A History of War

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A reflection of a visit to the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi. It was written more to make sense of it all rather than to impress others with my literary skills or erudition (although I am not adverse to that either ;)). Writing can be as much a therapeutic and educational device as it is an art form and as a son of the west, understanding Vietnam through Vietnamese eyes is and continues to be a cathartic experience. I hope that some of you find some interest in the piece.

Submitted: November 20, 2018

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Submitted: November 20, 2018



It was if my visit to the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi was fated. Obstentiously on my way to the Art Museum just a few blocks away, the rainy season had commenced and it was right in front of the Military Museum that the first drops of an incipient storm fell. I had viewed the Remembrance of War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City only a week before and that had been an emotional, confronting experience that I was not keen to repeat at such short notice.

Storms here can be furious so it was either pay the entrance fee or continue on through the rapidly darkening and froeboding streets to my original destination. With my camera and assorted electronic goods, a soaking was out of the question and so I paid the uniformed the uniformed kiosk staff and stowed my gear in the included locker.

So it was only moments later that I stood in the marble and glass foyer of what seemed more like a luxury hotel than a museum. Looking back, the rain commenced in full torrential gusts and washed away any lingering doubts I might have harboured.

Entering inside, my first impression was that this museum was a more officious, finely crafted exhibit than the one in Saigon, something that seems typical of the northern half of Vietnam. The guard at the front gates was a full member of the Vietnamese Army as were many of the formally attired staff. It was not confronting so much as just a marked difference from the casual informality of Saigon, a difference I had been told to expect.

Hanoi is the capitol city of this tumulturous Indochinese state. It has a cooler, much less excitable climate and experiences the full four seasons rather than the two tropical seasons of the south. It is also a few hundred kilometres from the Chinese border, the northern buttress against that huge expansionistic state where frivolity is not exactly a byword. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it has now been renamed, is more like a wayward child, a lively intelligent but ultimately mischievous creature that has artfully traded its way to become the commercial centre of the modern Vietnamese economy.

You don’t need to be a student of the history of the region to know that Vietnam’s recent past contains a large portion of warfare and struggle. What might surprise some is that it has not just been this century but conflict stretches back at least a millennium to the Warring States period of China. Clashes and border disputes between nearby Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Southern China are etched into Indochinese history like so many threads in the waft and weave of the highly prized silk cloth of the region.

The Chinese themselves have been trying to get a foothold into this narrow sliver of land bordering the South China Sea since the 600’s, the Cambodian’s still claim South Vietnam as stolen territory, the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar have contracted and expanded through the ages as such and such a King grew triumphant or waned into obscurity. So where the War Museum in HCMC is almost exclusively focused on the 20th Century independence struggle against the French and the Americans, this edifice attempts the heady task of documenting the entire history of Vietnamese warfare.

Of course, there is the obligatory MiG fighter, the Soviet tank and the French cannon placed strategically in the front courtyard; the remnants of the American war are hardly in short supply. But the first exhibit takes you back some 2200 years to 214-203 BC and the Resistance War against the Qin (Chinese) invaders. What follows almost ignores the more recent troubles but rather focuses on the litany of Indochinese campaigns and defences over past two millenium.

The reverence with which this ancient history is held is evident in the elegantly crafted and opulent room. A modern almost-mausoleum with the busts of ancient warrior kings in prized positions and photos of ancient ruins still standing and the recovered armoury of numerous archaeological digs displayed as though sacred amulets.

There is none of the pathos of the museum in HCMC but rather a sense of national pride and reverence at the cunning brilliance and bravery of these early leaders. There is a finely crafted bust of the fierce looking Ly Thuong Kiet (1019-1105) who pushed back the Sung Dynasty Chinese forces way back in the day. Another bust honours Ngo Quyen (899-944) who repelled the Han at an even earlier time and gave birth to the independent state of Dia Viet, roughly corresponding to what we now called North Vietnam. The ancient heroes of a modern day state that still maintains an unwavering belief in an inalienable Vietnamese independent state.

There is a lovingly replicate large kettle drum from the Dong Son culture of the 9th century that is often thought of as the distant ancestors of many of the South East Asia indigenous populations and perhaps even the indigenous Australian aboriginals. What intrigues me about the drum is that it is startling similar (or vice versa) to the bronze Moko drums of Alor in Eastern Indonesia.

