An Incoherent Reflection on POL438: America’s War in Vietnam

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Today was our last official “class” of the seminar, and at the very end, our professor (the #1 hero Atul Kohli) had us share our thoughts on the seminar: what we learned, what the best experiences were, what the worst experiences were, etc. What resulted was perhaps the best bonding moment of the seminar – an hour of honesty, reflection, and thanks as we looked back on the past six weeks, from the moment we stepped off the plane into the humid Hanoi heat to our final lunch together with our professor and Vietnamese friends. In an effort to immortalize my current thoughts on these reflections before they drift away (but mainly an effort to actively avoid starting my final paper), I thought it’d be nice to post on the PIIRS blog a recap of our feelings as the seminar comes to a close. Awkward moment when my first blog post comes on the second to last day in Vietnam – but hey, better late than never, right?

Personally, I came into this seminar, a course titled “America’s War in Vietnam”, knowing embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. What I DID know came from the movie Forrest Gump and my 11th grade US History class (but mostly from Forrest Gump). I could not have told you why the war was fought, who was involved besides the Vietnamese and Americans, which side was communist, or what on earth Ho Chi Minh did. Now, six weeks later, I can answer not only all of those questions (in case you were wondering, Ho Chi Minh led the communist North), but also tell you what the United States’ changing rationales for staying in the war were, whether they were justified, how the different presidents handled the war, and what differing perspectives on the war are (liberal vs. realist vs. radical).

This isn’t an attempt to boast, nor am I now an expert on the Vietnam War. But it’s a testament to how much I (and everyone else on my seminar) have learned throughout these past six weeks. Being an engineering student, almost all of the classes I took freshman year were STEM based. Life revolved around aggressively remembering that F = ma and V = IR, or that mergesort has a runtime of O(N log N), and forgetting a semicolon in your Java code really is the end of the world.  And while an engineering education has its own merits, I think in pursuing one, I had lost my grasp on the humanities. I came from a hyper-competitive high school in the Silicon Valley where math and science reigned supreme, and people really only took AP Literature or AP US History because of the “AP” label, not to learn the material more rigorously. I didn’t really believe in the value of humanities, as much as I wanted to – what’s the point in learning about the Vietnam War? It’s not like you’re going to walk on the streets and flash off your knowledge about the Tet Offensive.

But I can honestly say this class has made me think critically about the world, question American government and policies, and made a bigger impact on me as a person than any math, physics, or computer science class I have ever taken. Which isn’t a knock on STEM – those classes have pushed me and taught me to problem solve in a different way than this course, and I still plan to graduate with an engineering degree. But there is such a human element to the humanities that I don’t personally get from STEM courses, and that I didn’t realize I was missing until I took this course. It feels so darn good to know enough about a subject that I can formulate my opinion on it and be able to have a discussion where I’m not just blindly accepting everyone’s viewpoints. To be able to tell someone not just what happened in the war, but WHY it happened and whether I think the American leaders’ decisions helped or harmed. To be able to make connections between what happened in the war and what we should learn from it. To be able to apply what I’ve learned on this seminar to conversations that I have in daily life, whether it be relating the 2016 elections to the Nixon elections or realizing what a strong grip the media has on how we as a country view things.

I think a major point that all of us on this trip have also taken away is to “question America,” to say the least. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still incredibly proud to be American, and grateful that my parents came over 35 years ago to grant me the privileged, comfortable life I am lucky to lead today. But as the very trite saying goes, “nobody’s perfect,” our country included. One of the selling points in the description of this course was that we weren’t just going to learn the American perspective of the war, but also the Vietnamese perspective. (Historical fun fact: the war(s) for Vietnam started way before the United States even intervened. Originally, the struggle for the Vietnamese was to escape French colonialism. Long story short, the French failed to protect their colony, and the United States decided it was time to play superman to prevent Vietnam from falling to communism.) Even before starting the seminar, I realized that I learned about the Vietnam War in U.S. History, not World History, which goes to show the biased perspective you could get as a student in the United States. And being able to see the war from the Vietnamese side truly made me realize how inexcusable and unwarranted some of the atrocities we committed against the Vietnamese were.

One particularly emotional moment for us was visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I’m not much of a museum gal, but I left the museum speechless, unsure of what to think or how to feel. When you walk through the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum, you don’t get smiling pictures of soldiers. What you get is pictures upon pictures of this (sincere apologies for the graphic pictures):

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These are just three of the thousands of victims of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant we used against the Vietnamese, which resulted in birth defects in not only the victims, but also their kids (possibly for generations to come). And while we may not have MEANT to cause pain and suffering against so many innocent people, these pictures are objective proof that we still did. In trying to save Vietnam (or at the very least, save South Vietnam), we were destroying it, destroying the scenery and people that were just trying to make a life for themselves. To try and get North Vietnam to try and agree with our concessions, we bombed the living daylights out of Hanoi, partly because we were trying to make up for withdrawing troops (a story for another day), but partly because that was all we seemed to know how to do.

So no matter how good the intentions of the United States leaders may have been, there is no doubting that the actions we carried out were flawed – after all, it was indeed the first war the United States (according to most scholars) “lost.” This is why although many war veterans come back bitter and with PTSD, Vietnam War veterans perhaps are the most disillusioned – because they feel they fought a meaningless war. Whether or not they did is an interpretation up for grabs. But learning about this and being able to see this in real life, and crawl through the very Cu Chi tunnels where North Vietnamese soldiers would live for weeks, made me feel so utterly human and grounded.

I’m not entirely sure how my post digressed from being about an uninformed student to ending abruptly with an unintentional criticism of the United States…if I had written this for writing seminar, I would probably be workshopped on everything from flow to structure. But. hopefully, (if anyone actually chose to read this massive chunk of text by a procrastinating student who really needs to get started on her final essay), it gave some semblance of what I got out of this seminar! I had planned to write about Vietnam as a country and the Vietnamese language as well on this post (if not for anyone potentially reading this than for myself to look back on in a couple of years), but perhaps that should serve as a massive chunk of text on a separate post.

If anyone is still reading at this point…cảm ơn for sticking with my rambling thoughts.

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