Apocalypse then, and now

MILITARY MAN: Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap salutes upon his arrival in Dien Bien Phu in 2004.
MILITARY MAN: Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap salutes upon his arrival in Dien Bien Phu in 2004.

As an ex-MP from the centre-right I look back at some political decisions and know now they were wrong, but one stand I'll never recant is protesting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, against the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The West had no business there. The anti-war demonstrations weren't a case of misguided youth. This was confirmed two months ago when I visited Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum.

With recent events seeing President Barack Obama considering poking his nose in Syria's civil war, the visit made me wonder if America has learned anything from its crushing defeat in Vietnam in 1975.

DIEN BIEN PHU: A North Vietnamese soldier waves their flag after their victory over the French troops in the battle of Dien Bien Phu May 7,1954.
DIEN BIEN PHU: A North Vietnamese soldier waves their flag after their victory over the French troops in the battle of Dien Bien Phu May 7,1954.

Originally opened in 1975 on the site of the US Information Service and called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, or Chinese and American War Crimes and Atrocities, the museum now has a more acceptable name but its exhibits and commentary still pull no punches.

It's unashamedly anti-American, Australian and New Zealand, yet features horrors recorded by the Western press who covered the conflict.

Reviews accuse the museum of propaganda. But to varying degrees, curators of all international museums are guilty of slanting history which could be labelled propaganda by critics, particularly if those critics are war veterans returning to lay ghosts to rest, or relive memories.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum.
NEVER FORGOTTEN: Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum.

There is not a lot for the half a million annual visitors, mostly Westerners, to celebrate when they troop through this stark, Soviet-style building.

For instance there are:

• Large jars of preserved foetuses, grotesquely malformed due to massive exposure to Agent Orange used by the US Army for defoliation.

TOURIST SPOT: The Victory Monument in Dien Bien Phu.
TOURIST SPOT: The Victory Monument in Dien Bien Phu.

• Photographs of horribly deformed children, the ones who survived gestation.

• Disturbing photographs of the My Lai massacre unfolding.

• An entire gallery dedicated to some of the 70 journalists and photographers who died covering the war, which includes the original of Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning, and still chilling shot of Kim Phuc running naked down a road after a napalm attack.

• Some of the experimental weapons used, like bombs specifically designed to drop and explode in a time sequence, so those on the ground would think all was clear then move in to collect the wounded, only for the rest of the bomb to go off. Many of these bombs are still unexploded, causing havoc today.

• The infamous "tiger cages" used to imprison the Viet Cong.

• and the French guillotine.

The commentaries are brutal - New Zealand is not spared as our contribution to the war in terms of troops sent to "interfere" in what the Vietnamese Government calls the "inhumane American War machine" is chalked up on the wall.

I was there because my husband is a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. We were the only New Zealanders with around 100 Americans, some of whom had served in Vietnam - dropping bombs, mainly.

The wife of one soldier had joined the military as a nurse and this had been her first posting, at age 20. She spoke of removing boots from wounded men and their legs coming away as well.

When choppers brought in wounded GIs they immediately had to be turned over because usually bullet or shrapnel exit holes were larger than the entry holes. "One young man," she said, "Was talking and coherent, but when we turned him over, his back stayed on the litter."

Now in her late 60s, her Parkinson's disease is officially recognised as a result of Agent Orange which drenched the uniforms of wounded troops she treated. She has been compensated by the US Government.

And while she spoke to us I watched the face of one lawyer who had flown helicopters during the war, and saw him wiping away tears. Later he told me: "We believed the bullshit that came out of the Pentagon when we volunteered, that this was the right thing to do."

As in New Zealand, it was a war which divided families.

In Hanoi we met American vet Chuck Searcy, who for 10 years has been running Vietnam's Project Renew, a cleanup operation removing unexploded ordnance, mostly in Quang Tri province, formerly the 17th Parallel, the former division between North and South Vietnam.

Back in 1966 Searcy thought he'd escape the draft by volunteering but was nonetheless sent to Saigon to work in military intelligence.

He said he soon realised, from the classified material he was handling, that the real war bore little resemblance to the message being given to the outside world, "and I came to realise my country should not have sent troops there".

