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International Law framed through photos of the Vietnam War
For U.S. students studying abroad on the Fall 2018 Voyage of Semester at Sea, the story of the Vietnam War has been ingrained through history classes, remembrances, and popular culture, shaping an American-centric understanding of the war. However, stories can be told from different perspectives and voyagers enrolled in the International Law class had the opportunity to hear some of those different perspectives during their field class in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Through Semester at Sea’s comparative model of learning, there is no better way for those history lessons to be challenged and understood in new, more global perspective than to meet local people in Vietnam affected and touched by the war.
Taught by Dr. Michael Fowler, the field class component of International Law allowed students to dive deep into an international conflict that still affects the lives of Americans and Vietnamese citizens today.
“Unfortunately, the Vietnam War was one in which the laws of war were frequently violated. This was true on both sides of the conflict,” said Fowler, who currently teaches as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. Over time, international law has played an important part in specifying and codifying — that is, putting into the form of a legal code or convention — just how upstanding soldiers ought to behave.”
A Pulitzer Prize winner shares his story through photos
The day began in the small home of a former United Press International photographer, also a Vietnamese citizen, who documented the Vietnam War and won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. His house was small, but the rooms were filled with war articles and relics from the war. His portfolio was humble—nothing more than prints kept in small photobooks that were passed around to voyagers. But it was clear that he still harnessed the pain from events that happened decades ago through each photo he shared, at one point breaking down over the discussion of photographers who gave their lives to tell the real story.
“People on both sides have regretted how the laws of war were so often ignored in that conflict,” said Fowler. “Exploring how the media covered the war, back in the 1970s, can shed light on these important issues.”
Following an emotional conversation about the Vietnam War from one of the photographers were endured it from the ground, voyagers visited the War Remnants Museum: a three-story building that showcased the war from the Vietnamese perspective as a whole.
“I saw this photo of a mother and her kids…she was staring and just looked confused and all her kids looked scared too,” said Jack Weber, a senior studying International Relations at the University of Tampa. “No one knows what to do in those situations when everything has just been thrown apart and your life is in the middle of nowhere.”
Just as it had been in the 1970s, the images and photography from the war were showcased front and center in an attempt to challenge what many voyagers may have learned about the war before arriving in Vietnam.
“It messed me up a little bit after, I was just sort of in a daze for a few hours afterward,” said Weber. “With us studying international law, it was like putting a face to the name when talking about war crimes.”
But with every emotional moment or somber image shown from the Vietnam War, there was a light of inspiration and hope when it came time to talk to Vietnamese students about what voyagers had just experienced. At the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, lecturer Gung Nguyen presented the history of the Vietnam War as a stepping stone to discuss Vietnamese resiliency and forgiveness.
“Many good things happen with reconciliation,” said Nguyen. “If we just dwelled on the past and continued to feel the resentment or regret or other negative emotions, good things would never happen to us. So we have to move on.”
As Fall 2018 Voyagers and students from Vietnam National University mingled and shared their stories with one another, it became clear that reconciliation and understanding is possible in multitude of ways — through the statutes and mandates voyagers are learning about in their International Law class onboard the MV World Odyssey, and, just as importantly, through the individual interactions that broaden understanding and perspectives.