This article originally appeared at the NewYorker.com.
On Saturday, President Obama will set out on a trip to Vietnam, for a visit that’s being billed as looking forward to the future rather than back at the bitter history of the past. On the same day, a funeral will be held in Quang Tri province for a man named Ngo Thien Khiet.
Khiet, who died at the age of forty-five, and who leaves behind a wife and two sons, was an expert on the unexploded ordnance, or UXO, left over from the Vietnam War. He was particularly skilled at locating, removing, and safely destroying cluster bombs found in the farm fields of Quang Tri, an impoverished agricultural province that straddles the old Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which once divided North and South Vietnam.
Quang Tri is a place of great natural beauty, a narrow strip of land that stretches from the curving beaches and breakers of the South China Sea, in the east, to the misty, forested mountains along the border with Laos, in the west. Perhaps no other part of the country suffered more grievously during the Vietnam War. More ordnance was dropped on Quang Tri than was dropped on all of Germany during the Second World War. The province was also sprayed with more than seven hundred thousand gallons of herbicide, mainly Agent Orange. The names of battlefields like Cam Lo, Con Thien, Mutter’s Ridge, and the Rockpile still give American veterans nightmares. The seventy-seven-day siege of the Marine base of Khe Sanh, in Quang Tri, so obsessed Lyndon Johnson that he kept a scale model of the base in the White House, and demanded daily updates on the course of the battle.
For the eight years before his death, Khiet worked for a nongovernmental organization called Project RENEW, which is based in the provincial capital, Dong Ha. The organization was founded fifteen years ago by a group of foreigners, including an American veteran named Chuck Searcy, who served in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The group’s mission is to help clear the countryside of leftover UXO, and it has grown to employ an all-Vietnamese staff of a hundred and sixty people.
Since the end of the war, in 1975, more than forty thousand Vietnamese have been killed by UXO. About three and a half thousand of these deaths have occurred in Quang Tri. But thanks in large measure to the work of Project RENEW, the numbers of fatalities in the province have been in steady decline. While most of the victims used to be farmers working their fields, these days, with more of the countryside cleared, those most at risk are scrap-metal scavengers, who cut up rusted bombs and shells in the hope of earning a few dollars.
One day last year, I went out to a village in Quang Tri with an emergency crew from Project RENEW. The crew was following up on a call to the project’s hotline—some unexploded munitions had been found at the edge of a school soccer field. Such calls come in, on average, between three and five times a day. A naval shell turns up in an irrigation ditch, or a couple of hand grenades are found at the edge of a rice paddy. Perhaps an artillery round gets unearthed by a construction crew digging the foundations for a new house. Just this past week, a gigantic thousand-pound bomb, almost seven feet long, was discovered by workers digging a drainage tunnel in Quang Tri township.
On the day I went out with the emergency response team, villagers had found a white phosphorus bomb, three shoulder-fired M-79 grenades, and a 37-mm. projectile. An advance team from Project RENEW had carefully scooped out small holes in the dirt to expose the rusted munitions, marking the spot with colorful warning flags and surrounding it with sandbags. It was time for the demolition crew to move in. We retreated to a safe distance, someone started a countdown, a technician hit a remote switch, and then there was a dull boom. The kids were safe to go back out and play.
A couple of days later, I met Ngo Thien Khiet. He was a quiet man, with a sober but friendly demeanor. He was dressed in military-style khakis, with his name stitched in red above his breast pocket. A floppy hat on his head bore the Project RENEW logo. As I reported in a story for The Nation, I’d been invited to join him on a survey of a village called Tan Dinh. Surveying for cluster bombs is slow, painstaking work. Before we set out, Khiet showed me a map that represented his prior work in the area. The map was divided into grid sections, each representing a square kilometre. The sections that had already been combed over were color coded according to the findings of the survey team. Green meant all clear. Red meant cluster bombs. Blue meant other kinds of munitions.
A cluster bomb is made up of as many as six hundred individual bombs, each about the size of a baseball, which are packed into a mother pod. The pod is designed to open several feet above the ground, unloading the bomblets in all directions and shredding anything in their path. Because cluster bombs were dropped by aircraft on fixed flight paths, sometimes clearing the way for Agent Orange spraying runs, unexploded bombs tend to be found in groups. If you find one, you’re likely to find more. After so many years, they are usually heavily pitted with rust and highly unstable.
Before going out in the field with Khiet, I had to sign a waiver giving my blood type and accepting full responsibility for any harm that might come to me. A young female paramedic stood in attendance nearby as I signed. There was some gentle teasing. Khiet told me I had nothing to worry about, because in fifteen years of work Project RENEW had never had a single accident.
Later, squelching around a large cassava and sweet-potato field, I followed in the footsteps—exactly in the footsteps, as Khiet had carefully instructed me—of a team of half a dozen men sweeping mine detectors from side to side. Once or twice there was a loud, high-pitched squawk. Khiet would then walk over, examine the spot, and have his men flag it for examination.
On Thursday, Chuck Searcy sent me an e-mail from Hanoi to tell me what had happened to Khiet. The previous day, Searcy wrote, Khiet had received a call from one of his team members, who told him that a cluster bomb had been found. Following his usual protocol, Khiet proceeded to the site to determine how to dispose of the bomb. What happened next is unclear, but there was an explosion, and Khiet was wounded. He was rushed to the Hai Lang District Hospital, and died shortly thereafter. The colleague who had called him, a man named Nguyen Van Hao, was wounded by shrapnel but survived.
Khiet had the resources to do his work, Searcy wrote to me in his e-mail, thanks in part to a more enlightened attitude toward humanitarian aid on the part of the U.S. government, which has in recent years, with much prodding from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, recognized a growing moral obligation to help deal with the UXO problem in Vietnam. As a result, groups like Project RENEW no longer have to rely so heavily on donations from private funders.
It’s unlikely that Ngo Thien Khiet’s death will be discussed during President Obama’s brief stay in Vietnam. Khiet was just one man in an obscure place, a delayed casualty of something that happened a long time ago. Obama’s visit will be about the President’s “pivot to Asia,” about the new twelve-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, about building up Vietnam’s role as a means of countering China’s regional dominance. The U.S. Navy wants more access to Cam Ranh Bay, which served as a major supply base during the Vietnam War, and it seems likely that Obama will lift an arms embargo that has been in place since the fall of Saigon. Some day soon, U.S. weapons may be sent to Vietnam for the first time in forty years. In light of Khiet’s death this week, it seems worth noting that they never really left.