allies. Nevertheless, in the face of the strong debate and criticism which exploded here, in public the government steadfastly defended its foreign policy.
The protest movement continued to grow in strength and vehemence. There were silent vigils, hunger strikes, demonstrations, fund-raisers, film festivals and street theatre. Artists created posters and flyers, or donated their work for auction. All with the aim of influencing public opinion and revealing information not presented by government or media.
As is so often the case, the university campuses served as the most important anti-war organising centres. Future national figures marched against the Vietnam war. As in the US, the conflict would have a significant impact on New Zealand’s future foreign policy. The events of those years have had a role to play in shaping our modern political landscape.
My grandparents have spent a lot of their lives engaged in such activism. Energy that most people today would save for making money, spending time with family and having fun. My family has in its possession what must be one of New Zealand’s longest serving peace march banners. It is a little faded but it made a proud appearance at last year’s marches against the war in Iraq. Its message is simple; it states “peace”, in every language they could think of in 1968.
The Holyoake government was able to point to the very public outcry as they politely resisted US pressure to increase troop numbers. Then, as now, the US was sensitive to the support or otherwise of its allies. Sure, it can go ahead and fight by itself anyway but it is not impervious to world opinion. This was particularly so as the Vietnam war ground on towards the 70s and US politicians began to question whether the perceived instability in South East Asia and the Western Pacific was not more stimulated than threatened by the war.
As I completed my visit to the War Remnants Museum, I had to wait for a sudden monsoon downpour to subside before I could leave. Breathing in the smell of hot, wet tarmac, I reflected on the 100 years of almost continual war and mourning that country has endured. Walking back to the guesthouse, braving streets thronged with some of the three million motorbikes of HCMC, I was struck once again by the evidence of a nation rushing headlong to be a rampant consumer society. Every young man is desperate to own the Honda Dream and get the girl.
Vietnam is looking determinedly towards the future and searching after wholeness. Their interpretation of history is one of successful resistance against all foreign aggressors. For now, they are less interested in history or politics so much as economics. In HCMC you only need to witness the swanky shops and hotels of Saigon to know that money is being made.
In New Zealand, as in Vietnam, it is important to uncover the truth of the past in order to move forward in the present. We must acknowledge our history of war, as well as our history of demanding and upholding peace. For me, the visit to the Museum was a moment of personal, national and global history combining. I want to look back and honour the people who lived through that time. Those who fought, believing they were doing their duty. Those who fought against the attempted justification of human suffering.
Someone once said that the best thing about travel is learning to see your own country with new eyes. It is also important to remain open to seeing history with new eyes.