Monday, April 6, 2009

Vietnam: A History Lesson Up-Close

Sometimes I feel like life is one giant field trip. Everywhere you go, there’s a fascinating subject to learn or experience firsthand.

I never took art classes in school. The counselors said art classes “wouldn’t look good on a college application;” take a more rigorous set of electives.

Big mistake, but I was lucky enough to discover why firsthand.

It was in Europe that I learned an appreciation for the great artists: Van Gogh in Holland, Botticelli in Italy. And in the halls of the Prado Museum in Madrid, where I’d spend afternoon upon afternoon, I learned HOW to critically look at a painting. This is perhaps the most important art lesson of all.

This “field trip” mentality has stayed with me wherever I’ve gone. Japan was a lesson in haiku, Zen gardens, efficient interior design. Portugal loves to brag about its seafaring history. Laos was a place to connect with the countryside.

Vietnam is a lesson in history. It’s also a lesson in propaganda. The two are inextricably linked.

I began my study of the Vietnam War in by visiting Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. Sarcastically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American POWs, this was the prison where former Pres. candidate John McCain endured 5 painful years of his life, back when he was an anonymous, middle-class twentysomething.

The prison – now a museum – begins its tour with exhibits that show how much the North Vietnamese suffered when they were imprisoned at the hands of French colonialists. Display after display showcased the torture devices that were used – iron rods, metal spikes, a guillotine with a rusty blade. Wax figures posed as prisoners inside the cells.

Then the museum turned to its next display: after the French pulled out of Vietnam, and the country gained its independence, the North Vietnamese began using this site to lock up American POWs. But did they display the same torture devices?

Oh no. They showed photos of American soldiers playing basketball, strumming a guitar, reading letters from home. They showed photos of Americans decorating a Christmas tree, feasting on duck, hunched over a chess board. They made no mention of torture or suffering; they only showed smiling pictures of soldiers above placards noting that the Americans made a “temporary stay” at the prison. In their fantasy land, the North Vietnamese prison guards were loving, compassionate angels over the American POWs.

Which is a bunch of lies. McCain, for one, is permanently disabled as a result of the torture he underwent at Hoa Lo Prison. He can no longer lift his arm above shoulder-level. He hasn’t been able to in 40 years. While he was imprisoned there, he grew so desperate to escape that he tried to commit suicide twice. Clearly, his life wasn’t all Christmas trees and turkey.

The language that the museum used was also notable. The placards kept calling the North Vietnamese “patriots” fighting for the “unification” of their country.

History is written by the victors.

In South Vietnam’s museums, the language changed dramatically. They described themselves as “common people” fighting the North Vietnamese “occupiers” and “aggressors.” The Americans, they said, were their allies.

We met a man who was a South Vietnamese soldier and was shot in the leg during the Tet Offensive in 1973. He retired from combat life after his injury and moved to Saigon, where he aided the American troops in offices. After Saigon fell to the grip of North forces in 1975, he returned to his family farm. But times at the farm were tough, and he moved back to Saigon to gain under-the-radar employment. The North Vietnamese rulers required everyone to “register” and “apply” to move to Saigon, in an effort to keep former South Vietnamese rebels out, so he snuck into the city, an illegal alien in his former capital, and pedaled bicycle-powered carriages for a decade.

He still calls Saigon by its original name, refusing to yield to Hanoi’s dictum that the city’s new name is now “Ho Chi Minh,” in honor of the famous North Vietnamese communist leader.

The museums and battlefields in the South, which still show the craters that B-52 bombers dug into the earth, are told in a way that placates the victors, that agrees Vietnam is stonger and better now that it's been unified, North and South joined together, into a large socialist republic. But there still seems to be an undercurrent of rebellion there, maybe reflecting a tinge of that same undercurrent of rebellion that you see in parts of the American South, where people agree that the Union is better united but muse, under their breath, about their lost war for independence.

150 years after the Civil War, the Confederate flag still flies freely in the American South. With that in mind, its astounding how rapidly, and on the surface wholeheartedly, the Vietnamese South has unified with the North. Equally astounding is how swiftly the nation has rebuilt, and turned into a thriving economic power.


My Two Cents:

After going to Vietnam, I have less fondness for John F. Kennedy and much greater appreciation for Richard Nixon. While I think Henry Kissinger fouled Cambodia, I can sympathize – though I ultimately disagree – with the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to award him a peace medal.

Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ withdrawl strategy – take ground forces out, keep scant air forces and non-combat advisors in -- could be a useful model for today’s Iraq quagmire. But there’s a large, biting difference between Vietnam and Iraq.

Vietnam was a straightforward war: if the South lost, it was clear that the Viet Cong would become the new leaders. Who would become the new leader of Iraq, however, is uncertain. And that question, among others, is keeping us in. It’s possible Iraq might fall into the hands of a Saudi-backed, Iranian-friendly puppet government that runs the country and funds its madrasas. Or that a Taliban-friendly power might rise in the political vacuum the way it did in Afghanistan in the early 1990’s. Or – most frightening of all, and most likely – that an American withdrawl could leave behind a completely destable power vacuum without any rule of law and warring factions will compete for power.

If Obama’s team (Biden, Clinton) can smoothly withdraw while creating stability, they’ll be one of the greatest wartime presidential teams and deserving of a Nobel Prize themselves. If their withdrawl plans further the instability, however, their legacy as war leaders will be more bleak than Lyndon Johnson’s.