In a corner of the main floor some young people are making flower arrangements and figurines out of beads. They greet us with radiant smiles, hugging John and eyeing the rest of us curiously. With only a brief hesitation, we move among them, admiring their work, thanking them for their welcome.
One young man is making a beaded cat. I tell him how lovely it is. In a panicked undertone he calls for help from his friend seated nearby. The friend knows English and translates while I show off my miniscule Vietnamese by pronouncing the cat “con meo.”
We are told the group has prepared some singing for us so we gather around while a young man with a keyboard finds the beat he wants and gets them started. Another young man in the front sways to the music or closes his eyes and relishes the rhythm. The songs are spirited and the young people sing with energy. They behave like all young people – shy, proud, gracious.
The young man with the keyboard is planning his wedding. He has no eyes, just smooth, unbroken skin where the eyes should be. The one making the beaded cat tucks the end of the thread under his armpit and pulls the thread through with his teeth.The one swaying to the rhythm has a stunted torso and shortened limbs. He was stationed at the outside of the group greeting people. The crowd must be moved apart so he can join his friends for the singing. He’s a bit of a flirt, the way he grins soulfully at whoever smiles at him.
These are the children of Agent Orange, the defoliant the United States sprayed on the forests and jungles of Viet Nam by the thousands of tons. The chemical was harmless to people and animals, so they said. But it was contaminated with dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances on earth. Contaminated “accidentally.” So they said.
They say also that there is no way to prove a connection between drenching the land and the water with dioxin and the many illnesses to Vietnamese and American soldiers and the birth defects of their children. The birth defects of the children of American soldiers are bad enough. The birth defects in Vietnam, where the women lived – and still live – on the contaminated land, are horrific. The young people we meet in the lobby of the museum are functional, charming, and full of life. We have not seen, and probably will not see, the children whose defects are beyond imagination.
We are ambivalent about the way we have met them, though, not sure we like them being on display in the lobby of the War Remnants Museum. But this place holds what is left of war. When the United States pulled out we left much ordinance, equipment, and supplies behind. We also left a poison which, in the soil, has a half-life of more than 100 years. The guns may be silent now but the war has not ended.