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I didn’t want to leave the museum, so I walked around it again, re-reading and re-visiting everything. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I knew inside of that museum I was hearing an argument I had never heard before, and I wanted to make sure nothing would get lost later that night when I went to the bar, drank the cheap beer, and enjoyed the attention from the exotic women inside.
I once again stood in front of the jars with the deformed fetuses. There was a Vietnamese man standing beside me. He was old. I didn’t know if he fought, but I knew he had lived through the awful period that inspired the creation of the museum. He looked at me, but didn’t speak. Instead, he made the most subtle of gestures with his head. It was neither a nod, nor a shake. I really can't say what it was beyond an acknowledgement, but of what, I had no idea.
When at last I left the museum, I was greeted by the same military machines I saw when I entered. There they were: the plane and the tank. Just a few hours earlier I had been excited at the thought of returning to see those machines again. That thought seemed like a century ago, and the person who thought it seemed like a completely different person.
I walked over to the plane first. I looked at it closely, but didn’t dare touch it like I originally wanted to. I vividly imagined what that plane did prior to its peaceful positioning in the courtyard. I envisioned it flying high over various villages in the Vietnamese countryside, dropping bombs on people. On people who heard the loud whistling that was described in several of the museum’s exhibits. People who either died instantly, or survived and wished they had died after seeing the remains of their families, or the remains of their own ravaged bodies. I imagined all of the death and destruction that plane had caused, and then I imagined all of the fun I had playing with my G.I. Joe toy plane years ago, dropping those fake bombs, firing those fake missiles. My head felt swollen, as if ready to burst, inflated by an overwhelming wave of sadness and shame. Just the thought of asking somebody to take a picture of me smiling while standing in front of the plane made me ill.
The sadness increased when I saw the tank. I stared at it, seeing it for what it was: a machine designed to maim, destroy and kill. Yet I vividly recalled playing with a plasticized, colourful toy version of that machine years ago. I began to think I must be sick. I thought the world I came from, the society that moulded me, the culture that cultivated me, was sick. How could I ever think something like that could be a toy? How could any mother or father let their child play with something like that?
In the G.I. Joe cartoon, and in the war scenes I created in my bedroom, nobody ever died, nobody even got hurt as a result of the vehicles and the projectiles they fired. But the reality of those vehicles and the reality of the projectiles was that thousands upon thousands of people died and were hurt. Millions of kids played with, loved and enjoyed those toys because we didn't know any better.
I wondered if there were Vietnamese kids who played with Viet Cong toys growing up. And if they did, were they aware of the heinous acts the troops who inspired those toys had committed against other Vietnamese people and against the American troops? I wondered if they would have cared about those troops, and then I questioned why they should, considering it was their country that had been invaded by those troops.
I left the courtyard and walked through the gate without looking back. My head was still bloated and pulsating. I made my way to the Ben Thanh market, one of the largest markets in the city. When I reached one of the entrances to the market I saw a young man, much younger than me, sitting on the ground. His body was contorted, twisted like a circus performer, except unlike those performers, this young man was incapable of untwisting his limbs. His eyes were glazed over, as blank as the stares he received by those passing him by. There was a cardboard sign positioned next to him. I leaned forward. The words were written in both Vietnamese and broken English. They said he was a victim of Agent Orange. He was born broken, forced to bear the burden of a war he had never even seen. At one point, he was just like those fetuses in the jars, except he managed to be born. All I felt was shame against a game we had all lost and anger toward the toys of its execution.