The Vietnam War permeates Vietnam. Minus resort communities and national parks, you can’t go anywhere that wasn’t affected and you can’t do anything without experiencing the ramifications of the war on locals, on the environment, on communities, and on the country as a whole.
One of the most interesting aspects of the war in Vietnam today is all the propaganda in the country. The communists won the war and winners write the history, and communist Vietnam has definitely written history in its favor, not against capitalist Vietnam, but against the USA. In fact, in Vietnam they don’t even call it the Vietnam War, they call it the War of American Aggression or, more simply, the American War.
Experiencing Vietnam’s propaganda, especially concurrently with the propaganda in the USA, helped us understand propaganda much better than we ever had before. Basically, propaganda can be broken down into three levels, each one building upon the one before it:
- Only telling one side of the story. In this propaganda, everything stated is true and honest, but it is not the whole picture. People are biased and these biases aren’t compensated for, or even acknowledged at all. There is no attempt to understand the other side of the story. The result of this is that people do not get an full understanding of what was/is going on.
Examples of this type of propaganda: much (but not all) of MSNBC, US/England during WWII
- Spinning facts. Everything stated is true but it is not honest. Things are presented out of context. Efforts are made to confuse and misunderstand, not to inform or understand. Fallacies are employed, opposing positions are ridiculed, and evidence is shaped to fit pre-conceived conclusions. Exaggeration, hyperbole, and loaded words are often used. People are deliberately obtuse. The result of this is that people believe things that are untrue, even if nothing untrue has been reported.
Examples of this type of propaganda: most (but not all) of FOXNews, most commercial advertising
- Lying. Things are stated that are untrue. Claims are made and “facts” are given based on desired outcomes, not objective reality. Reality is what people say it is, not what actually is. The result of this is that people believe things that are untrue, often absurdly so.
Examples of this type of propaganda: Russia, North Korea, Nazi Germany
Throughout this post, I will reference this list, explaining what level of propaganda was used at the different war sites we visited.
Please note that the above list is descriptive, not judgmental. While Level 3 propaganda is probably always bad, Levels 1 and 2 are not, as evidenced by England and the US’s use of propaganda during WWII. Although propaganda is probably always bad when espoused by the media, and it is definitely always bad when politicians/governments use it to accomplish immoral goals.
Also, before we begin, I should note that Vietnamese people were very different than the propaganda in their country. In Vietnam, war propaganda was entirely espoused by the government; their propaganda did not reflect the feelings/opinions of their citizens, who by and large just want to move on. Vietnam is actually the only country Inna and I have ever visited where we felt the government did not even remotely represent the people they govern.
Alright, lets begin.
Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) was the capital of South Vietnam and played a major role in the Vietnam War, including the war’s conclusion, when the Viet Cong stormed Saigon’s Independence/Reunification Hall. Inna and I visited two major war destinations in Saigon: the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels.
War Remnants Museum (propaganda level 1)
The War Remnants Museum is the main Vietnam War museum in Vietnam. The museum, which consists mostly of pictures, primarily depicts American atrocities committed against the Vietnamese. These depictions are unmanipulated, uncensored, and not toned down at all. The museum contains no references to atrocities committed by the Vietnamese.
The War Remnants Museum begins with this exhibit, depicting a Vietnamese war veteran who overcame the loss of his arms to become a calligrapher. This was presented as uplifting, and none of the rest of the museum was like this.
The majority of the museum contained pictures of American atrocities committed against the Vietnamese.
The section on disfigurements caused by Agent Orange was particularly horrifying.
Some Americans were depicted in a positive light, but with the exceptions of Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn (helicopter pilots who intervened in the My Lai massacre), they all were anti-war activists or politicians.
The final photography section of the museum was dedicated to war photographers. This section actually wasn’t propagandistic; it was simply a tribute to Vietnam War photographers and their works.
In addition to photographs, the War Remnants Museum (along with the rest of Vietnam) featured tons of war artifacts, including the weapons and shrapnel shown above.
