Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hanoi Hilton...a history lesson

I had an extra day in Hanoi and wasn't sure what to do with it. It's not that there's not a million things to do and see in Hanoi, it's that it's summer and the summer weather is just plain torture.

It AMAZES me to see people walking around in jeans and long sleeve shirts. If I could I'd be naked with one of those umbrella hats that fit snug on your head and the umbrella cleverly shades your head. And why stop there? I would even buy one of those little battery operated mini handheld fans, shimmy it to a string and creatively find a way to tie it around myself so that the fan was blowing directly on my sweaty head. Seriously. Hanoi is hot as hell and 100% humidity to boot.

I had toyed with the idea of leaving a day earlier than planned and going to Taiwan but then I remembered my dad had said it would really be cool if I checked out Hoa Lo prison, which is commonly known as the "Hanoi Hilton". If you read my last post you have probably figured out that I'm very superstitious. On top of that I believe in ghosts and spirits and all that jazz. I just do. As a result I have absolutely no desire to hang out in cemeteries or any other place known to hold dead bodies or where people were cruelly treated and killed. And I'm pretty sure that Hanoi Hilton fits this description quite well.

However, my dad has a fairly strong influence on me and I would do pretty much anything for the coolest dude on earth...aka my dad. He's a huge history buff and growing up I remember him trying to teach us history and connecting it with what was going on at the present moment. There was always a lesson of which I'm pretty sure I missed the majority, it was just his excitement when telling the stories that made me stick around. So I decided I would visit the prison, maybe I'd learn something. I did not know anything about the prison other than the bits I've heard about McCain being held there after his plane was shot down in the 70's.

What I found most interesting is that the prison was built by the french to imprison (mostly) political prisoners during the early 1900's. The photos and letters and descriptions of the kind of treatment the Vietnamese prisoners endured were pretty disturbing. I made myself go and see the guillotine which seemed like such a simple machine considering what it was made for. Seeing the guillotine wasn't quite as scary as looking at the baskets that lined the walls next to it. These baskets were used to hold the severed heads. I didn't last too long in that room.

The part that bothered me was the way they portrayed the part of the prison's history when American soldiers were held there. It seemed too unbalanced especially considering you get to this part of the prison after seeing how the Vietnamese were treated by the French earlier that century.

My understanding was that the prisoner's who were held there and then released stated they were treated poorly (to put it mildly). The prison, however, displayed only very positive looking images such as clean clothes and new toiletries that were given to the soldiers upon arrival. There were Christmas drawings that the prisoners' made and a photo collage of soldiers decorating a Christmas tree. There were letters from the prisoners stating they were treated very well. I had to do some digging around to figure out why the current Vietnamese government was making such an obvious deliberate effort to make this all look so positive.

In a nutshell, "although North Vietnam had signed on to the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded "decent and humane treatment" of prisoners of war, the North Vietnamese saw U.S. bombing attacks as "crimes against humanity". As a consequence, severe torture methods were employed. The aim of the torture was usually not acquiring military information but to break the will of the prisoners, both individually and as a group. The goal of the North Vietnamese was to get statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. Such POW statements would be viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW so subjected made a statement of some kind at some time."

Ah ha!

Now I understood. Like my dad said, "When you win the war, you get to write the story."



P.S. The Vietnamese refer to the war as the "American War". Interesting, no?

1 comment:

Tom B. said...

What an amazing trip you are having. Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone could experience cultures around the world.