Friday, February 13, 2009

Twisted History

As interesting as our trip to Vietnam was (see post below), there was an aspect of it that left a bitter taste in my mouth. The Vietnamese have gone out of their way to tell the history of the Vietnam War from their point of view, as is their right. The victors get to determine how events are remembered, and let's face it, they were the victors and we were the losers. But their telling of the story was so blatantly one-sided that it was almost laughable. Following is a tale of a propaganda machine that went overboard.

Hoa Lo Prison
This is the old prison in downtown Hanoi built by the French and later inhabited by captured American fliers during the Vietnam War. The Americans gave it the nickname of the Hanoi Hilton. The part of the prison where they were incarcerated no longer exists; it was torn down to make way for an apartment building. The older part of the prison remains and has been turned into a museum.

During the first part of the last century the prison was used by the French primarily for political prisoners, most notably the early leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party. After the French were defeated in 1954, the Vietnamese kept their own political prisoners there. The treatment of prisoners by the French, and later by the Vietnamese, was barbaric. Torture was routine. The prison even had its own guillotine. Even without torture, the day-to-day conditions of incarceration can barely be imagined by most in the West. It was not uncommon for prisoners to be shackled to their beds by one foot or two most of the day. The Vietnamese have dramatically shown how the French did this by the use of life-sized wax-type figures in the old single-person or group cells. Untold numbers of "heroic revolutionaries" were imprisoned in this way, and many perished under this harsh treatment.

There are two small rooms devoted to the American prisoners of war. Pictures on the wall show the POWs playing basketball, playing board games, and receiving presents at Christmas time. One glass-cased display shows John McCain's flight suit and helmet, the ones he was wearing when he was shot down over downtown Hanoi. The intent of the displays is to show that the treatment of the POWs was benign, almost a holiday. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, American POWs were housed and treated in the same manner as the French treated the Vietnamese before 1954 and the Vietnamese treated their own after 1954. After the POWs were repatriated in 1973, some of them drew pictures of how they were treated. As shown here, they were shackled in the same manner as in the days of the French.

But that is not all. The treatment was even more barbaric. The Vietnamese were keen on extracting confessions and political statements from the POWs largely to feed the growing anti-war movement in the United States. To do this they used a torture method called the "ropes." The procedure was to tie the wrists together (often cutting off circulation) and then bind the forearms and later the upper arms together until the elbows touched. This often had the effect of pulling the shoulder joints out of their sockets. The pain, as described by those who underwent this torture, was excruciating. But to apply even more pain, the arms were pulled upward bit by bit until the torturers got what they wanted or the prisoner blacked out. No POWs escaped the ropes without telling the Vietnamese anything they wanted to know. The diabolical part of this torture is that it left no marks, no visible signs of torture.

There is no display showing this.

At the tail end of 1972 when peace negotiations were underway in Paris and it appeared the POWs would eventually be released, the Vietnamese let up on the torture and started to prepare them to be turned over to the U.S. Food rations increased to fatten them up, the shackling was abandoned, and the prisoners did indeed play basketball and board games. But this was only in the last few months of the war. Unfortunately, this latter, small piece of the POW experience is the only thing the Vietnamese chose to display.

The War Museum
But the Hanoi Hilton version of twisted history is mild compared to the displays in the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The lead display in the first room shows Robert McNamara's sentence from his book, "In Retrospect," that the war was a mistake. The following displays try to make the point that the main aim of the American bombing campaign in North Vietnam was to kill civilians. They have cherry-picked their quotations and pictures from sources I've never seen before.

In the rest of the museum there is a wall devoted to every bad thing the Americans ever did during the war. There's a wall for My Lai. A wall for napalm. A wall for Agent Orange, as if they were the only victim of this chemical--I also am an Agent Orange survivor. Every famous photograph ever taken showing the horrors of the war are displayed. The one of the naked young girl fleeing a napalm attack. Pictures showing soldiers burning villages that had housed Viet Cong guerrillas. The effects of very errant bomb that may have landed on a village are shown. But there are no pictures of their counter tactics: tiger pits, punji sticks, Viet Cong beheadings, you name it.

I accept the fact that the victors get to tell the story their way, and I never went to the museum expecting a balanced portrayal. But the presentations were so blatantly one-sided it was beyond belief. What I felt bad about was that the museum was mobbed that day with people from about every nationality, most of whom were too young to know much about the war. So for most young Australians, Germans, Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc, the only thing they will know about the war is what they saw in this museum. There is no place they can go for a balanced presentation. In American museums, we are so much into political correctness that who can tell how our curators will tell the story.

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