Thursday, January 19, 2006

I have never...

I have never been moved to tears by a museum. Until now.

I am sitting in the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum, trying to capture my thoughts on paper. What do I feel? Sadness, grief. Perhaps loss - a loss of innocence when faced with the aftermath of war (albeit only in photos and artifacts - I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like in living colour).

Perhaps the two young boys I saw earlier sum it up best. They were running around in the grounds of the museum, amongst the howitzers, tanks and planes, impressed by the size and menacing presence of the power. Everything was so cool as they ran around, imitating the sound of gunfire with their voices. I saw them again less than an hour later, just after they had passed through a gallery of photographs. They were in a very different mood.

The gallery displayed photographs of soldiers torturing prisoners. The fun loving kids I had seen earlier were now clinging to their father's side. Subdued, and asking, "Daddy, how can they be so mean?" It wasn't so cool any more. Not when you see a soldier grinning as he holds up half a person that he just fired a grenade at. Nor when you see shell craters in the middle of villages, surrounded by dismembered bodies. Or the victims of toxic sprays and chemical weapons or - most tragically of all to me - the victims' children. Some born more than a decade after their father's exposure to Agent Orange, all hideously deformed.

So, I am lost. Morally lost and cast adrift. How can one human being decide that the pursuit of their cause, their will, their desire is worth inflicting such devastation so directly on another person?

There are many ills still in the world and many injustices. I know that I do not do all that I could to enrich the lives of others. I do not dedicate myself to bettering humanity. I know that there are probably things that I do that, if I investigated them and really sought the detailed truth, I would find harm other people in some way. There is so much that I - that we all - choose to ignore. And, through familiarity with this ignorance, I can understand this.

But to act directly... To order or carry out a massacre of the entire population of a village (such as Son My in Vietnam); to be involved in the production, decision process or act of spraying more than 20,000,000 litres of toxic chemicals over a country; to sanction the amputation, part by part, of a prisoner's limbs as an interrogation technique (if the photos, captions and war stories are to be believed as written here, one prisoner held during the war had one foot removed, then the other, then the rest of one leg, then the other leg - all to encourage him to talk). I cannot - do not want to - relate to these acts or possibilities, not on any level of shared humanity.

But... what if I, if any of us, were engaged in a war? Blinded by this, by a desire to bend our entire will, intellect and capacity to the realisation of a cause... Following that path, could I end up in this same state of mechanical action and moral destitution?

Through loss, my feelings pass into fear, then crystallise into rage. A blinding, consuming rage. And thus to revenge. And revenge needs a target. Logically it follows that 'America' did this, so America should be made to pay, to suffer in some way. My mind begins to spin... how could I act to help bring justice for these victims?

But it's only momentary. The briefest, fleeting thoughts. A path built not on logic, but on idiocy. Logic built on a lie. What has modern America to do with those who made these atrocious decisions three decades ago? What does some random American citizen have to do with the plight of a child born perhaps before they were? How would making anyone's lives worse improve the lot of myself, or anybody else? It does not. It can not. So, instead of some futile, childish, lash at onother innocent one must take, must be satisfied with, the more complex, and less satisfying, path.

These things are done. They cannot be undone, even though the horrific effects continue to this day. People that profited from these acts have paid some form of reparation (such as the compensation paid to US Veterans exposed to Agent Orange by the companies that supplied the chemicals to the US Army).

Bad things happened in the past and a line must be drawn underneath them. I can only act in the present and influence the future. I can only act directly in certain ways and should seek to do those things that I can to prevent repeat occurences of such events - if and when such opportunities arise. I make no pretences about being a selfish individualist - the most important things to me are my family and friends - but above all things must sit a general humanity: Primum non nocere. First (and above all), do no harm.

I think I should take solace in the words of the blinded dioxin victim in one of the short videos shown here. Three of his children died very young, with terminal birth defects. The fourth is deformed and badly disabled, unable to feed himself or look after himself. His father took him to a hospital in Russia where they performed several scans and quizzed the father about his possible exposure to dioxin before giving their diagnosis. "The best, the only, medicine we can prescribe is happiness," the father related with a smile.

If he and his son can learn to live with - and be happy with - what they have, surely we all can too.

Some images:

The BLU-82 Seismic Bomb (aka "Daisy Cutter").

Was used to create landing zones in the jungle - it can clear an area of 100m diameter (some sources say 100m radius) and inflicts damage over an area of 3km diameter. Still in use today as a 'shock and awe' weapon, the atmospheric impact and seismic effects inflict terror (as well as physical damage) to all people in the vicinity.

Death from above.

The A1 Skyraider was used to deliver the chemical weapon payloads and escort helicopters in the America-Vietnam war.

Destruction from below.

The D.7 E Bulldozer was used by the US Army in Vietnam for large scale 'ground clearing' projects - razing forests, orchards, ricefields and cemeteries to the ground and creating large areas of "no man's land". The US Army had more than 1400 bulldozers in Vietnam by 1969.

The civilian face of war

Victim of white phosphor bombs.

21 year old victim of a napalm bomb.

Nick Ut's Pullitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl burned by a napalm bomb. Before delivering the film, he took the girl, called Phan Thi. Kim PhĂșc, to hospital. He was 21 years old when he witnessed these events, the girl is only 9.

The many victims of a stray bomb in Hanoi.

The My~ Lai Massacre. Wikipedia's article on this dark event is better written than I can so please use the link above instead.

The photo of the soldier I refered to above. Bunyo Ishikawa, a photographer during the war, wrote about this event in his book 'The war for the liberation of Vietnam':
The American soldier laughed satisfactorily while carrying a part of the body of a liberation soldier, that had just been hit by shells from a grenade launcher. In my feelings I wondered, 'Is he a moster or a human being?'

Second generation effects of the dioxin based weapons used by the US Army in Vietnam (the deformed are the children of the men originally exposed) . An international conference in Japan said:

"Dioxin is the most dangerous chemical ever developed by man. Doses capable of killing human beings and animals vary from entity to entity, but always in the range of 1 to 5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. Prolonged effects may include symptoms of birth problems, cancer ..."


At 5:55 AM, Blogger Soutenus said...

This was an amazing post. Thank you.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Thanh Tung Duong said...

Dear Christian,
Much impressed by the way you express your thinks of VN war's victims, especially the victims of Agent Orange.
Thank you very much for your post.
From Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnam

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ehm just to let u know..the soldier's grin isnot a satisfaction one.he's panting for the body's weight. anyway impressive post

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was very touching.... very nice.

At 11:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh it was a very nice post but so sad!! were how did you find this?!


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