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Viet Nam: One Man’s Atonement in an Ocean of Grief

The following essay, penned by Viet Nam veteran Chuck Searcy, is a chapter in How the U.S. Creates Sh*thole” Countries (Clarity Press, 2018), a book of essays compiled and edited by Cynthia McKinney after the crass, derogatory phrase was used by the POTUS in January 2018.

Decades after the fighting stopped, the war has not ended in Viet Nam. The struggle continues to rid the country of bombs and mines, and to overcome the legacy of Agent Orange.


by Chuck Searcy

More than four decades after the war in Viet Nam ended, unexploded ordnance remains a serious threat to communities throughout Viet Nam. Of the more than eight million tons of munitions used by the U.S during the war, an estimated 10 percent failed to detonate on impact. This means that thousands of unstable and dangerous munitions lie on the ground or inches under the soil. According to Viet Nam’s Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, unexploded bombs (UXO) have been responsible for more than 100,000 injuries and deaths since 1975, with many of the survivors facing a lifetime of permanent disabilities. In Quang Tri Province, the former DMZ during wartime, about a third of the casualties have been children 16 years of age or younger.

Some 20 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed on jungle forests, crop lands, and rice fields in South Viet Nam (and Cambodia and Laos) from 1961 to 1971. The herbicide made by Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and other contractors contained the deadly chemical dioxin. It has caused major health problems, including cancers, birth defects, and severe psychological and neurological problems to American veterans and their children, and among a much larger population of Vietnamese families. Some of these families, comprising a population estimated by Vietnamese officials to total around three million victims, deal with the daily burden of two, three, in some cases even five, severely disabled children. These are children who may be unable to function in any normal way. Some are blind or deaf, some have cognitive limitations, they may be missing limbs or their arms and legs may be terribly misshapen, some must be watched constantly or restrained to prevent them from hurting themselves. These families are often among the poorest in Viet Nam, isolated from social services and medical care, dependent upon extended families and next-door neighbors for help.

My Return to Viet Nam

When I returned to Viet Nam in 1995 to work on a project sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) with funding from USAID, I was unaware of the extent of the problem of war legacies here. Only as I became more engaged with the Vietnamese medical and rehabilitation professionals, providing orthopedic braces for children with polio, cerebral palsy, and other birth defects and illnesses, did I become aware from newspaper and TV reports that every week children, farmers, local villagers were being blown up by bombs and mines. The fact that countless families were struggling to care for severely disabled children, thought to be affected by Agent Orange, was a revelation for me.

I had been here as an Army enlisted man in 1967 and 1968 in a military intelligence unit in Saigon. I had seen the war, especially when the 1968 Tet Offensive changed history. But in the years after my return, though I was closely attuned to problems facing U.S. veterans from Agent Orange, I was woefully uninformed about the extent of the damage still being done in Viet Nam today by Agent Orange and UXO, and the pain and sorrow that these consequences of war bring to Vietnamese families all over this country.

The war ended on April 30, 1975 for us Americans. We and the rest of the world witnessed televised images of the chaotic departure of the last U.S. helicopter from CIA headquarters in Saigon (it was not the U.S. Embassy, as is generally thought). The guns had fallen silent, after decades of war. America dropped a black curtain on Viet Nam, and we turned away.

The people of Viet Nam awakened on the morning of May 1, 1975, to the quietude of an exhausting and uncertain peace. The nation faced the grim challenge of cleaning up the damage and the devastation of the war, accounting for their nearly four million dead, caring for another four million wounded, and looking for 300,000 soldiers and civilians who were missing and unaccounted for.

Destruction beyond comprehension

The physical devastation was almost beyond comprehension at that time. Few images reached citizens of the U.S., so we were mostly unaware of the extent of the catastrophe, both damage to the physical infrastructure and the personal trauma Vietnamese had to face after years of warfare that divided families and loyalties.

