“Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam“

Scorched Earth Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam

(Image: Seven Stories Press)

Cu Chi district, a short drive from our hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, was the scene of fierce fighting during the war. It was here that men from the 25th Infantry stumbled upon a labyrinth of tunnels stretching all the way from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border. Two hundred miles of tunnels (soldiers dubbed them the “IRT,” after one of New York City’s subway lines) dug by men and women using small shovels and even spoons. Inside of these tunnels, the people General William Westmoreland called “human moles” constructed sleeping quarters, storage facilities, hospitals, and factories for building facsimiles of American weapons.

Year after year, “tunnel rats” crawled into dark, fetid, dangerous holes, trying to find and kill these “moles.” The military pumped CS gas into Cu Chi’s tunnels, planted explosives inside of them, and tried to flood them, hoping to destroy the enemy’s ability to pop out of the ground, to wound and kill unsuspecting Americans, and then to vanish without a trace.

In the late 1950s, Ngo Dinh Diem, the anticommunist aristocrat the Eisenhower administration had installed as “President” of “South Vietnam,” launched a reign of terror in Cu Chi district, arresting, torturing, jailing, and killing perceived opponents of his tyrannical regime, including thousands of Vietminh who’d fought against the French colonialists. In December 1958, Diem’s jailers fed poisoned bread to several hundred prisoners at a camp in Phu Loi, just a few miles from Cu Chi. At the village of Phuoc Hiep, north of Cu Chi town, Diem’s troops fired into crowds of peaceful marchers. Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, rounded up suspected communists and guillotined them in the public squares of small villages.

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Returning from a visit to Vietnam in May 1961, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson called Diem the “Winston Churchill of the decade… in the vanguard of those leaders who stand for freedom.” South Vietnam, said President John F. Kennedy, was a “proving ground for democracy.”

Editor's Note: Readers in New York City can join Noam Chomsky and Fred Wilcox on Monday, October 17th, from 2pm-4:30 PM, for a discussion about their recent books, “9-11: Was There An Alternative?” and “Scorched Earth.” The free event will take place at Loose Cannons Inc. on 471 West End Avenue (near 82nd Street) and will be followed by a colloquy and book-signing with Chomsky and Wilcox at The Housing Works Thrift Store, 2569 Broadway (near 96th Street). -SG

In 1961, Ngo Dinh Nhu supervised the opening of the first “strategic hamlet” camps (the Vietnamese called these places concentration camps) in Cu Chi district. The strategy was to separate Vietnamese civilians from communist insurgents. The South Vietnamese Army and later the US military destroyed entire communities, killing farm animals, ruining crops, and herding peasants into crowded camps that lacked food, water, and sanitation facilities. Peasants in Cu Chi district simply walked out of these “hamlets” and went back to whatever might be left of their homes.

On November 2, 1963, Ngo Din Diem and his brother were murdered in a coup supported by the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. In August 1964, Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” giving President Johnson powers to expand the war in Vietnam.

Forty years later, the mangrove forests and jungles that once covered the Cu Chi district are gone, leaving a landscape that resembles the fields of Iowa rather than the wilds of Southeast Asia. We pass small houses, with brown hump-neck cows standing by the front door, as though waiting to be invited inside for a glass of green tea. Rice fields, water buffalo, chickens, ducks, tiny stores and cafés tucked into flowering shrubbery, children playing beside the roads: little evidence that Cu Chi district was bombed, burned, gassed, defoliated, and bulldozed every single day for a decade.

The old soldier wears a long-sleeved shirt and shorts. His feet are bare and when he talks he appears to be listening carefully to his own words. Once, he says, this area of Cu Chi was covered with mangrove forests and jungles. Then, the spray planes appeared, moving slowly and quite low over the trees, back and forth until everything shriveled up and died.

I watch the man’s face, trying to guess what he must be thinking or feeling. Does the sound of my voice trigger visions of ambushes, firefights, and death? He pulls at his right sleeve, touches his chest, and explains that two bullets are lodged in his body, one in his right arm, and the other a few inches from his heart. After fighting for fifteen years in the forests and rice paddies, swamps and tunnels, he was blinded during a battle at Saigon’s Ton Son Hut airport. His wife serves glasses of green tea and returns to the next room to attend to their son.

Le Van Can fought first in the Cu Chi region, but moved on to other places after the forests were defoliated. In 1969, he says, the United States sprayed Agent Orange everywhere. Day after day, the planes appeared, showering the land with dioxin. He and the men in his unit tried to use their raincoats to protect them from defoliants, but the chemicals ate holes in their coats. Le Van Can’s unit moved from place to place, but it was impossible to escape the spraying; there wasn’t anywhere to hide.

