War Remnants Museum: Discovering the Uncomfortable Truths of History

Warning: This post contains uncomfortable information and graphic images seen at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. But remember, out of sight out of mind has never led to growth and process…

You don’t know what you don’t know. And boy, we sure don’t know a lot. No matter how much we read, explore, analyze, and discuss, there will always be something new to learn.

On the one hand, this is wildly exciting! Each day holds the potential for new discovery, and there’s a limitless amount of knowledge begging to be learned, ranging from the fact that platypuses can glow in the dark to the discovery that some dinosaurs had feathers.

On the other hand, this can be upsetting and depressing as uncomfortable truths become revealed.

During the New York City lockdown in March, I watched The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary following the men who brutally slaughtered somewhere between 500,000-1,000,000 innocent people from 1965-1966 in Indonesia. This one struck a cord. I was disgusted by how the men were playfully laughing as they reenacted their methods for slaughtering humans and my heart ached for the lives lost.

Then I felt blistering fury: how did I not know this happened?

Learning about the Indonesian genocide was a continuation of the surprising things I learned during my time in Asia. I had no clue 1.5-2 million people were killed in the Cambodian Genocide, that sex tourism in Thailand was so popular, accepted, and open, and how utterly devastating the Vietnam War  (American War as they call in Vietnam) was at the time, just to name a few examples.

Two questions immediately come to mind:

  1. Why didn’t I know?
  2. What else don’t I know?

In regards to the first, I find it equally confusing and upsetting that I didn’t learn more about the world through my 17 years spent in the American education system.

Visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City was when it really hit me that not only was I wildly ignorant to the facts on the Vietnam/American War, but also that my textbooks projected a skewed, American-centered, version of the story.

This museum takes you on an uncensored photographic journey of the American/Vietnam War from the local perspective. The walls are splattered with graphic images with scenes like American soldiers casually standing above multiple dead bodies and smiling white men holding decapitated heads. There is an entire wing dedicated to the aftermath of Agent Orange with hundreds of pictures of deformed and crippled Vietnamese people.

Mind you, American soldiers suffered heart wrenching fates as well, but that’s the side of the story I grew up hearing, and that’s the side of the story that’s accepted as “right.”

. Let’s take a look at the other perspective:

War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remanats Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum

The experience shook me.

I can’t fathom how humans are capable of that level of brutality, and I can’t wrap my head around man’s ability to smile while standing above the bodies of dead children

Painting the “others” as grotesque monsters has been a common war strategy in history to dupe soldiers into being comfortable with murder. I understand that these men were psychologically trained (some might say brainwashed) to see the Vietnamese as anything but humans, but behind every puppet, there’s a puppet master. Puppet masters like Hitler and the leaders of Khmer Rouge are terrible people who surely deserve a fate worse than death! Yet, our own puppet masters are fine, heroes even. “But Katie, it’s different! The US has gone to war to serve the greater good!” Perhaps that’s true. But Hitler and the Hutu in Rwanda also believed they were serving the greater good. Perspective is everything.

I’m frustrated that I was given skewed stories growing up, not only in regards to Vietnam, but to all the human right violations and atrocities that have happened across the world, specifically in Southeast Asia.

Some might argue that young minds aren’t equipped to handle such devastation.

Then why was I pounded with information regarding the Holocaust? If a school system can show images of sickeningly thin people in concentration camps and Nazis killing Jews, they can show images of dead bodies in Indonesia.  Not to mention, video games and movies expose children to brutal violence every single day.

An uncomfortable, yet important observation that can’t be left unsaid is that the United States places more value in countries of equal power and in countries that are white. Tragedies that happen in places like Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam get very little attention and are mostly shrugged off with an out of sight out of mind mentality. For example, in February 2020, a mass shooting in Germany left 9 dead and 5 injured. It was “the” story for a week. At the same time, a mass shooting in Thailand left 29 dead and 58 injured. My guess is that you heard about the first, but not the second.  

Horrendous things that happen in developing nations are “normal,” but that shouldn’t give us permission to brush them under the rug. Stories like the demand for 5 year old girls in Cambodian brothels is upsetting and repulsive, and often elicit a “I don’t want to hear about that” response. But failing to acknowledge it doesn’t mean it magically disappears.  

“History repeats itself.”  But how can we learn from the past if we aren’t taught it or if we ignore it because it makes us uncomfortable?

That bring up my second question posed; what else don’t I know? 

It’s a scary thought. 

If I just recently learned that nearly one million people were mass murdered in Indonesia, what will I learn tomorrow? Ignorance and misinformation can be fought with knowledge and research, and it’s up to each individual to take personal responsibility to never settle for complacency.

Want more food for thought? Check out these posts:

A Call to Shutdown Misinformation, Not Wet Markets

The false perception of the wet markets is a classic example of how we can’t believe everything we are told. Learn more here.

Culture, Cocktails, and China

An account of a fascinating conversation I had at a bar in Beijing. We talked politics, guns, and culture, and I got the real Chinese perspective.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. maristravels says:

    The fact that you are willing to look at the discoveries you have made, and learn from them, is a great tribute to you. I grew up with the Vietnam war (in the UK) and the advent of the Khmer Rouge but our National Radio & TV have a remit to show both sides of a story and I managed to get a fairly unbiased view of things. I too, visited the War Museum in Hanoi and the Museum in Cambodia and felt sickened at what humankind could do. Keep asking questions and keep smilin’.

    Like

    1. Being abroad has certainly opened my eyes to other perspectives. It’s equally upsetting and sad that it’s so hard to get unbiased news in the US. Thanks for giving it a read and sharing your thoughts!

      Like

  2. Cheers to you for using this time with constraints on traveling and doing ordinary activities to expand your knowledge and perspective but also to share you observations with others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. laskegaa says:

    Wonderful post. It doesn’t tell us as much about America as it does about our species. Humans and human culture have co-evolved to place enormous value on tribe. We have evolved to be acutely sensitive to clues about tribal norms and to change our behavior to fit in smoothly. Try to go against a group norm and see how uncomfortable it is!

    The only solution is awareness through a rigorous liberal education. Google says that it was Socrates who said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom?” Our tribe educates the giant brain for conformity and cleverness.

    Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  4. its confronting, and in some ways its deliberate propaganda. but then you could argue that the reverse is true in regards to western museums depicting wars. The scope for humans to inflict horror on each other is truly mind boggling and horrific. and FOR WHAT? thanks for posting Katie

    Liked by 1 person

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