We flew into Ho Chi Minh City today, 2 September 2016. Seventy-one years ago, to the day, a young Ho Chi Minh climbed onto a primitive wooden platform in Hanoi and declared Vietnam free of French rule by reading the American Declaration of Independence. As he read our sacred document, American war planes flew by and tipped their wings in approval. A lot of good that did Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people. Twenty years later, the first American Marines climbed ashore in in Danang . . . you know the rest.
It’s sobering, I have to say, to be an American traveling through southeast Asia. For most of my adult life I’ve been conceptually aware of the effects of the wars we waged here during the Cold War era, but when you see it, walk through it, talk to people who suffered through it . . . that’s just an entirely different thing.
In a previous post, I told the story of our family’s visit to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. At the end of that post, I asked my readers their views on our decision to take the children to those places. Many of you got back to me (thank you for that) and the overwhelming consensus was, yes, it was the right thing to do, especially since we talked about what we witnessed and helped the kids process the experience. Here’s a follow up to that:
When we were in Siem Reap, we met to young Colombian nationals who had crafted a career for themselves as photographers and videographers. They were wonderful, smart, interesting young people. We got to talking one evening about Cambodia’s history. I told them about our experiences in Phnom Penh and one of them told me this story:
An American travel group brings American teenagers to Cambodia to build houses for people in the villages and to cycle through Cambodia. The American kids spend a month or so here, and they have a blast. At the end of their time in Cambodia, they tour used to take the kids to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, but after a while, they started getting complaints: the kids said it ruined their time Cambodia because it was so sad and that they wanted to leave the country feeling good about the places. So, the tour group started making the visits to the Killing Fields optional and, soon, no one even opted to visit.
I’m sure you can imagine my thoughts on that. So, given that and given our experiences (which I are best represented in Atticus’ post), and upon a lot of reflection and some experience in Cambodia, I’m of the mind that if you are an American and you spend any time at all in Cambodia, you are just shy of being morally obligated to go to these spaces of public memory because, as Atticus writes, “I hope that you tell other people about this horrific thing because they ought to know.” And, if that’s all we can do, then we should do that.