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The Vietnam War Is Over. The Bombs Remain.

Published on: March 20, 2018

Filed Under: Connections to Today, Featured, Legacies: Unexploded Ordnance

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Photo: A man who was injured in 2011, while digging for metal to sell, by a bomb that had been dropped by American planes during the Vietnam War. Jorge Silva/Reuters.

Dear all – 

This is an academic list serve, not a list serve for laypeople to declare that they know better than scientists who have devoted their lives to the issue what the impacts of Agent Orange are. I strongly object to list members passing their opinions off as expert analysis, when we academics have access to research and data that actually does show:

1) Agricultural areas were regularly sprayed, either inadvertently or advertantly, with Agent Orange during the war. Many highland populations lived in landscapes where forests and fields are not distinguishable from the air and as a result, whole villages (including many who were noncombatants) were exposed to AO sprays. The 1974 National Academy of Sciences studies used sampling of sprayed areas and documented multiple types of villages exposed: mangrove cutting villages, delta canal side villages, plantation villages (eg rubber), lowland rice villages in coastal areas and highland swiddening villages. See Thomas, William L. 1974. The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam. Part B. Working Papers: Economic Stress and Settlement Changes; Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences;  Hickey, G. 1974. The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam. Part B. Working Papers: Perceived Effects of Herbicides Used in the Highlands of South Vietnam. Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences; Carrier, Joseph M. 1974. The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam. Part B. Working Papers: Estimating the Highlander Population Affected by Herbicides. Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences
2) Agent Orange’s toxicity comes not from being a pesticide per se but because it was contaminated in the manufacturing process with dioxin (TCDD), and according to the US EPA and others, dioxin is a proven carcinogen and is associated with specific health outcomes including some cancers. US veterans receive support for a list of specific diseases associated with AO exposure – which has not been extended to Vietnamese similarly exposed. The US EPA and National Academy of Sciences both have thoroughly reviewed this issue – hardly institutions spouting ‘pseudoscience’. Please see the 2012 report EPA’s Reanalysis of Key Issues Related to Dioxin Toxicity and Response to NAS Comments https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris/iris_documents/documents/supdocs/dioxinv1sup.pdf. 
3) The incidence of birth defects between north and south in Vietnam is not a valid data point given that many people from the North were exposed to AO while in service during the south, and then returned home. Since 1996 both the Veteran Affairs dept and US EPA recognize birth defects (spina bifida and neural tube defects) as associated with paternal exposure to AO in US veterans – again, this recognition/assistance has not been extended to Vietnamese who were similarly affected. These conclusions are based on multiple lines of evidence published in peer reviewed medical literature. See: Ngo AD, Taylor R, Roberts CL, Nguyen TV. Association between Agent Orange and birth defects: systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Epidemiol 2006;35:1220–30; Ngo, Anh Duc, Richard Taylor, and Christine L. Roberts. “Paternal Exposure to Agent Orange and Spina Bifida: A meta-analysis.” European Journal of Epidemiology 25 (2010): 37–44; Kang, Han K., Clare M. Mahan, Kyung Y. Lee, Carol A. Magee, Susan H. Mather, and Genevieve Matanoski. “Pregnancy Outcomes Among U.S. Women Vietnam Veterans.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38 (2000): 447–454.
4) There is indeed strong evidence of lasting ecological damage in Vietnam as the use of AO and other herbicides did in fact kill many species of trees (though not all) especially where forests often received multiple sprayings, which the trees could not recover from. (Mangroves were particularly susceptible and often died after just one spraying). See Flamm, BR, and JH Cravens. 1971. “Effects of War Damage on the Forest Resources of South Vietnam.” Journal of Forestry 69 (11): 784–89. The loss of high canopy deciduous species opened up forest floors to the advantage of invasive grass species which accounts for the heavily degraded landscapes in specific places like A Luoi and Ma Da which can be still be seen in remotely sensed images (e.g. strips of grasses visible with Landsat where spraying occurred): http://www.agentorangerecord.com/impact_on_vietnam/environment/defoliation/P1/ 
I would appreciate it if list members would educate themselves about issues before using faulty logic, personal opinion, and argumentative invective on this list serve, otherwise those of us who do use it for academic purposes will happily leave and go elsewhere for actual fact-based discussions. 
Pam McElwee, 
Rutgers

This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.

By Ariel Garkinkel.

Shading my eyes from the bright sun, I stared into the bomb crater amid the verdant rice paddies. While it had been nearly 50 years since the last American planes riddled the countryside near Danang in central Vietnam, craters still pockmark the land. Some of the deep depressions remain dry while others, a testament to the ingenuity of the villagers, serve as watering holes for the oxen that farmers harness to till their fields.

It was my first week in Vietnam, where I would spend the summer of 2016 conducting research. I was studying the efficacy of international law, namely whether legal remedies exist for civilian victims of unexploded ordnance and chemical weapons from the Vietnam War. I had arrived well versed in the numbers: America dropped three times more ordnance over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than all sides did during World War II. Estimates are that at least 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines remain in Vietnam, and that it will take 300 years to clear them from the Vietnamese landscape at the current rate.

