None of us questioned the decision to begin our journey at the War Remnants Museum. We might wish it were otherwise and it was certainly not an easy way to start but the war is why we came on this journey. The war and the chance for peace.
It used to be worse, I am told. The exhibits used to be housed in an airless basement and called the War Crimes Museum. Now it is in an open, airy building surrounded by grounds with trees and flowering bushes. Scattered throughout are helicopters, tanks, rocket launchers – the heavy equipment of war. Inside are rooms filled with photographs taken by international journalists.
The photographs are hard to look at. It is hard to stand on Vietnamese soil and look at images of Americans terrorizing Vietnamese people. It is hard to see a case of household objects from the homes of victims of the massacre at My Lai. It is hard to see what Americans soldiers are capable of doing when they capture what they think is an enemy soldier. It is hard and it should be.
But we had not even had a chance to see all that when we were brought into a meeting room with art on the wall and a bust of Ho Chi Minh at the end to be greeted by the director and vice-director of the museum. We sat at a table with bottles of water set at each place and were individually introduced. With our hosts was a former NVA soldier, now a friend of John’s. He was a grizzled man with short-cropped salt and pepper hair and a mischievous smile. He was a musician and had been, during the war. He had sung for the soldiers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to entertain them and keep up their spirits. He sang for us. He sang the rousing songs that soldiers sing, love of country, love of leader, love of family. He sang a song of his own composition about the girls he had met in each of the provinces he had traveled in, each of which whispered to him to come back, to return to them some day. We were led in the chorus of a rousing fighting song and had no trouble imagining a camp along the trail.
Then his lovely daughter, a staff member at the museum, told us that he usually sang in Vietnamese and in French but he had learned to sing a song in English so that he could sing it for us. He held the aged guitar and watched as his daughter said they would sing it together for us. He strummed an opening and then began to sing … “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
How do I convey to you what this did to us? We listened together to a song that caught us utterly by surprise and wrung our hearts. When it was over, when the old NVA soldier had sung “when will they ever learn?” the Americans were crying openly, washed by memories of that song in our lives, overcome by the setting in which we were hearing it again.
I invite you to remember that song as you look at these images. The men with the NVA soldier are also veterans, one returning for the 10th time, one for the first.