Lessons for Iraq from Vietnam

Will Baghdad ever be able to look back at its current turbulent period, the way the war museums in Saigon do?

The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a harrowing and thought-provoking place to visit. Its exhibits do not shy away from displaying the true horrors of war.

One room is dedicated to the victims of an American chemical weapon called Agent Orange. The weapon, in one form carried as a grenade by US Soldiers, was tossed into the tunnels the Viet Cong used to hide in. When that didn’t work the US Air Force just carpet sprayed the chemical indiscriminately across the South and Centre of the country. Decades later children and grandchildren suffer horrific physical hereditary deformity.

On the top floor is exhibition of pictures from a variety of photographers both foreign and Vietnamese taken from a book called “Requiem for a war.” As the dreadlocked hippies and well-fed Europeans walk around, the constant flip flop of their shoes makes a nagging sound on the stone floor providing an odd soundtrack to the war photographs and the nightmare scenarios that unfold in them. A children’s exhibition with a dove as its logo shows a lighter side with images of hope.

Outside, old US army equipment, helicopters and fighter jets, big guns and boats look quite innocent stripped of their noise and fury and fire they must have had when operational.

Than Phi is a tour guide who took me to the Viet Cong Cu Chi tunnels museum. I’ve been bugging him since the morning about the history of the war and what he thinks. In a bid to shut me up he finally tells me: “I think what all Vietnamese think. We will forgive, but we won’t forget.”

That’s in stark contrast to what Iraqis tell me. We will never forgive, and never forget is more what I’m used to hearing. A cutting from the American Life magazine from the time states “We wade deeper into jungle war.” Change the words “Wade” and “Jungle” to “Stagger” and “Desert” and that headline could have been written today.

Yet, as chilling as this museum is, and as unclear as Iraq’s future is, this place has given me hope.

Will this happen to Baghdad?

Outside the museum, motorbikes – and there are millions of them – cars, and happy locals wander the streets. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is far from perfect, but it exists peacefully.

Than Phi, the tour guide, tells me at length about the problems of Vietnam, the cost of education, inflation, pollution. In short he tells me about the same problems I’ve heard in Baghdad. But he is at peace.

The war here ended four decades ago and the olive green drab of US soldiers has been replaced by the day glow tie dye of backpackers. Money is coming into Vietnam. Things have vastly improved.That includes relations with the US.

Dare I reimagine that one day the same backpackers will wade through Mutanabi Street in Baghdad buying old books that Anwar throws together in the back of his shop?

That US army Humvees and Black Hawk helicopters are displayed in a museum in the Green Zone that you can walk into without seeing a checkpoint or armed soldier?

That a desert tour to Anbar Province will show tourists the effects of white phosphorous in Fallujah? That taxi drivers, smoking, will snigger at the blonde girls from Sweden and the way they wear the backpack on the front? I don’t know. But would it be great to think that war goes from life and hell to a picture on a Museum wall?

Dan Griffin is 21 and from Stamford in the United Kingdom. He and his friends have come to the War Remnants Museum not knowing what to expect. He tells me: “I can’t quite believe that the effects have gone on this long, I thought that after five years the effects of the war would have disappeared.” As we continue to talk I ask Dan if he could ever see a place like this in Iraq.

“That would be an amazing idea, to walk around a museum in Baghdad, I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon.” Sadly, I think, Dan is right.

As I write this in the museum lobby I can see why Vietnam has survived and is at peace. The Socialist republic still remains and the red-and-gold star flag nests easily against Colonel Sanders’ smiling KFC logo.

It’s a maturing country, with realist ideals. Iraq is not there yet, but one day will be. There are lessons to be learned, and new ideas to be gained from understanding history. I only hope the powerful understand those lessons and I’m alive to to visit the Baghdad museum of coalition war one day.

Follow Imran khan on Twitter: @AJImran

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