Lessons Learned: Why I still hate war, but need to understand its place in understanding people

I am not a history buff. I know it’s important to understand history for many reasons; to understand history is to better understand culture, which is to better understand people. And one of the reasons I am enjoying travel so much is because I like learning about different approaches to living – how people exist in their day-to-day.

I think one of the reasons “history” turns me off so much is because all I remember about learning the subject in school is that history is a string of wars – who was involved, what happened, how they ended. Back then, I just didn’t care. Which makes yesterday a surprise for me. I went to the War Remnants Museum here in Saigon which is all about the Vietnam War without the US perspective (the place was actually called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes at one point). I went because Dave wanted to go. My first reaction was positive because the building had air-con. I would stay there gladly as long as he wanted to, I thought:  It was that or go back outside in the 90-plus degrees with over 80% humidity.

We spent hours in there. I was completely drawn in.

I knew the Vietnam War (called the American War here) was controversial. What I saw were posters against US involvement here from  almost every country: From Sweden to Argentina.

I had no idea how many journalists lost their lives documenting the war. Most were from the US.

I knew the US used a lot of horrible weapons in its fighting efforts. What I saw were pictures of the effects of napalm and Agent Orange. Though for Agent Orange, I didn’t need to see the pictures; I see its impact every day on the streets here. The man who runs the restaurant at the end of our alleyway stands 4 feet tall, is hunched backed, his skin covered in large cyst-like lumps. A local woman begs for money as she carries her son (brother?) in a sling around her shoulders.  The man’s head is half the size of his body; his legs are missing.

I know the Vietnam War has had devastating effects on Americans as well. Lives were lost. Soldiers were captured and tortured. Many who came home suffered from mental health challenges along with alarming rates of substance use disorders and homelessness. Psychologists better understood PTSD and came up with its label and put it into the DSM because of it.

Bottom line is, war causes all to suffer. Too often we only see it from “our” perspective (which for me would be the American side). We see our loss, our pain, our suffering. And that suffering has lasting effects. Yesterday I saw it from the other side – no mentions of how Americans suffered (except for the journalists) – only how those in Vietnam did.

I wonder how people in other countries learn about this conflict. What is it called? Do they talk about the devastation on both sides,  or only one? If one, which one?

Thanks to a building with air-con, I have learned a lot from a perspective I wouldn’t see otherwise on a topic I had no desire to understand. But I did learn more about the people I see here every day. And that is one of the main reasons I am traveling. I am grateful for the experience.


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