He recalls that his skin got red and that it was difficult to sleep, but no one died or—so far as he knew at the time—got seriously ill from the spraying. It was only after the war that soldiers began to develop health problems. One man he knew came from Quang Tri, and when he returned home he fathered six children. Five of these children died. Many men he’d served with got sick and died after the war. He does not really know what caused their deaths, but he does recall a soldier who fathered one child, a daughter, who was born with a “big head.” She did not live very long.

Le Van Can doesn’t know whether his wife was exposed to Agent Orange, but since the US destroyed the forests in Cu Chi, she most likely ate food and drank water contaminated with dioxin.

Like all of the former soldiers we meet, our host speaks softly, without the slightest hint of bravado or, most peculiar to our American sensibilities, the tremble of anger in his voice. Perhaps, if I persisted, he might say something about the battles in which he fought, or the final push on April 30, 1975, into Saigon, ending forty years of war against the French colonialists and American armies.

I am well aware that some people still blame Vietnam for the war. They are angry because Lyndon Baines Johnson refused to drop an atomic bomb on Hanoi. They hate anyone who fought against the war, and they call veterans who fraternize with former Vietcong North Vietnamese traitors. They say the Vietnamese are still holding American prisoners of war.

This kind of thinking has been an impediment to finding the missing link that will prove, once and for all, that Agent Orange/dioxin maims and kills human beings. I came to Vietnam to write about that missing link, not to reopen wounds or to engage in futile arguments about a war that tore the heart out of my generation. I do not know, nor do I care to know, what men like Le Van Can might have done in the war. He and his family are living with the legacies of chemical warfare. We are human beings; that is our common bond; that is the only thing that should matter now.

Is there really any difference between the thirty-one-year-old invalid lying on a bamboo bed in Cu Chi and a personal friend of mine who joined the Marines when he was seventeen years old, was leading reconnaissance missions in the Northern I Corps when he was nineteen, and is now dying, slowly and painfully, from Agent Orange-related illnesses? Do American Agent Orange children deserve more help, more love and kindness, than those who lie twisted, blind, and deaf upon pallets and floors and bamboo beds throughout Vietnam?

Before he left for the war, Le Van Can fathered one normal child. When he returned, his wife carried three of their children. One died before it was born, another lived for several days, and still another survived for three years. Their son has lived for thirty-one years.

This man and his wife have allowed us to visit their home, where we photograph their seriously deformed son, and ask questions that must cause them pain. They survive through help from the Red Cross and donations from others. People come and go, curious to know if the stories they’ve heard about chemical warfare can possibly be true. Shocked by what they see and hear, they return home determined to help victims of Agent Orange. Sometimes these people follow through on promises to write their representatives, to raise money, or to do what they can to persuade the chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange to use some of their profits to help Vietnamese families.

Le Van Can lights a cigarette and we shake hands across the concrete table at which we’ve been sitting. I ask our interpreter to say that I am sorry that Mr. Can and his family are suffering from the effects of chemical warfare. She talks for a long time, the blind man nods once and does not say anything more.

Many years before this trip to Vietnam, I spent an evening with a Vietnam veteran who served with a psychological warfare (PSYOPS) unit.

“We used to play tapes from loudspeakers,” my host told me, “basically saying that the VC were telling the people that herbicides were making them sick and that the spraying was responsible for their miscarriages and illnesses. And the tapes would say that the VC are lying, that they just don’t like the sprays because it makes it hard for them to hide, and that the VC are actually poisoning people’s water so the people will think it’s the herbicides that are making them sick.

“I was young and gung-ho at the time; so I just believed the propaganda we were feeding the people. We heard the Vietnamese complain. They talked about depressions, diarrhea, colds, rashes, and spontaneous abortions. But it was a war zone, and we just figured there were a lot of diseases that we had never heard of.

“Thinking back, I recall being struck by the number of children with cleft palates. And I suffered from the same things over and over, screaming pains in my joints, pains in my gut, blood in my urine, my feet going numb. But the hardest thing to deal with was the sudden depressions that came on you. You just wanted to go out into a field and stick a pistol in your mouth and pull the trigger.”

Years before the United States launched its scorched earth campaign in Vietnam, scientists for Dow Chemical, one of the principal manufacturers of Agent Orange, were aware that dioxin is teratogenic and fetotoxic in rats and mice. In numerous studies over a period of decades, scientists have repeatedly shown that laboratory animals exposed to minute quantities of dioxin suffer catastrophic consequences.

In an exhaustive research paper, “Association between Agent Orange and Birth Defects: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” the authors write:

Results of this meta-analysis combining data from twenty-two studies support the hypothesis that exposure to Agent Orange is associated with a statistically significant increase in the risk of birth defects, with a significant heterogeneity of effects across study populations. The result complements a previous finding that the risk of spina bifida, a specific birth defect, was elevated with Agent Orange exposure.

