Asia Scope

Souvenir Ethics Pt. 2: Vietnam, Camouflage, Andy Warhol

As mentioned in an earlier post, landmine warnings as t-shirt graphics and child labor-produced Burmese jade goods raise some serious questions about the ethics of ‘souvenir-ing’ in Asia.

Let’s expand a bit and think about war-related souvenirs in Vietnam. Just as a reminder, The Vietnam War cost the US a tragic 58,000 lives and Vietnam a devastating 1.5 million (a rough estimate, excluding civilian casualties). Yet, souvenir shops in certain Vietnamese museums (such as the National Vietnam War Museum) sell an extensive range of war-themed souvenirs—from US compasses and field glasses to NVA helmets and medals to shiny artillery cartridges turned flower vases and tiny sets of US flag earrings.

Ho Chi Minh t-shirts and NVM paraphernalia in particular may offend Vietnamese living overseas and thus should be displayed (or hidden) with sensitivity.

But that said, perhaps with enough time old wounds can heal…and items sold without too much meaning attached. The best example here is camouflage—the pattern itself.   

American military began wearing camouflage during the Vietnam War. The black and green pattern was well suited to jungle warfare and was adopted by armies around the world in different variations of color and print. But in the ‘60s, camouflage became a symbol of anti-war protests when some disenchanted American Vietnam veterans demonstrated wearing their uniforms. Over time it became a symbol of group identity and a statement of anti-establishment or general rebellion. Now it’s simply a common and benign part of modern pop culture and fashion.

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Andy Warhol used camouflage as inspiration. The Gagosian Gallery in NY commented on the iconic artist’s ‘Camouflage’ painting series:?‘This historically burdened design was brightened and lightened by colours to such an extent that we stand…ready to lose ourselves in the camouflages as in a landscape.’