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The Numbing Effects of War Tourism

Jessica Von Wendel

            I grew up near an army base, so I always knew the sounds of guns and artillery, but the sounds I heard while visiting the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam were something entirely different.  When I first varrived at this war site, I viewed a black and white documentary depicting the heroism of the guerilla fighters and the pride they took in killing American soldiers.  This film could be described as Communist propaganda and was not softened for potentially sensitive American visitors.  As the anthropologist Christina Schwenkel describes, “a mural depicting scenes of bloodied U.S. soldiers caught in the clenches of bamboo traps or falling onto piercing stakes demonstrates the efficacy of the rudimentary yet inventive defense system and signifies a celebratory form of Vietnamese historical memory: the defeat of the United States.”  This is how the Vietnamese experienced and view the war, and there isn’t anything inherently deceptive about it: what is intriguing is how this site is experienced by Americans.

            Before I knew what I was doing I was getting my picture taken on an American tank that had been destroyed by a Vietnamese mine.  Everyone was smiling and having their friend photograph them.  The minute I stepped down I felt a wave of guilt and disgust that overpowered me and lasted for the rest of the tour.  Somehow the Vietnamese have been able to transform an area of brutal devastation into an amusement park.  Americans were smiling and laughing on ground where numerous people were killed. 

            As we walked farther we reached the firing grounds where for $1.60 a bullet you can fire an AK-47.  I had originally planned on doing this despite being a pacifist.  I kept thinking: when else in my life would I have such an opportunity?  As we came out of the wooded area and into the range I heard the shots: incredibly loud single blasts with an occasional piercing rapid fire.  My heart stopped and I couldn’t walk any further.  Everyone else went up to buy bullets or look at the war souvenirs for sale.  I looked at my friend and she asked if I felt strange and we agreed the energy of the place was all wrong.  She actually started crying and so we left the group and went back into the jungle where the sounds of the guns were muffled. 

            The Vietnamese government designed these war sites for tourists, but the Vietnam War was only thirty five years ago.  The generation that experienced it first hand is still alive.  This was not some battle that happened hundreds of years ago.  Yet our guide was able to lead American students through stations that depict the brutality of war against soldiers of our parents' generation without evoking much emotion.  Through the amusement attraction design of the tour, Americans were compelled to have their picture taken on a destroyed US tank and even fire a gun similar to the one that killed drafted young American boys.  Transnational war tourism is becoming even more popular as people search for a shock factor.  The site itself is a historical site, but the disregard for sensitivity on both the presentational side of the Vietnamese government and the absent minded reaction of the visitors degrades it to a spectacle.   From visiting the gas chambers of the holocaust, to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or the Chu Chi tunnels; it seems as if transnational war tourism is universal in its attempt to numb visitors to brutality. 

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