War: Midnight of the Soul


1“How many kinds of animals can you kill with your hands?”                                      – Michael Herr, Illumination Rounds

I. The Tunnels

If courage has a physical form, his is contained and manifested in a slender frame and a slouching posture; a bamboo made human. “I am Minh. I will be your tour guide as we visit the Cu Chi Tunnels.”  His monotonous delivery was devoid of affectation and his countenance gave no hint of a painful personal history:  he reluctantly joined the war at 23 and after the fall of Saigon spent a couple of years in re-education camps (as was the case for all who served under ARVN). “I never wanted to fight; most Vietnamese I know didn’t want to fight. But sometimes, you are left with no choice but to do so to stop the ‘crazy’ ones”. He didn’t dare go beyond this broad statement; instead, he let out a soliloquy on freedom and brotherhood of men.  I pressed my head against the bus window, my left hand propped under my chin. We were moving through the highway alongside speeding motorbikes. I thought to myself: what’s more painful than having to fight (and possibly kill) your own countrymen because of  ideology? “It has been years since the war but I still get nightmares from time to time: bombings, death of friends, severed extremities. That’s the war for you!” He said matter-of-factly. “Later when we get to Cu Chi, I won’t be able to join you underground. I still get ‘frozen’ by the bleak, dark tunnels. As much as possible, I don’t want specific memories of the war getting back to me” Before I could ask him how he was able to cope through the years, he delivered another soliloquy.  “Life during, and immediately after the war, was difficult. I didn’t have time to enjoy my youth. But I always tell myself: If you want to be happy, just always think of the little things that make you smile. Smiling is the last thing I want to do before I lie down for eternity. That way, I will be able to let people know that even if I did not have a happy youth, I still ended up appreciating life” A Tourist tries hiding in a Viet Cong fox hole.

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A fearsome booby trap.

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Tank left at Cu Chi.

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Dangerous. Bombs were ‘made’ by hand.

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Rubber Sandals. A craftsman in Cu Chi makes sandals out of old tires.

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II. The Museum.

Relics of the war were displayed outside the Museum: Planes, Tanks, Helicopters. All other accessories of human cruelty await  inside. Even on the first floor of the building, one could already inhale the (expected) stench of propaganda. But this is a War Museum; and not even the most odorous propaganda can obscure or embellish the single truth of war: nobody wins. Soldiers breathing their last, civilians pleading for life, empty shells, unexploded grenades, bulging eyes, missing arms, conjoined twins, third-degree burns, orphans, widows, grief, anger, retaliation, agent orange, wasted lives: I was drained when I reached the third floor.

Innocent victims. Framed photos showing the effects of Agent Orange. 

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An iconic Vietnam War photograph by Eddie Adams

Nguyen_Van_Lem_big eddie adams

Spare me. A photo in the Museum showing an old man pleading for his life.8

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I sat in a corner of the room, feverish. I held the ice cream bar with my right hand, and placed it on my forehead  and temple. I clenched my teeth and tore the plastic packaging. I was a hungry, deprived animal.  One bite and I sat there frozen – my right hand now dangling on one side, the tip of the ice cream bar slightly reaching the floor. Sweltering Saigon transformed the ice cream into a pool of thick liquid. Only a small part remains dripping, like blood. Ants started crawling up my arm. Spine-tingling. One by one, they ventured to my chest, my neck, my nose, my ears; before I knew it, they started drilling holes in my heart.  I sat there motionless, lost in my thoughts: the ice cream and the ants were just figments of my imagination.  But the feeling was all too real.

III. Forgiveness.

Among the most iconic images of the Vietnam War was that of a vulnerable 9-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked toward the camera. Her clothes were burned off by napalm.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut.VIETNAM-WAR-RARE-INCREDIBLE-PICTURES-IMAGES=PHOTOS-HISTORY kim Phuc By Nick Ut -024

I wondered how she got through this experience. And a quick visit to Google gave me hints: “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?” While Minh did not explicitly say he has forgiven those who ‘wasted’ his youth, his constant smile indicates that he already did, long ago.  I walked out of the museum and drifted with the crowd. I passed by street vendors selling fresh coconut; a slender Vietnamese lady serving steaming pho; a Caucasian tourist sipping iced coffee. I didn’t have to wonder how it is for the rest of Vietnam. I know the wound is still there, somewhere. But if there’s anything I learned from my trip, it is this: Forgiveness gives a glimmer of hope in this midnight of the soul.

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3 Responses to War: Midnight of the Soul

  1. James says:

    Beautifully written and presented, James. The black and white photos really added to the narrative before re-emerging in the present with colour. Minh and Kim Phuc are such inspiring role models when it comes to forgiving others.

    I didn’t have enough time to visit Cu Chi while I was in Saigon back in January, but the War Remnants Museum was a painful and utterly depressing experience. Beyond the barely-concealed propaganda it showed humanity at its worst. I still remember the vision of fellow visitors slumped over on their chairs, on the verge of tears and shocked beyond belief. I’m thankful you managed to take some photos inside – I could not summon the strength to do the same.

    • Thanks James! I had to compel myself to look for ‘brighter’ things after I stepped out of the Museum. Depressing, indeed. And emotionally draining…maybe because it also forces you to look ‘inwardly’.

  2. Pingback: In Saigon, “Even the Nights are Better” |

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