Industry was virtually non-existent in both the north and south. The country’s infrastructure, including critical agricultural production, had been badly damaged. In the South there were roughly 20,000 bomb craters. Among the 10 million refugees who swarmed into urban areas during and after the war were an estimated 250,000 drug addicts, 300,000 prostitutes, and three million unemployed – soon to be increased by the demobilization of half a million soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam.

Relentless U.S. bombing campaigns over nearly a decade took a terrible toll. Of 21,000 Vietnamese villages that existed before the war, 13,000 or 62 percent had been severely damaged or destroyed. Some 950 churches and pagodas were destroyed by bombing, along with 350 hospitals and 1,500 maternity wards, and nearly 3,000 high schools and universities. More than 15,000 bridges were destroyed while 26 million bomb craters were created, mostly by B-52s.

The people of Viet Nam woke up on May 1st to the arduous task of rebuilding their country, against overwhelming odds. Crops had to be planted in fields where the process might be a deadly one, due to landmines or cluster munitions or artillery rounds. Simple houses had to be constructed from the ground up, built on rubble from the war’s destruction. Water systems and irrigation had to be restored. Roads had to be reopened. Schools had to be rebuilt or repaired, hospitals had to adjust from wartime emergencies to conventional civilian care, which would now include post-war medical consequences.

There may have been some hope among a few optimistic Vietnamese that the U.S. would follow the enlightened approach of the Allies toward Germany and Japan after World War II, when the Marshall Plan was launched to help rebuild those countries after the destruction they had suffered in the war. That was a generous stroke of enlightened self-interest, intended to stabilize a troubled world, protect an uncertain peace, and provide a bulwark against Communism.

Some Vietnamese assumed that the U.S. might be equally pragmatic and “generous” toward Viet Nam. They thought, at the very least, the U.S. would stand by our pledge, documented in a letter from President Nixon to North Vietnam’s leadership, to help rebuild the country from ruinous bomb damage.

Nixon promised to “contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam” in the amount of roughly $3.25 billion in aid over five years, to help rebuild Viet Nam. The funds were to become available once the Paris Peace Accord was signed which occurred on Jan. 27, 1973.

It was not to be

Not only did the U.S. renege on that promise officially, after Jimmy Carter became President, but the U.S. had already imposed a crippling economic embargo against Viet Nam and persuaded other nations to follow. That meant that Viet Nam could not import or export goods and services as other nations did routinely, so the country’s economic recovery was severely hampered. Viet Nam also became isolated politically, which was the goal of American officials.

It was not until February 1994 that President Bill Clinton lifted the US trade embargo against Vietnam. He tied the move to Viet Nam’s unexpected cooperation in searching for the remains of missing American military personnel, most of whom had been shot down during bombing missions and whose remains had not been recovered.

Long after the embargo was lifted, a Vietnamese doctor complained to me about one of the injustices the embargo had caused. He noted that only in the year 2000 was Viet Nam able to eradicate polio, after the embargo was lifted and medical professionals could procure components needed for polio vaccine.

Normalization of diplomatic relations

Americans might be surprised that the U.S. has driven hard bargains in our dealings with the Vietnamese, even after the political and military humiliation we suffered in “losing” the first war in our history (or maybe it’s because of that historical indignity). Even in the early days of our engagement in Viet Nam, when the French were still ruling the country as colonial masters, the U.S. provided some 80 percent of the funds and military equipment the French used in their desperate and losing battle against Ho Chi Minh’s independence forces.

We never fully endorsed the Geneva Agreements, intended to bring peace to Viet Nam under Vietnamese rule for the first time in a thousand years. Instead, while espousing democratic traditions, President Eisenhower cancelled nationwide elections to choose a new government in 1956, because he knew that, in his words, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected with 80 percent of the vote. And that was unacceptable to the U.S. So much for democracy.

The bloody war years that followed were rife with examples of missed opportunities and misunderstandings that cost millions of lives and set the U.S. on a path to perpetual war without congressional approval.

I remember how hopeful I was on April 30, 1975 when the war in Viet Nam was finally over. Though the experience for America had been a bitter one, at least we had learned a valuable lesson, I thought, and we Americans would never let something like this happen again.

