This scene of overgrown wild grasses and trees, broken headstones, and mounds of fresh earth was once the site of the national military cemetery of the former Republic of Vietnam. Inaugurated in 1966, it housed the remains of the soldiers of the South Vietnamese military who passed away in the latter half of the war. Now, decades later, this abandoned and vandalized cemetery outside of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is the last resting place for the old South Vietnamese regime in Vietnam. Since the takeover, their cemeteries have been paved over and replaced with industrial parks and playgrounds, often without proper reburial of remains.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government opened the cemetery to public use, with a clear purpose: if anyone may bury their dead here, then it is no longer an ARVN military cemetery, and the final neglected monument to the old government will fade from the country’s memory. Now called Binh An Cemetery, a brick kiln and factory has already been established on a portion of the site where the honored graves of the dead once stood. Untended and desecrated, the cemetery throbs with the pain of an open wound, where those who should have been honored and respected were outcast instead.
One need not look far to find historical examples of post-war respect for the dead. Just as history is littered with examples of prejudice, discrimination and vengeful behavior on the part of peoples and governments, it has also witnessed the overcoming of such prejudices in favor of a common future.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) deeply divided North and South in a bloody and brutal conflict that pitted brother against brother. For years after the war ended, the two sides remained hostile and embittered. Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia was founded during the war as a military cemetery by Union General Montgomery C. Meigs on the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the war, it was considered a Union cemetery, even though hundreds of Confederate soldiers were also buried there. As a result, families of the fallen Confederate soldiers were not allowed to decorate the graves of their relatives and, in some cases, were not even permitted to enter the cemetery.
Finally, in 1900, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a special section for Confederate war dead, as a gesture of national reconciliation. Almost 500 Confederate officers, soldiers, wives, and civilians rest in concentric circles around a towering monument to the Confederate dead. Of the many inscriptions on the base of the monument, this one, attributed to the Reverend Randolph Harrison McKim, captures the spirit of the memorial:
Not for fame or reward, Not for place or for rank, Not lured by ambition, or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it. These men suffered all sacrificed all dared all-and died.
Another example from the American Civil War, Camp Chase, located in Columbus, Ohio, was a Union POW camp for Confederate soldiers. Those who died while in captivity were buried here. After the war ended, the site was allowed to deteriorate until restored at the turn of the century. Now well tended as a historical site, at its center rests a memorial with the word, “Americans,” chiseled in its arch.
In 1954, less than 10 years after WWII, the German War Graves Commission extended its mission to the establishment and upkeep of cemeteries abroad. In Normandy alone, the Service d’Entretien des Sépultures Militaires Allemandes (German Military Burials Maintenance Service or S.E.S.M.A.) maintains six main German cemeteries honoring WWII war dead. In the UK, the Commonwealth Graves Commission oversees the Cannok Chase German War Cemetery of WWI and II dead. The fallen German soldiers, hardened enemies to the British and French in both wars, are treated with respect. Though they were enemy combatants, they share a common humanity, and should be allowed to rest in peace. It is difficult to recognize this in a wartime enemy, but it is necessary to reconcile with the past and move forward.
These men may have fought on opposing sides, but they were all Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the future of their cherished country. How can we allow some to be glorified while others are cast aside and forgotten? The Vietnamese government shames itself by allowing these offenses to continue, yet the administration even now has a chance to do what is honorable by respecting each of its fallen countrymen. To do so, the government must cooperate with our efforts.
The Returning Casualty has applied for a permit to restore the Bien Hoa Cemetery. When given permission, we intend to properly bury the unidentifiable remains we discover in reeducation camp graves and a group of unknown soldiers found in a mass grave on the grounds. While those who died in the reeducation camps were civilians imprisoned by the Vietnamese government after the war ended, many were ARVN soldiers and officers, and all were servants of their country who deserve distinction for their sacrifice.
In Vietnam, there will be a place to remember the past. Left untended, the wounds of the war cannot heal.