Thursday, October 4, 2007

In the Belly of the Dragon

It was too beautiful out yesterday afternoon not to pull myself up from sleeping off a cold and head downtown to do some walking. When I got to the square, I remembered that the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum was still holding their special exhibit, “In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps,” a display of the personal stories and artifacts from Wisconsin soldiers who served in the most deadly section of Vietnam during the war.

I won’t lie, I’m a big history geek and spending some quality time in the museum is something I occasionally enjoy doing. Besides which, admission is free, and there’s really no beating that. I walked in through the Civil War displays, back beyond the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s paraphernalia, and into the modestly sized but well-designed display.

Things I learned:

  • Half of all combat deaths in Vietnam occurred in I Corps (the five northernmost provinces of the country).
  • History is in the eye of the propagandist: there’s a photo of three or four men crouched down to say prayers with a gaunt chaplain before a major battle. All of these men survived the fight. In a war museum in Vietnam, the same photograph can be found, but the caption states that all of the men shown were killed.
  • When the war first started, the NVA weren’t quite sure what to make of all the helicopters the US was using. Eventually, however, they learned to exploit their greatest weakness—need for a landing zone—and the US ended up losing a huge number of them during the course of the war.
  • US troops thought that the ace symbol in a pack of cards meant death and bad luck to the Vietnamese and would leave these cards on NVA soldiers they’d killed. The belief was incorrect.

There’s a replica of a firebase bunker in the exhibit, too, and I was both pleased and amused to see a vintage copy of Playboy sitting out, the same issue that three GIs are looking at in a photo posted nearby. This was especially funny because I’d just watched a group of young, rambunctious schoolchildren go through the display. Ah, education!

The most striking aspect of the exhibit, at least for me, was the book the museum had left out for visiting Vietnam veterans to leave their comments in. There was a combat medic, some infantry men, a marine and a cook, to name a few, and their comments ranged from things like “Brought back a lot of sad memories” to “Welcome home!” It’s those things that tend to really bring an event into focus for me. More than the artifacts, the records of campaigns and generals, it’s the people and their stories that make a thing real and important. And it reminds you why we should avoid putting them into a situation like that at all costs, a lesson we seem unable to take to heart for any real length of time.

I finished up at the exhibit and wandered on through the rest of the museum—past the World Wars, Korea and the first Iraq war. There’s still a part of me, the little girl who used to dress up and play war with her friends and even went so far as to join up with a Civil War reenacting group for some years, that wants to duck under bushes and hide behind earthworks, using sticks for guns and swords and to do battle with people I like who can always get back up again and again no matter how many times they’re “killed.” It’s the only kind of war that I ever want to be part of. But I can’t help but be both horrified and fascinated by the real thing, the human drama at its most extreme—the absolute best and the absolute worst of people. I’d be content if it was all to end, though, and the only way to study war would be to visit museums.

(photo credit: WDVA)

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