The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton

Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison stands as a lesson on how the United States can move on after Iraq, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hanoi, Vietnam --- John McCain slept here, though not so well. For more than five years, he bedded down -- and bled, and wept, and hallucinated -- in a shared room at the god-awful Hoa Lo Prison. This was from 1967 until 1973. The downed American pilots amusingly called the place the Hanoi Hilton. The name stuck for decades afterwards.

This seemed a ripe time to visit. It was roughly to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The other day, President George Bush acknowledged that the U.S. soldier death-toll passed the 4,000 mark but declaimed that in the end it would be shown that their sacrifice would be well worth it.

You get a different perspective on that assertion visiting the capital of the last country we ill-advisedly invaded and from which we were unceremoniously expunged. You get the sense that invading another country, no matter how allegedly high-minded the motives, is in the end a loser's roll-of-the dice.

The main problem in foreign invasion is that you face the hateful resentment and resistance of the people who actually live there -- and who will still be living there decades after you have gone.

This lovely, somewhat European-styled capital city of Vietnam is studded with memorials of all kinds. But the event people here remember the most and wish to totally forget the most is the invasion by the French, then by the Japanese, and then by the Americans. Funny thing is people tend not to like invasion and occupation. Imagine.

The Hoa Lo Prison is a monument to that truth of the human heart. The complex itself is but a fraction of its former enormity. Ironically -- indeed, almost mockingly -- a glisteningly new modern apartment tower sits on a huge chunk of what used to be the Hanoi Hilton. You hear children playing and laughing in the complex's recreation area even as you peer into the dank, dusty and creepy prison chambers that held the captured over the decades.

The museum's contemporary programmers understandably emphasize the French colonial origination of this terrible place. Most of the photographs on the site's walls show the desperation of the Vietnamese independence fighters in the clutches of the vile and cruel French captors.

Not many photographs are shown of the later vile treatment of the captured American pilots at the hands of the ultimately victorious Vietnamese communists. But one startles the eye: It is of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) coming back to Hoa Lo in 2000 to revisit the slender splendors of his former enforced residency.

It is a striking picture -- and it shows, on one level, how much time has passed. McCain ended his involuntary stay at the Hanoi Hilton many years ago. But those years in the callow choking claustrophobia of communist confinement failed to eviscerate the spirit of this American patriot or diminish his capacity for generosity. Just as so many Vietnamese celebrate the bravery of their own soldiers and pilots, they respect, if not celebrate, that of such former enemies as McCain.

For sure, I for one could not have withstood six years of such living hell and emerged as McCain -- offering as he is to serve us as the next president of the United States. I do not believe I would have that in me, not remotely. I am not sure such a wartime experience alone qualifies a man for the presidency, but it cannot possibly disqualify him.

On another level, though, the Hoa Lo museum shows how little time has truly passed.  Occupation is never forgotten, the pain still marinates in the culture like a snaky subterranean sauce.

It is true that every single Vietnamese I have encountered here in the capital -- and down south in Ho Chi Minh City -- has been unfailingly warm and friendly. I have not once been made to feel like an iconic Ugly American.

But while generations change, history does not. Vietnam can throw its awkward past with us on the back burner because it needs American dollars to develop its third-world economy and it needs American sympathy to remind neighboring, hulking China that it is not the only potential bully on the block.

Presidential candidate McCain has said that immediate, presumptive withdrawal from Iraq, as Democratic contender Barack Obama overtly proposes, is not an option. The former Hanoi Hilton resident says the United States should stay in Iraq a hundred years if that is what it takes to finish the job.

But visit Hoa Lo and reflect on all that it represents, and you go away firm in the belief that McCain is not that dumb, that his stubbornness is simply a tactic to make our inevitable exit from Iraq as dignified, as low-cost and as least damaging to U.S. troops as possible. It has to be believed that notwithstanding that abyss in the Hanoi Hilton, McCain not only did not lose his soul but he did not lose his mind. This to me is the true and contemporary lesson of the Hanoi Hilton.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.