Unexploded ordnance in Quang Binh Province, in central Vietnam, in 2007. Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

Bombs and other ordnance were dropped on thousands of villages and hamlets. The most common were cluster bombs, each of which contained hundreds of baseball-size bomblets; the bombs are designed to explode near ground level, releasing metal fragments to maim and kill. But many of the cluster bombs failed to release their contents or, in other cases, their bomblets failed to detonate.

For the Vietnamese, the war continues. Loss of arms, legs and eyesight are for the more fortunate ones. Others have lost their family breadwinners, or their children. Children find baseball-size metal objects and unwittingly toss the “toys” to one another in games of catch until they explode. Nearly 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed since the end of the war in 1975, and 67,000 maimed, by land mines, cluster bombs and other ordnance.

Parts of three American cluster bomblets displayed by a scrap dealer in Quang Thuan. Chris Brummitt/Associated Press

That’s not the only, or even the worst, legacy of the war that Vietnamese families still face. Seeking to defoliate entire forests to expose enemy forces to spotter planes, the Americans dropped 18 million gallons of chemical herbicide over South Vietnam from 1962 to 1972. There were several defoliants used, but the best known was Agent Orange. In 20,000 spraying missions, planes drenched the countryside and an estimated 3,181 villages.

While entire forests dried up and died typically within weeks of spraying, it would be years before scientists established that one of the active ingredients in the defoliants, a group of compounds called dioxin, is one of the deadliest substances known to humankind. Just 85 grams of dioxin, if evenly distributed, could wipe out a city of eight million people. But illnesses and deaths from Agent Orange exposure were only the initial outcomes. Dioxin affects not only people exposed to it, but also their children, altering DNA. Large numbers of Vietnamese babies continue to be born with grotesque deformities: misshapen heads, bulging tumors, underdeveloped brains and nonfunctioning limbs.

The deadly defoliants also rained down on American troops. Researchers led by Jeanne Stellman of Columbia examined military records of the flight paths of Agent Orange spraying missions. Comparing those flight paths to the position of nearby villages and American ground troops revealed a direct association between exposure and later health problems.

These findings, published in 2003, put an end to the longtime denial by the government that Agent Orange spraying did not harm American troops. The Department of Veterans Affairs now assumes, as a blanket policy, that all of the 2.8 million troops who served in Vietnam were exposed to chemical defoliants, and provides some medical coverage and compensation for that. But the United States has never acknowledged that it also poisoned millions of Vietnamese civilians in the same way.

Quynh Thu, 66, with his son Pha Quoc, 21, in A Luoi, in central Vietnam, in 2009. Mr. Thu was sprayed with Agent Orange during the war. Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

American combat deployments ended in 1973 and all American personnel were removed from Vietnam by 1975, but the explosive ordnance and dangerous chemicals remained. Polluted soil and waterways were left untouched. Innocent children and families would serve as human guinea pigs to test the long-term results of exposure.

The indiscriminate use of ordnance and chemical weapons against civilian populations is prohibited under international law, dating back to the Hague and Geneva Conventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But for more than a decade, the United States acted in direct contravention of those agreements, which it had pledged to uphold. Since that time, numerous additional international treaties and conventions have come into force that not only prohibit the types of weapons used by the United States in Vietnam, but also require their cleanup after hostilities cease.

The United States, however, has done very little to fulfill such obligations, leaving it largely to the Vietnamese to suffer the results and to clean up what they can nearly 50 years later. Some have suggested that because much of the relevant international law requiring cleanup came into effect after the United States left Vietnam, the country is absolved of such obligations. But this assertion hangs on a thin thread, as the unexploded ordnance and defoliants still injure and kill people today. American responsibility for cleanup is therefore applicable under international law, not something to be dismissed with a historical wink.

My father’s generation served in Vietnam, but the war’s continuing impact is no longer theirs alone to bear. The United States used weapons against civilians contrary to widely accepted international standards, and has skirted its responsibilities to clean up what was left behind. Working to enforce international law, and to assist the Vietnamese in addressing the deadly mess that remains, is a burden now resting on the shoulders of a new generation of Americans.

One Response to The Vietnam War Is Over. The Bombs Remain.

  1. Doug Rawlings says:

    UNEXPLODED ORDINANCE: A BALLAD
    for Chuck Searcy and the thousands of Vietnamese who have labored off and on since 1975, working to undo what we have done

    So I was maybe all of twenty-one
    when they whipped me
    into some kind of soul-less shape
    Yet another one of America’s
    weeping mothers’ sons
    sent forth into this world
    to raze, pillage, and rape

    And now it’s coming on
    to another Christmas Eve
    And songs of joy and peace
    fill up our little town
    How I ask myself
    could I possibly believe
    I could do what I did
    and not reap what I had sown

    In that land far away
    from what I call home
    a grandfather leads
    his granddaughter by the hand
    Into a field where we did
    what had to be done

    They trip into a searing heat
    brighter than a thousand suns
    ———
    Doug Rawlings
    7/15th Artillery
    Vietnam 1969-1970

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