TWO seemingly unrelated events prompted me to come to my keyboard (yes, we no longer talk about ‘putting pen to paper’) and type out some thoughts which have been hovering around in my head.First, as I was channel surfing on the television I caught a news flash about the Americans discussing the next step in the war strategy in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, vehemently declared that the Americans are staying there for the long haul and that they are going to commit more troops. He was also urging US allies to similarly send in more firepower.
Second, a friend wrote that she was on holiday in Ho Chi Min City and was intending to visit the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. The Cu Chi tunnels are the labyrinths of tunnels dug by the Viet Congs in their resistance against the American troops during the Vietnam War of the 60s and 70s.
Her mention of the Cu Chi tunnels reminded me of my visit there a few years ago. It was some 30 years after I heard about the heroics of the small Vietnamese people in their struggles. I did read about the tunnels but have never really appreciated fully the amazing feat they represent. I went with a group of tourists to see the tunnels. What we saw blew our minds: the tunnels were no more than a foot wide. The ones they took us to were specially widened for the tourists. As we crawled on all fours, even with the reassuring torch light of the guide, the darkness and the dank earth seemed to close down on us. A sense of panic gripped us. Thankfully we emerged five metres later into a chamber that allowed us to stand up. When the guide offered to take us through another tunnel which was longer, about fifteen metres long, none of us dared to take the challenge. Yet the villagers of Cu Chi had built 250 kilometres of tunnels! They would crawl into the tunnels when the enemy soldiers came. They would pop up behind the enemy ranks to snipe at them. More amazingly, at night when the enemies had retreated they would emerge from the earthen tombs to tend to their gardens and rice fields so that they would have food to eat.
As I sat in the cool shade of a tree outside one of the entrances, I pondered in awe at the heroism of the Cu Chi villagers. I was seized with panic when I entered the tunnel for a few minutes. They had to endure being entombed for years until the enemies finally left their country.
If the Cu Chi tunnels filled me with awe, the War Memorial Museum filled me with a bittersweet feeling. In the first hall, I came across anti-wars posters of yesteryears from around the world. I looked up at the once familiar slogans: ‘Lotta Continua’, ‘Yankee! Go home!’, ‘Make love, not wars’. One little poster caught my eyes. It said: ‘No to War’, advertising a meeting 7.30 pm, January 13 1973 at the Students Common Room in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. I couldn’t help but felt a sense of pride, for SOAS was my old stomping ground. I could very well have attended that very meeting, a meeting which was part of the popular worldwide protests against war.
Then I walked into another hall. There was a display of ammunition, of shells and bombs of all sizes and shapes. These were the arsenals which rained on the Vietnamese people in the two-decade long war. Then I came across some drums with cross bones and skull markings. These were the containers of the deadly poison ‘dioxin’ or popularly known as ‘Agent Orange’ that the American soldiers poured from the air over the Vietnamese jungle in a murderous attempt to kill off the trees so that the Viet Cong guerrilla could not hide in them.
Then I saw photos of people: people with faces bloated beyond recognition; people with fingers falling off; people with bodies deformed. These were the victims of ‘Agent Orange’ poisoning. I wonder how many Vietnamese were killed and maimed.
I remember reading a report some years ago, of a group of American Vietnam War Veterans, who successfully sued the US government. They claimed of failing healthy and of infertility. They were the handlers of ‘Agent Orange’. They were the soldiers who poured that poison onto Vietnam and the people. The US government has compensated these ‘poisoners’ millions of dollars. I wonder how much would be just compensation for the people who were poisoned!
In the last hall I saw more of the true faces of the war. These were the photos taken by journalists who went to ground zero to give us a glimpse of the reality of wars. Many of the pictures on display were taken by photographers who died in their line of duty. These were painful photos. A girl ran screaming from a ball of napalm fire, with all her skin burnt off. A baby sat on the ground, surrounded by fire and destruction. He sat there crying all alone. The caption read: “The baby was left alone, as his parents have disappeared in the attack”. Two boys, barely ten years old, lay bullet ridden by a rice field. The elder one had tried vainly to shield his brother with his body. There were many more heartwrenching images of inhumanity.
As I looked at these photos I could feel my tears welling up, even my daughter, who was not born yet during the Vietnam War, could not contain her emotion. But we were not the only ones; the other visitors too were similarly moved. Many of them were Americans. Like us, perhaps, they cried, of pain and of shame.
The Vietnamese people was finally freed from the clutches of war and through some of the displays are able to show to the world the true face of the insanity when man resorts to violence as the means of resolving conflicts.
The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are still trapped in the maelstrom of violence. So far the pictures and stories we get of the on-going wars in the two countries are filtered through the public relations screen of the strong and overwhelmingly mighty. Though some disturbing information managed to come through they never came near to painting the full picture. I wonder whether the full story will ever be told.
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