In 2006, I visited Vietnam to do research on the environmental effects of the conflict known to the Vietnamese as “The American War” and to the citizens of the United States as “The Vietnam War.” I spent six weeks crisscrossing the territory of what had once been South Vietnam, traveling from the still-denuded former DMZ to the boggy Ca Mau Peninsula.
At Quang Long, on the southernmost tip of Vietnam, I rented a motorized sampan and hired a Vietnamese guide to take me into the U Minh forest. While visiting Pleiku, I rented a car and drove out to the weed-covered and shell-strewn former U.S. Special Forces camp at Plei Mei. Later in the trip, I took a bus from Hue to the former U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh.
What became apparent during all of these excursions to former battle sites was that the scars of a long-ago war remain readily visible across the Vietnamese landscape. Take for example the U Minh forest – it is almost entirely gone. In April 1968, the U.S. Air Force firebombed the forest to deny it as a sanctuary to the Vietcong. Over the course of several days, American planes doused the U Minh with napalm. After smothering the forest floor and trees in jellied gasoline, a series of intense fires erupted. Weeks later, when the fires subsided, only fifteen percent of the original forest remained intact. The U Minh forest never recovered from that aerial assault.
At Plei Mei, my guide told me that under no circumstances should I wander off any of the trails around the former camp, otherwise I risked stepping on, and detonating, an old land mine, dud bomb, or buried artillery shell. Four decades after the Battle of Plei Mei, a person could still die there. On the bus ride out to Khe Sanh, I viewed stunted vegetation on both sides of Route 9, the result of Agent Orange. Although Agent Orange hadn’t been sprayed in the area since the early 1970s, the vegetation was still being affected by the toxins stored in the soil.
Toward the end of my 2006 trip, I took a bus from Dong Ha to Hue along Route 1. The late Bernard Fall popularized this section of Route 1 in his 1961 book, Street Without Joy. According to Fall, French soldiers fighting in the First Indochina War (1946-1954) referred to the road and the surrounding countryside as the “Street Without Joy” because of the high level of combat that took place in the area.
Like the French, American GIs found the Street Without Joy to be dangerous and unpleasant. Fierce fighting occurred adjacent to the road in 1967 as part of the “border battles” between the North Vietnamese and U.S. Marines. Even more fighting occurred in the area during the Tet Offensive. Bernard Fall experienced firsthand the hellishness of the Street Without Joy – he died there on February 21, 1967, after stepping on a Vietcong land mine.
The Street Without Joy is still a somber place. On the day I saw it, dark low clouds hung over the land, draping rice paddies, sand dunes, water buffaloes, and toiling Vietnamese peasants in a grey shroud. The thousands of grime-streaked burial crypts on either side of Route 1 between Hue and Quang Tri City only added to the melancholy scene. Those crypts admit a horrible truth – people died here in large numbers, felled by shells, bullets, and bombs.
But the crypts are not the only evidence of war. Round, water-filled depressions reveal where mortar shells, rockets, artillery rounds, and bombs exploded. At some locations, I saw where a string of big bombs from a B-52 raid had created a staggered line of craters that stretched for a mile or more into the distance. The craters made by the B-52s resemble the footprints of some giant beast that had once trodden across this forlorn land.
Between 1962 and 1973, the United States dropped millions of bombs on South Vietnam. By the end of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam had become the most heavily bombed country in the world. Because of changes in aerial warfare, including less of a reliance on unguided iron bombs, South Vietnam will likely forever remain the most bombed country in world history.
There are areas today in Quang Tri Province (immediately south of the former DMZ) that are still off limits to human foot and vehicle traffic because of unexploded ordnance buried in the earth. I saw one of these places. It lay just to the west of Route 1. Vietnamese authorities had cordoned off the area with barbed wire. Signs stood at regular intervals around the area’s perimeter, warning people to stay out or risk death. The land inside the barbed-wire enclosure looked as though a colossal roto-tiller had passed through it on its way to hell. The ground had been churned into a disorderly mess of hillocks and holes. I wondered if a B-52 arc light raid had created this chaotic scene or whether it had been the result of thousands of exploding artillery shells. Weeds, brush, and small trees had grown atop the jumbled landscape. Only a tremendous amount of human effort could heal the wounds still visible here and elsewhere along the Street Without Joy. The unexploded ordnance would have to be found and safely removed, the weeds and brush would need to be cleared away, and then the land would have to be levelled and replanted in native vegetation or crops. I wondered about the chemicals and shrapnel impregnated in the soil from the force of the initial blasts. Could any of that toxic material be taken out of the earth? If not, what are the long-term effects of such materials on soil fertility, the safety of nearby water wells, and ultimately human health?
The most surprising thing I saw that day on Route 1 was a billboard just off the shoulder of the road. The big, rectangular sign depicted a Vietnamese peasant in a conical hat holding a handsaw and cutting into a large dud bomb. A red circle with a diagonal crossbar covered the image of the peasant and his American bomb. The message of the billboard was easy to understand – “Do Not Saw Into Dud Bombs!” Since the 1960s, the poor of Vietnam have been gathering the U.S. military’s metal waste to augment their meager incomes. In order to safely transport a dud bomb to a scrap metal collection center, the powder must first be extracted from the device. It’s this dangerous work that has taken the lives of an unknown number of Vietnamese. Other Vietnamese have died when they stepped on dud bombs or when their plows struck ordnance buried beneath their rice paddies. Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs claims that 105,000 people have either been killed or wounded by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war in 1975. If half of those recorded casualties died from their wounds, the Vietnamese have suffered nearly as many deaths since the end of the Vietnam War as the United States suffered during the Vietnam War.
The death of Vietnamese civilians by unexploded ordnance has been publicized repeatedly in the West. But the environmental effects of U.S. bombing have received almost no media attention. The explosives dropped in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had profound environmental consequences that are still negatively influencing the people of Indochina.
Bombing and artillery shelling altered hydrology, contributed to deforestation, injected heavy metals and toxic chemicals into millions of hectares, created millions of breeding ponds for malarial mosquitoes, rendered former agricultural land untillable, and displaced or killed mammalian species – including the Asian elephant and Asian tiger. The U.S. blew entire regions of Vietnam into a moonscape and then left the rubble to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese not only suffered the indignity and terror of being shelled and bombed for over a decade, they also endured the added indignity of having to adapt, without the assistance of the United States, to the environmental effects of the most destructive bombing campaign in human history.