In addition to handheld artifacts, the War Remnants Museum also featured large weapons of war, such as tanks.
The museum also featured aircraft. Most impressive in my opinion was the Chinook pictured lower right.
This concludes our visit to the War Remnants Museum, a museum that, despite the propaganda, was very powerful. This museum may have only presented communist Vietnam’s side of the story, but because the exhibits were mostly undoctored photographs, there’s no denying that what the museum depicted occurred.
Cu Chi Tunnels (not propagandistic, although a film shown at this location was propaganda level 2)
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground tunnels about 20 miles outside of Saigon. These tunnels, which the Viet Cong used as living quarters, supply routes, and bases for attack, are actually part of a larger tunnel network that spans most of the country. These tunnels were a huge nuisance to the American forces, and they were a major reason why US resorted to carpet bombings and chemical attacks during the war.
Since the Cu Chi Tunnels are outside of Saigon, we went on a tour to get there. On the way we stopped by this art factory, where Agent Orange victims are put to work by the government creating paintings and other works of art. The artwork was beautiful and inexpensive too, so Inna and I bought a couple, hers of a sailboat and mine of a sunset on the river.
This is Mr Binh, our Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide. We learned more about the Vietnam War from him than anyone or anything in the country. Here is his story:
Mr Binh and his father came to America before the war, then went back to fight for the US and South Vietnam. Many of his friends died in the war, none of whom wanted to fight; all the Vietnamese who fought were forced to by Russia and the USA, the war primarily being a proxy war between those two countries. After the war, Mr Binh was not allowed to return to America, instead he was forced to spent five years in a Vietnamese re-education camp. Now he is a tour guide and he completely doesn’t give a fuck. He says Vietnam’s and the entire world’s response to the war (including Vietnam’s war propaganda) is bullshit, there were no winners, only losers, and everyone died in vain. He also says he is a bad tour guide (this despite him giving tours for 22 years), but he is an honest and real human being.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are located in this forest, all of which is new growth, the original forest being carpet bombed out of existence during the war. This forest actually has destroyed tanks in it, a truly surreal site, as there is no way other than complete destruction that a tank could get into a forest like this.
Before we got to the tunnels, Mr Binh showed us some Viet Cong war traps. On top is a trap used to kill US Army dogs, while the bottom photograph shows one of many snares that, when hidden, would impale the leg of the soldier who accidentally stepped in it.
Here is one of the many entrances to the tunnels. Living in these was apparently a miserable existence; the soldiers had to deal with darkness, disease, scorpions and other deadly bugs, and a lack of food, air, and water. Even so, the tunnels were remarkably well engineered, and American forces had tons of difficulty breaking them; they tried chemical attacks, grenades, carpet bombings, fire bombings, and more, but nothing worked. Eventually, the US had to train soldiers to fight inside the tunnels, and when they were finally taken the Americans found half a million military documents inside.
Inna and I went inside the one tunnel section that was renovated and made safe for tourists. In addition to making them safe, the tunnels were widened and lights were installed during renovation, meaning the actual Vietnam War tunnels were smaller and darker than what is depicted above.
This marks the end of our Cu Chi Tunnel photographs, but there was so much more we learned from Mr Binh here. For example, did you know that for the Vietnamese, the war didn’t with the American withdrawal in 1975? This is because after the Americans left the Chinese moved in, and the Vietnamese spent the next several years fighting both them and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, who were in the middle of their own shit-storm in neighboring Cambodia.
Finally, I mentioned in the title to this section that they showed a film here, a film that I deemed propaganda level 2. This film, which was in terrible condition and appeared to be at least thirty years old, basically consisted of Vietnam War footage along with a narrator spinning the events as pro-Vietnamese. It was so bad that it seemed like every sentence had the words “killing Americans” in it. The whole thing was absurd to the point of being comical, and as Inna and I watched it, we were laughing out loud.
All in all, visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels was an interesting experience. But visiting them with Mr Binh, that was fantastic.