In 1428, Le Loi led Vietnam to a second independence from China and crowned himself Emperor Ly Thai To. Celebrating the victory, the scholar and friend of Le Loi’s, Nguyen Trai, wrote the Great Proclamation, in which he stated, “Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilization. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from those of the foreign country to the north.” To the south, however, lay another kingdom that could easily have uttered a similar proclamation of autonomy. Soon after gaining independence, Le Loi aimed his armies toward those lands, conquering and forever destroying the Kingdom of Champa. This human capability—the tendency to declare one’s own rights unassailable while denying those same rights to others—has been at the forefront of my mind over the past few days, particularly, I think, due to my status as an American in Vietnam.
America’s offenses in Vietnam may be unique in the extent to which they were decried while they were taking place. The anti-war protests within America are probably most famous, but they were just the beginning. As the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City displays, countries around the world deplored American aggression and demonstrated against it. The museum’s second floor features an exhibit on Agent Orange, which includes stilled fetuses preserved in fluid and images of horrible deformations and birth defects, all pointing a finger directly at the United States. Monsanto, America’s agricultural giant, developed Agent Orange, and it is difficult to believe that the U.S. military was ignorant of the chemical’s effects on humans.
It is noteworthy, then, that my students and I visited the War Remnants Museum on the same day that President Obama, citing Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical warfare, declared his intention to expand U.S. operations in Syria. What is to be made of this intervention when America has yet to reckon with and be held accountable for its own use of chemical weapons?
Contradictions like these are found throughout southern Vietnam. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Nguyen Lords, who ruled southern Vietnam at the time, expanded further southward, absorbing the Khmer provinces of the Mekong Delta and dealing a severe blow to the Khmer psyche. To this day, Khmer people refer to that area as Kampuchea Krom, “lower Cambodia,” and Ho Chi Minh City’s History Museum contains numerous sculptures stolen from Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most treasured icon.
Despite their own expansionist actions, Vietnam railed against any expansionist movement toward them. They fought against French colonial rule and waged vicious warfare against American incursion. The Viet Cong’s tunnels at Cu Chi, which were effective for years and were used as a command center for the crippling Tet Offensive, are equally impressive and appalling. The North Vietnamese built a system of tunnels from Saigon to the Cambodian border and turned hunting and trapping techniques into effective human-killing machines. It is hard to imagine a more terrifying opponent in a more terrifying environment, one that could open into bullets, a landmine, or a deadly trap door at any moment.
Today, the area is forested, and the jungle echoes with gunshots fired by tourists. The site is a bit of a circus, with the implements of warfare presented playfully by trained guides, lending to the destination the atmosphere of a carnival and giving rise to one of human kind’s most base tendencies, its fascination with violence. It may be this tendency that allowed atrocities such as The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s name for the “Vietnam War,” and the Vietnam-inflicted apocalypses of Champa and Lower Cambodia to occur.
Later that night, after returning from the Cu Chi Tunnels, we take taxis to the airport and fly to Shanghai, Los Angeles, and finally Phoenix. In L.A., we go through customs and receive the familiar greeting for U.S. citizens returning from abroad: “Welcome home.” I feel that greeting deeply. This is my home, and despite my wanderings it always will be.
But, if only I could take more pride in my country’s actions. Writing in The New York Times about President Obama’s decision to intervene in Syria, Ramzy Mardini states that, “interventionists tend to detach their actions from longer-term consequences” and often display “a prevalent misunderstanding of the political and cultural context of where they want to intervene.” That was true in Vietnam, it was true in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is true today in Syria. I am not sure what the correct decision is regarding U.S. involvement in Syria, but I do wish that we would seek a more thorough understand of the country and its society before using our power to decide its affairs. In the longer-term, I wish that every U.S. citizen would visit Vietnam and see “The American War of Aggression” from its perspective. Maybe then we can become a nation that lives up to its ideals and finally banishes the most vulgar of human tendencies, the one that holds truths evident for itself while denying them to others.