How wrong I was! The wars continue, without congressional approval, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and usually with the full-throated endorsement of the mainstream media who seem no longer capable of asking probing and intelligent questions.

A hard bargain

In 1995, when the U.S. and Viet Nam were very close to a comprehensive agreement to normalize diplomatic relations – something that both countries had sought to achieve – the U.S. still stubbornly drove a hard bargain. Case in point: exchange of property and equipment belonging to the two sides during time of conflict. There were items such as the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC which had been shuttered during the embargo, and now would be reopened as the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. That was a no-brainer. And we got some property in Viet Nam that had belonged to us, including the former U.S. Embassy site in Ho Chi Minh City which is today the U.S. Consulate.

There were a few oddities. IBM Corporation was compensated for computers the company had left behind, in the final days before the end of the war in Saigon. A U.S. government employee who had lived in a villa in the seaside town of Vung Tau was unable to take his ski boat and Evinrude motor with him in the final hours of April 30th. He was reimbursed several thousand dollars for the beach toys he had left behind.

Most significantly, the U.S. insisted that Viet Nam must repay a debt incurred by the Saigon government, a government which no longer existed, of some $140 million USD in loans that had never been reimbursed. After protracted negotiations, the Vietnamese gave in, and made an initial down payment of $15 million. Luckily, sanity prevailed. When Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. John Kerry got wind of the deal, they intervened with special legislation that converted the debt to a scholarship fund enabling Vietnamese students to study in the U.S. and American students to study in Viet Nam. That compromise softened some of the bitterness caused by our demand.

Remaining legacies of the war

Now, after two decades of “normalized” relations between our two countries, the U.S. is finally demonstrating unprecedented flexibility and sensibility, and earnestness, in dealing with the remaining legacies of the war – UXO and Agent Orange.

In Quang Tri Province, I have been associated with Project RENEW since the effort was launched in 2001 as an agreement between the provincial government and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). When this agreement came to an end in 2011, the effort continued without interruption and now RENEW’s main partner is Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), one of the leading humanitarian disarmament organizations in the world. Our mission is to make Quang Tri Province safe from unexploded ordnance such as mines, cluster bombs, grenades, and artillery rounds.

This is done through a survey methodology that consists of interviewing local people and comparing their knowledge on the ground with bombing maps provided by the U.S. Department of Defense. Demining teams then pinpoint the location of ordnance based on evidence, saving time and money. The ordnance is identified and safely detonated or removed to a demolition site.

In the past 10 years, RENEW and NPA teams have destroyed nearly 70,000 bombs. The number of accidents has gone down – from an average of around 70 a year going back to 1975 to one fatality in 2016. The year 2017 was the first year since 1975 without a single fatality in Quang Tri Province. (There were three minor injuries, not requiring hospitalization – luckily.)

Meanwhile, school children, farmers, local villagers are taught how to identify the ordnance they find, and how to report it immediately to one of the RENEW-NPA teams. The result has been an increasing number of reports, a growing number of UXO cleaned up, and a decreasing rate of accidents. Last year RENEW-NPA mobile teams received more than 1,000 call-ins, resulted in 4,175 bombs being destroyed.

RENEW also provides support including rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs and orthopedic braces to Vietnamese who have been disabled by bombs and mines. Some 1,800 amputees have received artificial limbs. There are still around 200 on the waiting list. RENEW also supports three blind workshops, providing incomes for UXO victims who lost their sight in bomb or mine accidents. They make brooms, toothpicks, incense sticks to sell and generate extra income for their families.

These projects have been supported by individual veterans and organizations such as Veterans For Peace (VFP), foundations and other institutions, and governments including Norway, Ireland, Japan, and Taiwan. From the first days of international cooperation in Viet Nam on the issue of unexploded ordnance, the U.S. government – through association with NGOs – has been a willing supporter and donor, although modestly at the beginning. That has changed. Now the U.S. government is by far the largest donor in the UXO cleanup effort, providing some $40 million in the past five years to RENEW and NPA, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), PeaceTrees, and Golden West Humanitarian Foundation (GWHF).

