This is the first installment in our series on the evolution of conflict in today’s world, as even the meaning of that idea and the terms that constitute it continue to morph.
For the second, read anthropologist Arpan Roy’s discussion on how we must first make efforts to understand Israel, before critiquing it.
The Bloody Legacy of America’s War on Vietnam
It can be easy to forget the bloody history inflicted on Vietnam when you take a walk through modern Saigon. Trendy coffee shops and bars line the avenues, filled with young people tapping away at iPhones and laptops. A new McDonald’s restaurant has just opened, its familiar golden arches hanging in the skyline alongside a retro Soviet-style government billboard extolling the virtues of today’s Communist-led free market.
Four decades seems like a long time. When the war ended in 1975 it left three million dead. They aren’t forgotten – and how could they be? The resistance both inside and outside Vietnam offered a glimpse of how an occupying force could be defeated and a superpower brought to its knees. But for many people the brutality of the Vietnam War – or American War as it is known in Vietnam – continues.
The United States dropped around 6.3 million metric tonnes of bombs and other ordnance on Vietnam during the war. That’s more than twice the total that was dropped worldwide by Allied forces in the Second World War. By the estimates of the US department of defense, 10 per cent of those bombs did not explode on impact (and this is a conservative figure).
Up to 800,000 tons of bombs have yet to be found. They lie dormant in the soil, awaiting an application of pressure strong enough to bring them back to life. That could be a shovel, a car or a child’s footsteps.
Since the end of the conflict, some 100,000 people have been killed or maimed by this unexploded ordnance (or UXO). The exact figure is unknown, but even today it is thought that hundreds of bombs detonate every year, shattering the lives of untold Vietnamese.
Nowhere was hit harder than Quang Tri province in central Vietnam. During the war it was the northernmost province in US-controlled South Vietnam, and was on several occasions retaken by Viet Cong forces. It was destroyed nearly completely as the US tried to win what was left of it. As a result, around 83 per cent of the land is still contaminated with UXO.
Chuck Searcy, a former intelligence analyst for the US army who features in Rusting Assassins, was sent to Vietnam in 1967-68. During his deployment, any illusions he may have had about the conflict evaporated.
I met him in Dong Ha, the capital of Quang Tri, to see the work done by an organization he helped to set up in 2001 to remove UXO, Project RENEW.
“I think most non-Vietnamese are surprised at the extent of the use of ordnance during the war,” he said. “People need to be aware of the serious legacy that remains here in Vietnam and the urgency we face in trying to clean up the problem and make Vietnam safe.”
As he showed me around the group’s Mine Action Visitor Centre, a museum showing the history and legacy of the war, he still at times seemed visibly shocked at the thought of what had occurred.
“The B52 runs were incredible,” he said as he looked at a photograph of a desolate, burnt out landscape. “In Quang Tri province there was a period of 81 days, 24 hours a day bombing. Its unbelievable.
“At the beginning of the war there were 3,500 villages in Quang Tri, village meaning a community of 100, 200 families. At the end of the war there were a total of 11 villages that had any buildings still standing. That shows you how devastating the war was.”
Searcy returned to the country in 1992 to see the ongoing clean-up operation, and felt compelled to be part of the process. He eventually set up Project RENEW, a partnership between local government authorities and the Washington D.C. based Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
“Every day of my life [after returning home] I thought of Vietnam, often in good ways but sometimes painful memories. I always felt somehow that the US has a responsibility to help Vietnam recover from the devastation that had occurred here,” he said.
It would take centuries to remove all of the unexploded ordnance from Vietnam, according to some experts. But Searcy believes that the immediate task is simply to make the land safe for its inhabitants.
“It is an achievable goal, it can be done over the next five to ten years,” he said. “If we agree on the right strategy and if we put the resources in place and work closely with the Vietnamese we could make this country safe, as safe as Europe is after World War Two and World War One.
Organizations like Project RENEW work tirelessly to remove the explosive remnants of war, but they can only work within their budget. Searcy estimates that if the US donated as much money as it spent every week in Afghanistan, Vietnam could soon be safe. The US gives around $3.5 million dollars a year to the clean-up. That’s the same amount as it spends in just 20 minutes in Afghanistan.
