Posted by: Anna | May 16, 2011

History is Written by the Victors, or the American War

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels so soon after visiting Corregidor Island (in the Philippines – a World War II site highlighting Filipino and American involvement in WWII) really made an impact. The contrast in attitude was stark. Of course, American influence in the Philippines is not all good (a legacy of sex tourism and KFC aren’t exactly highlights), but the overall sense is positive. Corregidor Island tries hard to honor those who fought. There is even a Japanese memorial to the Japanese soldiers who fought in the Philippines, built by the Japanese government to honor those who died. It was built with the permission of the Filipino government as a gesture of good will and forgiveness. The opposite impression (of peaceful forgiveness and trying to honor all who fought) is given by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, the headquarters of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (called the American War here).

When we boarded the bus for the day trip, our guide expressed a bit of concern over the fact that we were American. He warned us that Americans often don’t enjoy the visit since the light shed on American involvement in Vietnam is not a positive one. We assured him we were there to learn and that we wanted him to conduct the tour how he normally would. My expectation was that the tour would discuss the hardships faced by Viet Cong fighters and perhaps the devastating effects of Napalm and deforestation. Perhaps it would discuss the inappropriate behavior of American soldiers who served in Vietnam. I was wrong.

As best I could tell, the tour was operated by a company owned by the Vietnamese government. Although the pulse of Vietnam is capitalist, the government still has strong roots in communism, and Vietnam seems to be trying to follow China’s path to economic strength by combining capitalism with repression. (There is no Facebook here – it’s blocked by the government…so no, I have no idea what you’ve posted there recently). The propagandistic roots of the Vietnamese government were evident while visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Certainly the tunnels were ingenious – tiny, large enough often only for a child to enter, then forced to squat once inside. They were designed so that an American soldier would not be able to enter, or if he was, he would get stuck. A prime example of turning a negative into a positive – malnutrition and using child fighters as an advantage! The Viet Cong would wait inside to avoid the effects of American bombs and to “retrieve” American soldiers who had fallen into “Tiger Traps”. Our guide seemed to delight in showing us the different designs of these traps – originally used for hunting animals, but modified to hunt Americans. Bomb shells (from American bombs) were re-purposed as spikes to trap soldiers. Again, an ingenious use of the materials at hand – not very pleasant to think about. The Viet Cong would hear a bell that would ring when someone fell into the trap, and then would go and capture or kill the person trapped. Our guide seemed to delight in explaining this – he actually made a gun with his hand standing over one of the traps and as he explained, he said something like, “Then, bam! The Viet Cong would kill the trapped American – AK 47 and he was dead!” His glee was frankly offensive.

Trap Example

I think one of the things that bothered me about the tour so much was our guide’s attitude toward the soldiers who were here. As an American, I know that many of those soldiers never wanted to come to Vietnam, or came with noble intentions. It saddens me to tour the implements that were used to kill relatives of people I know. Our guide’s delight in the violence and cruel design of the various traps only served to make me angry and upset. Although the guide stated that Vietnam is no longer angry about the war (or as he put it, “When someone asks if we are still angry, we always say no.” Rather like saying yes by saying no….), he seemed to not have truly embraced rapproachement. The exhibits in South Africa about Apartheid showed a great deal more forgiveness and desire to move forward peacefully than this tour did…and although the Vietnam War was certainly awful, I don’t think it’s quite the same as Apartheid.

Another striking part of this tour was the complete rejection of the idea that Vietnamese chose to fight with the Americans for any reason other than money. Our guide explained that essentially all Vietnamese, except those that only cared about money, helped the Viet Cong, and that’s why they won. They were smarter fighters and they had the will of the people. I think this is a rather biased view of history, not even striving to realistically reflect the truth or complexity of the Vietnam War or the feelings of the Vietnamese people as a whole. It just reinforces the idea that although Vietnam feels like a growing country on the move, there is a backlog of propaganda and a lack of freedom of speech to overcome to become a truly modern country, in my Westernized view.

Of course, in many ways America has won the long game in Vietnam. The gold star – red background banner still flies everywhere here, but the people are working to make a buck. There are no less than four financial channels of the 50 or so channels on our hotel TV. Prices are often quoted in dollars, most strikingly at the Cu Chi Tunnels shooting range. That’s right – at the Cu Chi Tunnels, you can shoot an automatic weapon for $15 for 10 bullets. Dollars, not dong.

After visiting the shooting range, we were offered the chance to crawl through an (enlarged) version of the tunnels. It was dark, cramped, hot and smelly. I wouldn’t want to live down there. Life was certainly hard, and many of the Viet Cong were children, starving. It’s sad on both sides on an individual level, as all wars are. I’m no Vietnam expert, and America made a lot of mistakes. Let’s hope Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have similar “monuments” in forty years.

Our guide in front of the entrance to a tunnel. This one was for a child.

Finally, the last part of the tour was a ‘documentary’. Or, as we would call it, a propaganda film. It was a black and white series of military shots, narrated by a childish sounding woman. The scenes I will never forget are the ones showing an eight year old girl, holding a machine gun, shooting. The childish-voiced female narrator innocently explains (in English) that the young girl was courageous and was awarded the honor of “American Killer Hero” (seriously, that’s what it’s called) for, you guessed it, killing American soldiers. A disturbing few seconds of film showing the girl crawling on the ground holding a gun the same size as her – disturbing for several reasons – child soldiers, the delight in killing, the glorifying of child soldiers killing the enemy.

I don’t know if I regret going. It was thought provoking. I regret giving any of my money to support that message. I think it might be the only place in the world where you can hear the kind of openly negative perspective on American behavior abroad, at least in a supposedly educational / museum setting. It was strange, offensive, and awkward all at the same time.


  1. Wow, Anna. This post was especially thought provoking. I’m curious. From your picture, it seems like there may have been other Westerners there. American, European? How were the others reacting? Were you all there in disgust? Did they buy into it?

  2. I have heard some positive reviews of visits to Vietnam — they must not have toured these sites. I believe so strongly in the power of freedom of speech to insure that all views get heard that this kind of one-sided propaganda is almost shocking. And it is certainly a byproduct of the lack of freedom of speech. Also there are too many places in Asia that don’t value protection of children as shown by the sex trade and child soldiers. We don’t always do a good job of protecting children either — violence in movies and video games, child beauty pageants, and the like, but they do have strong protections under the law that have teeth in them. And we still are shocked by the abuse of children you have described. When we fail to be shocked by things like limitations on freedom of speech and the trafficking of children in the sex trade we are in trouble.

  3. While I do agree that the tour was often rife with propaganda, I do feel that the tour offers a harsh insight into American involvement in Vietnam. As a North American, I’ve seen several movies on the conflict, most of which give the American soldier’s perspective and elicits sympathy for the the American experience ie. the loss of many young American lives on Vietnamese soil. But those same movies do not really provide much account of the countless Vietnamese lives affected by the war. Innocent civilians who will forever be haunted and debilitated by the haphazard use of Agent Orange. This form of biological warfare destroyed a huge percentage of Vietnamese forests and contaminated water supplies. To this day, children are being born disfigured and diseased. In reality, I don’t think the tour was any more biased than a similar tour in the US would be as it pertains to this war.

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