There are several large cabinets dedicated to examples of the traditional Dai Phu (halberd), a spear-and-axehead arrangement first reported around 2nd to 3rd  century BC. It is said that it was this weapon that repelled the forces of ancient China, so successfully that those invaders dubbed it the Dai Phu Viet or the Great Southern Arrow. The examples here are relics from archaeological digs, hundreds of years old and looking more like spears with nasty looking short scimitar at the side.

It seems an interesting but not particularly important display until you realise this significance of the first weapon of war attributed to the Vietnamese (called the Âu Lac at the time), a people with a long and varied history of success at war. In a way, these wood and iron pikes in their glass cabinets lined in red felt are at the start, if not the very core, of Vietnamese independence. I would not be surprised if there were times a modern version of the weapon was used at times in the American war and I am almost certain they would have been there for the French.

According to many sources, the word “viet” itself is attributed to the early Chinese word for arrow or point and Nam (reportedly) meaning “south”. For many years what we call Vietnam today was referred to as Dai Viet, the “Great” Viet, or “Great Arrow” if you like. It is hard to get any concrete confirmation of this but certainly in popular lore these weapons hold a deep and unlikely reverence for the Vietnamese. The original weapons from the very beginnings of the Dong Son culture, the original Indochinese culture that influenced so much of South East Asina history.

It could not be coincidence that these weapons are displayed so prolifically, even though in essence a couple of examples would have been enough. However, as symbols of Vietnamese independence and perhaps the origination of the country's name itself, they are far from insignificant and the profusion of examples begins to make sense. Signs are posted in English, French and Vietnamese and the exhibits are skilfully and superbly laid out. Nothing casual about it all.

There is not a lot of archaeological finds in Vietnam, at least compared to neighbouring countries of similar age. The modern artefacts of the French and American wars are to be found everywhere – at the edges of airports, behind city fences, in disused warehouses. I would not be surprised if the occasional T-54 tank occasionally turned up in some ex-Mayor’s estate.

But the protracted war that lasted from the 1950’s to the1970’s prevented much detailed study of prehistoric Vietnamese history and, of course, destroyed much of that evidence in its wake. There is currently a great amount of work going on now to remedy this gap in the country's knowledge but archaeology is a slow science, the deprivations of the 70’s war was massive and it may be some years, if ever, before we get a true picture of those early beginnings.

Besides the ancient spear and axe heads, the impressive busts and the occasion reproduction, the rest of the exhibit is mostly pictures of rediscovered ruins and explanatory texts including brief histories of the continuous battles and invasions with China, Thailand, Cambodia. And, of course, the Europeans and Americans of the latter period. The paucity of physical examples such as the Anker ruins in nearby Cambodia, the ancient temples and supas of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar or the Champa artefacts show in great profusion further down the coast at Da Nang is perhaps indicative of the  devastation and strife visited on the northern part of Vietnam rather than a lack of effort in trying.

A bar graph on the wall cocumenting the various conflicts looks like a geological seismic chart, each individual spike barely visible in a forest of equally important spikes. Dates are listed like ideograms, BC and AD mixed with the names of both friends and foes; hieroglyphics of war against a stone coloured pasteboard. The American War, for all its ferocity, was merely another peak in a series of conflicts and wars. It seems everyone was after a piece of Vietnam at some stage and each time, the Vietnamese threw them off.

Compared to the War Remembrance Museum in the south, this newest of the exhibit halls in the Hanoi version goes somewhat further in explaining the resilience shown in the 20th century wars. It also gives a historical perspective to the view that Vietnam was never going to succumb easily to a humble vassal state of any power. If the French had been as good historians as they were bakers, the whole history of modern Indochina would undoubtable be markedly different.

Exiting the ancient history section there is only a bare tin sign on a pillar emblazoned with “Continue” pointing upwards to a concrete stairwell on the left. I almost feel as if the curators had felt their purpose was complete with the initial display and everything else an afterthought. Not really sure of the destination, I head upwards anyway.

On top is a wide balcony, stuccoed white bollards on one side and a phalanx of full length windows on the other, part of the original colonial building from 1956. From here I have a better overview of the whole complex. Even though the rain has disapated to a mere drizzle,I begin to realise this is not a museum you can see in 30 minutes.