“People should not have to worry about stepping on a bomb or having an accident because of a lack of knowledge or because of a lack of resources,” he said. “And the United States has a very strong responsibility to be the primary partner with the Vietnamese in that effort because we created the problem.”
Hand grenades, projectiles from naval vessels, mortar and land mines are also prevalent. There was little time for Uncle Sam to pack his bags when he was forced to leave, and many of his deadly toys remain. But some of the more advanced weapons used in the conflict could make the devil weep.
One of the most commonly found items of UXO in Quang Tri are cluster bombs. Hundreds of grapefruit sized “bomblets” were packed into 1.5 meter long steel vessels, designed to split apart in the air. They had an even higher rate of failure than average, at around 20 per cent. The result has been that the softball-sized bomblets, often caked in decades worth of dirt, are picked up by curious children. It is perhaps little wonder that children make up around a third of all those injured by unexploded ordnance in Quang Tri.
White phosphorus bombs – the next generation of napalm – were the also state of the art when deployed, and remain one of the most brutal weapons of war. As one US pilot explained:
“We sure are pleased with those back-room boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot – if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene — now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter [white phosphorus] so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorus poisoning.”
In the documentary I talk to Nguyen Duc Huynh, who as a child in 1994 suffered severe burns from a white phosphorus bomb when his neighbor tried to dismantle it to sell as scrap metal. Huynh became known as “the boy with no face.” There is little more horrific than seeing the consequences of this weapon, which are tragically still seen today.
One of the most chilling experiences of my life was interviewing a mother in Gaza in 2009 as she explained how her house had been hit with white phosphorus several weeks earlier.
“Shahed, my baby, was with me and died in my lap,” she said. “While she was on fire, burning, Shahed was calling ‘Mama!’ Shouting. She was shouting while the fire was burning her. I couldn’t bear to look at her, she died while burning.” Of 17 people in her home only three had survived. She watched helplessly as her family burned to death in front of her.
I use this story because the war in Vietnam was not some anomaly, a tragic but self-contained chapter in history. Today the US arms Israel to the teeth, giving nearly 1,000 times more in military aid to its ally than it does in aid to Vietnam to remove UXO. As with the US support for its puppet regime of South Vietnam, this is all in the name of protecting an ally with military power.
Rusting Assassins only concentrates on one area of the war’s legacy, but there are plenty of others. One of these is the continued issue of dioxin, the chemical used in Agent Orange. Some 20 million gallons of the toxin was sprayed across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to destroy vegetation. Children continue to be born with severe birth defects as a result, with more than 150,000 so far affected.
While the US has donated some money into removing dioxin contamination from certain areas, it still refuses to accept the link between the chemical and birth defects in Vietnam, despite doing so for former members of its own military.
Another area of concern is the UXO problem in Laos and Cambodia. Both countries were neutral in the war, yet bombed to obliteration by the US as it attempted to destroy imagined Communist bases and supply routes. US President Richard Nixon called this his “Madman Theory” of war, confiding to his chief of staff that he believed such a strategy would scare Hanoi into surrendering.
It is easy to fall into a trap of demoralization and even cynicism at the barbarism unleashed by the American War. But there is always hope. Chuck Searcy certainly thinks so.
“It’s realistic,” he said when I asked him if he saw any change coming for the UXO problem in Vietnam. “Nowadays in government budgets a few hundred million dollars is not a huge amount of money, and we spend incredible amounts of money in Iraq and Afghanistan and other military ventures around the world.
“A fraction of what we spend in those places could basically end the problem here in Vietnam, and I think that may happen in the next five to ten years.”
But world powers rarely do anything without pressure. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.”
I hope that in some small way my short film, along with other awareness campaigns, can bring the issue of the rusting assassins that sleep beneath Vietnamese soil to a wider audience. But then it’s up to that audience to take the issue further, and push the dream of a safe Vietnam into the realm of reality.