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As I walked into the museum, the first thing I saw was a photograph of a naked Vietnamese child running down a battered street with small fires blazing on both sides. The child was crying so intensely I had to look away. That's when I realized I had entered a museum unlike any other I had ever stepped into before.
As I ventured deeper into the museum, I saw another photograph of a young woman, barely a teenager, walking behind an American soldier who looked a lot like me, but was much larger. The soldier had his hands behind his head, while the young woman behind him had a rifle with a bayonet pointed at his back. The enormous size difference between the two was startling because he looked big enough to squeeze the life out of her if he just turned around and hugged her tight enough. But what I found the most startling was the difference between the eyes of the girl and the soldier. The man’s eyes appeared forlorn and tired, while the girl’s eyes looked fierce and empty.
The further into the museum I went, the deeper into the depths of the war I descended. I saw a small collection of rusted and dented tin canisters. Years earlier those canisters contained the catastrophic Agent Orange herbicide which was used as a defoliant to lay bare potential Viet Cong hiding-places. The horrors they unleashed were made painfully clear when I saw several glass jars filled with sickly yellow liquid and deformed baby fetuses.
After an hour inside the museum, I started to hear less and less of the chatter I heard when I walked in. I looked around to see if the crowd had thinned out, but to my astonishment it had actually swelled.
I entered a room and saw framed copies of newspaper headlines on one of the walls. The newspapers were from around the world, in dozens of languages, all condemning the war. On another wall there were letters, hundreds of them. Many of the letters were colourful and had clearly been written by children. I read a few that were written in English, and they were all urging for the war to stop. On another wall there were hundreds of photos, from all over the world, filled with groups of people holding signs demanding an end to the war.
Despite the decades that had passed from the time those photos were taken and those letters were written, I could still feel the potency and sincerity behind each and every one of them.
There were also symbols of pain and tragedy. There was a small screen, and playing on it was a black and white video showing a seated monk lighting himself on fire, right there in the middle of a street. He did this in protest against the U.S.-backed government of the day. He did not move a muscle as his body became enveloped in flames, and despite the ferocity of those flames, he still did not move until there was no life left in him and his charred corpse finally toppled over.
I expected there to be some sort of cut in the video, an act of censorship to prevent children from seeing the monk’s raw suffering. But there was no such censorship. Just as there was no censorship in the photos of the children forced to flee or fight during the war, or the glass jars with the fetuses. It was all there for anybody who was willing to see it.
I reached an area that detailed a massacre I could not believe had actually happened even as I saw the official photographs and documentation. I had never heard about the massacre until that moment. It occurred in a small village named My Lai. American soldiers came and murdered everybody in the village, women, children, everybody, without any provocation, leaving hundreds dead. How could the soldiers that inspired the creation of G.I. Joe do such a thing?