The first floor is dedicated to the struggle against the French colonials at the end of WW2. There are a great many exhibits, most of them ascribed to a particular action or the person that recovered them. Whether intended of not, it seems to make the exhibit more personal and immediate, but the cabinets and displays are aged and worn and the inscriptions terse. One can imagine that some have been in place for several generations, even as the newest war against the American forces raged around them.

A Frenchman sidles up beside me, muttering aloud though, not speaking French I am not quite sure of his intent. A lot of tourists here appear to be French, perhaps the new generation come to ruminated over the past excesses and mistakes of generations before. I meet a Japanese guy at the restaurant and I hear the occasional rough edges of an Australian drawl but no American accents.

The next exhibit is back downstairs and across the carpark to a building at the rear. Larger and newer, it is a catalogue of the Vietnamese combatant’s own histories in the form of letters and journals written to loved ones back home. There are general descriptions given in English and French but the letters themselves are not translated. It is as though this section is private, a shrine to the combatants personal stories that were never broadcast by NBN or ABC. The displays seem dedicated to their countrymen, a private conversation between compatriots, a working knowledge of Vietnamese a preresquite to sharing.

The stories of women are as prominent as the men – it seems like there was little distinction between the sexes in either the French or American wars – at least on the Vietnamese side. I hear that Vietnamese society can be extremely patriarchal but at least in the war years it was not just a masculine sabre rattling exercise but a battle of all Vietnamese for independence and self-determination, a need to be free regardless of sex. The array of books and journals and letters is impressive but unfortunately largely unintelligible to a foreign audience that still grapples with the correct pronunciation of hello and thank you.

Upstairs again is yet another memorial but this time to those nations and bodies that supported the Vietnamese independence struggle. There are examples of gifts, presentations and messages of solidarity from all over the world, both documenting and acknowledging the anti-war protests of US, Europe, England and Australia but also showing the diversity of the movement that saw messages of good will and support from places as far removed as the Congo, Romania, Russia, China; a litany of consciousness from half the world’s nations. It is a nice touch and a bit unexpected, this thank you to the forgotten peace movements, moratoriums and protests from half a century ago.

The next “section” is all outside and the exhibits are huge as we move into the modern arena. Tanks, planes and helicopters as well as cannons, anti-aircraft guns, giant artillery shells and scattered statues commemorating the men, woman and children lost. It is staggering to think of the original cost of even this small portion of the armaments of war; the Iroquois helicopter (the Huey), a M133 “half-track” armoured vehicle, the M-48 and m-44 (Bulldog) tanks, the A-1E and A-1H Skyraiders (Spads) and so on, each worth hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars. Left behind as the forces receded and the country began to rebuild. It is sobering to think that these behemoths are just a minute sample of the actual force deployed at the time

In the middle of it all is a huge towering collage of twisted aviation wreckage heaped together like wood on a bonfire. Apparently there are parts of an F-111, mixed in with a French transport plane of the previous Nationalism war scattered around an upended B-52 that has been posed crash landed on its nose amidst the debris. A huge photograph dominates the front view of the torn machinery depicting a war time girl dragging the wing strut of a downed plane using a piece of twine.

We complete the circuit with a visit to the Flag Tower of Hanoi, a landmark of the city since its construction in 1812. The stone walls and exotic architecture makes it look older than its two hundred years and gives a sense of the ongoing nature of defence and resilience of modern day Vietnam. It also gives a good view of the aircraft display, the so called “Garden of Toys” and the surrounding museum.

There is no great angst or regret or pain such as was felt at the Saigon Museum. Rather, it has been replaced by a curiosity and respect of just how long Vietnam has been fighting its wars. We retired to the modern Highlands café at the foot of the Flag Tower, to sit on garden furniture and consume chilled ice coffee and subway sandwiches served by uniformed staff looking like something out of Burger King or Gloria Jean.

After all the struggles and death for so many years, here we sit in the capitol of a once communist country now officially socialist with a rapidly expanding entrepreneurial middle class, sipping good coffee at what to all intents and purposes is a copy of an American fast food franchise in the midst of the remnants of war filling the buildings around us. It almost makes you wonder what all the fighting was about in the first place.

© Copyright 2019 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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