Back in New Zealand, however, I have no trouble finding colleagues on the political right who still argue - heatedly - not only that America won the war but was justified in trying "to stop the communists from taking over South Vietnam".

If the US won the war, what was that panicked scramble to climb onto the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975? If the US military was the victor, why is the Vietnamese Government communist?

Even Senator John McCain, a Republican, doesn't bother trying to position his country into a victory over Vietnam, apart from writing, in the Wall Street Journal (October 6, 2013): "The US never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war."

McCain, who was shot down and captured by the Viet Cong, spent much of five years at Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), where some POWs were murdered, tortured and starved. If the War Remnants Museum is guilty of propaganda, then Hoa Lo is even more so.

It, too, is a museum and the printed commentary and videos depicting prisoners held by the North Vietnamese being treated well belies the books since published by the likes of Brigadier General Robinson Risner.

McCain wrote his article on the death, aged 102, of Vietnam's legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who first drove the French out of his country, then the Americans.

Ruthless, brilliant and determined to rid Vietnam of colonial rule, this wearer of sandals made of car tyres led his army over the mountains, dragging their artillery to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, then the US-backed South Vietnam Government in 1975.

An extraordinary military tactician, Giap masterminded the Ho Chi Minh Trail which snaked through Laos and Cambodia. In post-war interviews, Giap said he had to break the will of the American people.

He exposed America's lies over the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, used by US Congress to escalate the war, then late in life he encouraged warmer relations with America, saying in 2000: "We can put the past behind us but we cannot completely forget it."

That attitude prevails when you visit this beautiful country. The war is not forgotten, but Westerners are forgiven and welcomed.

And you ask yourself, why was America so paranoid about communism that it could waste so many young lives when its own country wasn't even threatened?

According to the Wall Street Journal , three million communists and civilians, an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, and 58,000 Americans were killed. Add to that 426 Australians and 39 New Zealanders (37 soldiers plus two civilians) killed in action, and countless others who died in related circumstances, including the boat people.

When I looked at the photographs of Vietnamese women and children about to be slaughtered, I had to ask myself, would these Asian people's lives have been so easily expendable if they were white Anglo-Saxons?

The Domino Theory was bandied about at the time as a way to frighten us - if Vietnam falls, what country will be next? But in 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and showed that the Johnson Administration had been lying. America sought the "containment" of communist China, and Vietnam was just the start.

The United States has to have a bogeyman. Back then it was communism. Is Islam the communism of today; a convenient excuse for encroaching on our privacy? And is Edward Snowden today's Daniel Ellsberg?

With the Obama Administration's refusal to allow Snowden home, coupled with Secretary of State John Kerry's sabre-rattling stance on Syria, are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of history because we ignore the past?

Ever the optimist, I don't believe so. I know it's neither scientific nor academic, but casually quizzing my fellow trial lawyer travellers, representing Republicans and Democrats and nearly every state across the US, the vast majority, including those who'd served in southeast Asia, were dead against their country becoming involved in another nation's war, or sending troops in on the ground ever again.

It was no to Syria, and: "Look at Iraq. On the brink of civil war again."

Ironically it is the communist general Giap who has had the most enduring effect on the American people, in terms of breaking their spirit for war, rather than their own warmongers.

As we left Hanoi city for the airport, our bus passed a park where a crowd of young people were doing what looked like group exercises.

We asked a young man what was going on. "Oh, they are washing their brains," he said, then explained, noting our confusion. "They wish to be good communists, so they are doing brainwashing. We are communist country, but in theory only. We can be capitalist in practice."

And so it is with Vietnam - communist but capitalist. Is that so scary? Is that what all those lives were sacrificed for? A country now trading internationally, full of enterprising people, led by a government currently seeking feedback from the people on changes to its constitution?

You won't find much bitterness here as Searcy discovered when he first came back as a tourist in 1992 and, to his surprise, was welcomed and forgiven.

He returned in 1995 for three years and stayed to contribute for the good. Now he believes the US Government should buy all veterans a return ticket: "I've never met one whose life wasn't changed for the better."

It's better summed up by "the napalm girl in the picture", who said, when she grew up and moved to Canada: "Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?"

Sunday Star Times