The results of their study were:

consistent with previous animal studies. Indeed, the detrimental effect of dioxin on congenital malformations has been documented in animal studies in which dioxin was shown to act as either a teratogen or mutagen.

For example, maternal exposure to dioxin resulted in cleft palate and hydronephrosis in mice and hamsters, intestinal hemorrhage and renal abnormalities in rats, 61extra ribs in rabbits, and spontaneous abortions in monkeys.

There is evidence that mutagenic effects of dioxin can take place at the genetic level. Dioxin was found to cause chromosomal anomalies in the bone marrow cells of some specific strains of rats and mice, and stimulate RNA synthesis in rat liver. Evidence from animal studies indicates that the observed association between Agent Orange/dioxin and birth defects in humans seems biologically plausible…. among populations exposed to Agent Orange, an elevated incidence of birth defects may have occurred…. Findings from this meta-analysis support the hypothesis that exposure to Agent Orange is associated with a statistically significant increase in risk of birth defects. The biological mechanism of this association and methodological limitations of Vietnamese studies warrant the consideration of conducting a large-scale and well-designed study in heavily sprayed regions of Vietnam to further elucidate the etiology of the Agent Orange and birth defects relationship. Future studies need to include biological measures of exposure. The long half-life of dioxin makes this possible even now.

Our interpreter tells the family goodbye and I attempt to thank the woman of the house for the tea, but she has gone into the next room to care for her son.

Walking along a path back to the road, we stop to admire neat rows of bright green vines, perhaps cucumbers, soaking up the sun. It is noon, we are hungry, and have no idea where we might be going next, or how the men who accompany us manage to arrange these meetings with the people who do not have telephones or computers. Brendan stops to adjust his camera.

“Jesus, dad, he’s my age, isn’t he?” he asks.

“Yes, he’s your age,” I say.“Thirty-one years old.”

“Thirty-one years old.”

“And all that time, he’s just been there.”

“Just there.”

The ex-soldiers who accompany us climb into their car and we follow them along the dusty roads of Cu Chi district. Once, wild animals roamed this region’s forests. We pass rice paddies, clumps of trees, heaps of rubbish. A dog. Two water buffalo. Overhead, the ubiquitous electric wires that mar Vietnam’s natural beauty.

Testifying before a US Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Maureen Ryan, whose husband served with the Marines in Vietnam, and whose daughter was born with at least sixteen birth defects, lamented the toll the war had taken on veterans’ offspring.

“Just as truly as the bullets and bombs killed on the battlefields in Vietnam,” said Mrs. Ryan, “maiming thousands of our men, Agent Orange has come home from those battlefields with our men. It has come home to maim and kill additional thousands of men who naively thought they had made it home safely. It would be tragic enough if it had ended there.

“But what the United States and what our Vietnam veterans did not know was that they carried home a tremendous legacy with them. They did not know that their children were with them on the battlefield, genetically. So Agent Orange is now reaping an additional harvest of birth defects and cancers in our children and men. We are losing our children through spontaneous abortions, through miscarriages, and perhaps most tragically in the surviving children, with the horrifying birth defects.”

Angered by the Veterans Administration’s argument that it had not conducted an Agent Orange outreach program because it did not wish to confuse or frighten veterans and their wives, Ryan said, “It is not frightening when you are handed knowledge. It is much more frightening when you are kept in the dark. It is much more frightening to give birth to a child with birth defects. It is more frightening to know your husband is dying of cancer.”

In July 2009, the Bookworm bookstore in Hanoi invited me to give a public talk, at which I was asked what I thought about conducting more research studies on the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin on human beings. I answered that before we do any more studies we should find ways to help victims of the defoliation campaign. This upset one woman who argued that scientists need to crunch more numbers, juggle more statistics, and collect more evidence. But how long will it take to secure funding for these studies? And once this research is complete, exactly how many more years will it take for a panel to peer review the methodology and findings of a particular study? Once a study is deemed credible, how long will it be before scientists working for the chemical companies attempt to discredit the researchers’ findings? After five, ten, fifteen years, will the original study be tossed out or repeated, using altogether new methods for determining correlations between dioxin exposure and birth defects, cancer, and a host of other illnesses?

Meanwhile, the twisted body of a thirty-one-year-old man lies upon a bamboo pallet in Cu Chi district. His mother feeds him, changes his clothing, and massages his limbs to soothe the discomfort and pain he cannot describe. Are there one, two, five million victims of chemical welfare? Do the numbers matter? By the time more studies on the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin on human beings are completed, many more Vietnamese children will have died, leaving their parents to grieve and to wonder what their lives might have been like if their country had been allowed to live in peace.

Courtesy of Seven Stories Press.

© 2011 by Fred A. Wilcox