Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Disneyfication of War: Thoughts from the Military Museum in Hanoi

Entrance to the museum with a tank on display

Today was the first time I cried since arriving in SE Asia.

I was  at the Vietnam Military Museum. Outside large war planes and tanks were on display. One plane was used to carry Ho Chi Minh back and forth on business trips, but the other planes were U.S. Military aircrafts that had been captured and put on display. I was prepared to see such things. I expected it. But what I did not anticipate was the behavior of the other tourists. They climbed on the planes and posed for photographs. There were couples with arms around each others' shoulders, posing romantically in front of an aircraft. Young women holding up peace signs as if standing next to Micky Mouse, children posed around the tanks like theme park attractions. Behind their smiling faces, what may or may not have been visible in the photographs their parents took, were the bullet holes. Perhaps these people didn’t realize that they were not on a movie set. These planes were not props that were constructed for entertainment purposes, and that by posing next to them, you too could be part of the entertainment. These machines were designed to kill people, and they did. The blood was probably cleaned off them before they were put on display for tourists to photograph.

Tourists posing beside the captured planes

As I watched these people photograph themselves around the death machines, I started to cry. Their behavior scared me. It wasn’t enough to say that they were being  disrespectful to the dead. Being an atheist, I can’t say that the spirits of the deceased were floating overhead, looking disapprovingly at the tourists. It wasn’t even enough to say that they were being disrespectful to the living, to those like me who felt personally affected by the war and its legacy. Their lack of respect was not the most disquieting element of their behavior. It was their naivete, their frightening disassociation from time and place, and their unbelievable ability to be in the very presence of destruction and yet be so emotionally removed from it as to act like they were in an amusement park. 

Couples posing for a romantic portrait in front of a tank

When they look at the plane and tanks, they do not see death machines, they see sculptures. They see machines that have long since lost their purpose to kill, and now they are as harmless as water fountains and garden gnomes. As harmless as caged tigers and bears. We can stand next to wild animals and smile for photographs because  the cage protects us from the danger inside. It is no different standing next to an old military tank, only the cage is invisible. Time is the cage. We look through it and think, “The war is over,” “This has passed,” “It won’t happen again,” “I have nothing to be afraid of,” and lastly, “It can’t hurt me anymore.”  These are thoughts that only privileged people can have. Only those who did not experience war can feel safe enough to stand next to a bullet-riddled fighter plane and smile.

People died in this crash. Who were they? What lives did they live?

Some people think of time as linear. There is only forwards and backwards. Some people thing of time and circular. Not only can events repeat themselves, but it is certain that they will. What we are looking at is not the past, housed in a bullet-proof cage of time, we are looking at the present, and at the future.

Asians do not see time as racing away unutilized in a linear future, but coming around again in a circle, where the same opportunities, risks and dangers will re- present themselves when people are so many days, weeks or months wiser.”
- Richard Lewis

When I read about the Kent State Massacre as a teenager, it didn’t resonate with me. I thought protests were for the 1960s and 70s. My generation wouldn’t protest. Or even more naive was the idea that we had nothing to protest. The problems have been solved, right? Now when I re-read the history of the Kent State Massacre and look at photos, I see my friends and peers in those pictures. They are protesting the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And when I look at these war planes on display at the Military Museum in Hanoi, I see all wars and and think of the lives and deaths on every side. This is still happening. It’s not that history is being repeated, but rather, it never ended. For something to repeat, it must stop happening, then happen again. But it never stopped. It continued. The people are different, the places are different, the context is different, but the same story unfolds. 

What happened to the people in this plane? Who did they kill? How did they die?

Today two U.S. Drone strikes in Pakistan are said to have killed between 9 and 30 people.  New, deadlier machines have been made, and they are continuing to kill anonymous people. They will continue to kill. The Disneyfication of war is dangerous.  It miseducates people into believing they are safe. It allows privileged people to continue the illusion that they are protected, and to not think about, or care about, those who are not.

How many people did these machines kill? 

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