COLUMN: Stories of ‘American War’ put history into perspective

April 12, 2006

[April 10, 2006]

COLUMN: Stories of ‘American War’ put history into perspective

(Comtex Community Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., Apr 10, 2006 (Daily Collegian, U-WIRE via COMTEX) –Editor’s Note: Collegian staff member Dana Mathews will chronicle her Semester at Sea experience in weekly columns that will appear Mondays in the Opinion section. She will also maintain a travel blog that can be accessed through her columns online in the Opinion section online at


While most Penn State students were enjoying last week’s warm temperatures, I spent much of the week learning about a subject most Americans are only taught about briefly in high school history courses — the Vietnam War.

Only this time, the lesson was different than anything I had ever learned in my life because I was half a world away — in the village of Cuchi, two hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Learning about the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the “American War,” from an opposing view was fascinating. The signs that read “American War” rightfully vilified the Americans, something I wasn’t used to seeing.

I learned about the Vietnam War in a high school history class devoted specifically to the war. What I saw in Vietnam wasn’t found in the pages of my history book. I had the opportunity to hear stories of those who fell victim to U.S. military action from a second-hand source.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the Museum of War Remnants is testimony to the atrocities of the American War and the unnecessary loss of thousands of civilian lives.

When I was there, I met Le Minh Thu, the woman in charge of facilitating one of the most important interactions after the war. Thu arranges for Vietnamese veterans to meet American veterans and acts as their translator.

“They meet each other just like friends, and they talk about the war and the past,” she said.

Thu said the interactions can get emotional, and veterans often hug and cry together.

“The mission of the museum, we want to talk about the atrocity of the U.S. soldiers and their unjust treatment of the Vietnamese,” she said. “We want to support peace.”

Thu said she wants everyone to understand the various aspects of the war. Her smile disappeared when she said, “I fear that America hasn’t learned, this is happening again in Iraq.”

I told her I was against the war in Iraq. She nodded her head, and her eyes became serious. “Your president and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair came to see this museum and these pictures — they obviously did not affect them,” Thu said.

Going to the museum gave me the same feeling I had when I went to Dachau, a concentration camp near Munich, Germany. Seeing the pictures in Vietnam of an American soldier laughing and carrying a torn body brought me back to when I was standing in a Nazi gas chamber. As I looked at the Vietnam artifacts in the museum, I realized how similar the acts committed by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War were to those committed by German soldiers during the Holocaust.

Horrifying pictures of people who fell victim to bombing attacks, their faces diced and boiled, stood not too far from a picture of woman, who appeared to be talking mid-sentence while someone held a gun to her head. The pictures may have been hard to stomach, but they showed a side of war the American government did not want its people to see — a side that showed that many of the victims were innocent Vietnamese civilians.

I felt the adrenaline rush through my bloodstream. It suddenly all hit me: I was ashamed of my own country’s military actions, both 30 years ago and today.

My mom grew up with images and news reports of the Vietnam War covering her television screen. And now I’m growing up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have truly learned nothing about the errors of our ways just three decades ago.

I knew that if I were Thu, or anyone else from Vietnam who remembered the war, I would be bitter toward the United States. I asked her why the Vietnamese people are not bitter.

“The Vietnam War has happened; we don’t forget the past,” she said. “We don’t hate each other; we want to look for a bright future.”

She looked up at the picture hanging above us of a white dove, and took my hand. “We can forgive but we can’t forget.”

Her words echoed with me throughout the rest of the day. The next day, I decided to get a more hands-on look at the war with a group of Semester at Sea students. We toured the Cuchi tunnels, where at one point during the war, 16,000 Viet Cong forces lived. It was difficult for me to fathom that so many people lived in these tunnels, as I could barely fit through the narrow passageways.

The tunnel network of Cuchi facilitated the Viet Cong’s control of a large rural area outside of Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels also allowed the Viet Cong to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went, even within the perimeters of the U.S. military base at Dong Du.

Looking at the tunnels from the outside, one would never know that to this day, Cuchi is still the most bombed, napalmed, defoliated and devastated area in the history of global warfare.

Over 30 years later, the forest’s thick vegetation grew back into a flourishing jungle. The only pieces of evidence of the war are the occasional craters left from B-52 bombers. To comprehend what happened, you have to dig deep into the ground.

Before the entrance to a tunnel, there is a sign that reads, “All the prosperous lands of Cuchi were destroyed by the bombs of Washington, D.C.”

After our group crawled through the tunnels, we watched a video about them. “Americans wanted to turn Cuchi into a dead land,” the video said. “Cuchi will never die. And although day after day, the Americans wanted to take over, they were defeated.”

The time I spent in Vietnam gave me a unique perspective from which to see the atrocities of an unnecessary war. And I will not soon forget about the important lessons I learned while I was there.

For the rest of my life, the same six words that almost every visitor wrote in the museum’s guest book will linger in my mind: “When will the U.S. ever learn?”

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