Agent Orange

The impact of Agent Orange lingers, and no one knows for how long into the future. The “herbicide” that the chemical companies concocted to strip the trees of leaves and to destroy food crops and other vegetation to expose the enemy was, we were assured, totally safe. No harm could come to human beings.

Now we know Agent Orange – specifically the dioxin by-product from its manufacture – is the most toxic substance known to man. It has caused terrible medical problems for thousands of American veterans and, according to the Vietnamese, an estimated three million Vietnamese. The U.S. Veterans Administration has budgeted more than $10 billion annually in medical benefits to American veterans affected by Agent Orange. No support, other than some funding for disability programs, has been directed to Vietnamese families suffering from Agent Orange.

However, after years of political posturing and public denials of any proven connection between Agent Orange / dioxin and problems believed to be associated with the chemical, the U.S. government has moved in a more positive direction in recent years. Focusing first on the residual contamination that exists in Viet Nam, former U.S. military bases where barrels of Agent Orange were stored, loaded onto airplanes, or otherwise handled (and often carelessly), the governments of both countries have agreed to cooperate in cleaning up the dioxin which has been found in the soil and water in the two largest and most immediate sites: the airport at Da Nang, and the former airbase at Bien Hoa. The Da Nang project has been completed, at a cost of $105 million, and the U.S. has now committed to move next to the Bien Hoa airbase, which will certainly be even more expensive.

Meanwhile, in another important shift in direction, USAID is providing funds that can be channeled to efforts that will support families with members who suffer severe disabilities, presumed to be related to Agent Orange. That effort, hopefully, will bring additional balance to the picture and answer some of the critics who have accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in recognizing medical problems among American veterans, but refusing to acknowledge that those same problems exist among the Vietnamese population.

Doing the right thing

Ironies abound as we look at woeful, sometimes overwhelming humanitarian needs that exist in places like Viet Nam, and among American veterans and their children, only because we are too eager to use the military as our first, and often our only, option. We act hastily, with inadequate information, without careful consideration of future consequences, and apparently with no concern for human, environmental, and financial costs. Then, when the enormity of the problems becomes apparent, and the bill comes due, we resort to denial, or outright lying to try to cover up the culpability – which usually should be spread widely.

There are times when the U.S. does the right thing. It may be late, and that’s unfortunate because much suffering has occurred because of such delays and indecision, or resistance among some in key positions of authority. We should get on it. It’s late, but we still can introduce some sense justice and fairness, some basic ethics, in our relations with Viet Nam. We can embrace, finally, the kind of old-fashioned morality that can make us a better people, and a better nation.

 

One Response to Viet Nam: One Man’s Atonement in an Ocean of Grief

  1. Ron Unger says:

    Great essay! Thank you for this eye-opening and heartfelt exposition of the pain and suffering wrought by this war on the Vietnamese people (and of war in general, which always has these results). Waging war on foreign soil makes it so much easier to forget (or to remain ignorant of) the level of destruction and lasting impacts that modern warfare has on those living in the war zone. It’s one thing to drop bombs or spend a few months in a combat zone and then return home where no bombs have ever fallen or any highly carcinogenic and transgenerational-birth-defect causing chemicals have ever been widely sprayed. But it is another thing entirely to experience the murder of your friends and family, the mass destruction of your home, infrastructure and ecological support system and then be left to clean up the mess on your own while having simultaneously to deal daily with the physical and psychological impact of the trauma.

    Knowing the inevitable destructive result of war, it would be unacceptable to most (especially those living in the “war zone”) to ever engage in war, even if there were a “good” argument for doing so. But it is such an additional insult to humanity that the US engaged in the campaign of mass destruction and suffering on Vietnam simply because the US leadership calculated that violent force would be strategically more advantageous for global power consolidation than allowing a democratically elected leader in Vietnam.

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