George Black on the Toxic Afterlife of the US War in Vietnam

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George Black on the Toxic Afterlife of the US War in Vietnam

The veteran writer talks about the “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” that helped publicize the horrific legacies of the war – and foster reconciliation between two former enemies.

George Black on the Toxic Afterlife of the US War in Vietnam

A Vietnamese soldier stands guard at the dioxin contaminated area while U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visits Bien Hoa air base in Bien Hoa, outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

Credit: Kham/Pool Photo via AP

In the half-century since the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Vietnam, the two former enemies have evolved into de facto strategic partners, driven together by shared concerns about the power of a rising China. But many of the scars from the long U.S. intervention in Vietnam remain, and each step toward normalization has been shadowed by the continuing impacts of the U.S. Army’s intense aerial bombing and large-scale spraying of toxic chemicals over southern Vietnam and southeastern Laos.

In his haunting new book “The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam,” George Black tells the story of how, when most of the U.S. public and policymaking turned away from Vietnam in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, a small group of people on both sides of the wartime divide managed to keep the horrific legacies of the war on the political agenda. Through sheer single-minded persistence, this group, which included scientists, pacifists, and two American veterans of the war, eventually forced the U.S. government to take responsibility for the ghastly impacts of its interventions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Black, a New York-based writer, who is also the author of seven previous books, spoke with The Diplomat about the genesis of the book, the nature of redemption, and how war legacies have factored into the burgeoning strategic relationship between Hanoi and Washington.

Let’s start by talking about what first got you interested in exploring the legacies – particularly the environmental aftereffects – of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

The title of my book, “The Long Reckoning,” comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1808: “The evils of war are great in their endurance, and have a long reckoning for ages to come.” I think that’s a universal truth that’s applicable to all wars, although it plays out differently in each case, depending on the extent of the physical destruction, how a particular society processes the experience of extreme violence, and which political forces shape the aftermath.

I think this was part of my own awareness from an early age. World War I veterans on crutches were a common sight until the 1960s. My uncle was captured and tortured by Japanese troops in 1943 and struggled for the rest of his life with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Whole sections of our London neighborhood were still in ruins from the Blitz. My comic books were full of dehumanizing images of evil “Krauts” and “Japs.”

Before I first went to Vietnam in 2014, I’d written a lot about the impact of war in many other places, including Central America and Iraq, and I’d spent 10 years as editor of an environmental magazine. That first trip took me to Quang Tri province, on the edge of the old DMZ, where I met an American veteran, Chuck Searcy, who eventually became a central character in my book. He’d served in military intelligence in Saigon, returned to live permanently in Hanoi, and helped to found an organization called Project RENEW, whose mission was to remove the vast amount of unexploded ordnance in the province. It had also recently begun a program to aid families with children suffering from birth defects presumed to be the result of exposure to dioxin, the toxic byproduct of Agent Orange.

As I traveled around Quang Tri with Chuck and his Vietnamese colleagues, I was stunned by the degree to which the fabric of everyday life was still shaped by the impacts of wartime destruction. I visited the homes of these families, walked around vast cemeteries containing thousands of war dead, watched as farmers’ fields were scoured for unexploded cluster bombs, learned that the acacia plantations covering the hillsides had replaced forests eradicated by defoliants, that the bears and big cats that once lived there were long gone. It was clear that Agent Orange had inflicted a form of prolonged suffering that is unique to Vietnam, and that its impacts were intertwined – the literal poisoning of the natural environment and human health, and the metaphorical poisoning of relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Your book appears in a context of strategic convergence between the two wartime enemies, driven by shared – though by no means fully congruent – concerns about China’s growing power. As a result, chemical defoliants and other “war legacies” are no longer the sensitive diplomatic issues that they once were. What role did these issues – in particular, the Vietnamese demand for war reparations – play in the slow process of U.S.-Vietnam normalization that culminated in 1995? Do these legacies impact U.S.-Vietnam relations today, and if so, how?

I might qualify that to say the convergence was increasingly driven by concerns about China because I think it goes back further than that. Of course, the focus on China is a huge historical irony. The United States intervened in Vietnam in large part to stop the advance of Chinese Communism. Then came the rapprochement between China and the U.S., and the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam. And now the alliances have changed again. The one consistent thread, of course, is that the Vietnamese have always seen China as their ancient oppressor; the Americans were only their enemies for a few years.

As I said, the dynamics of postwar reckoning are different in every instance. Generally, it’s the winner who gets to dictate the terms of the peace. After World War II, for example, the United States undertook the huge task of rebuilding its defeated enemies, Germany and Japan, and transforming them into prosperous democracies. But Vietnam is the big exception to the rule. The United States lost the war, yet its vast economic and political power meant that it could dictate the terms of the peace, and in ways that deepened Vietnam’s postwar misery. Vietnam had relied on a secret promise by Richard Nixon of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, but that never materialized. A lot of this was purely vindictive: dealing with defeat was a bitter and unfamiliar experience for Americans.

The United States also had the sole power to dictate the sequence in which the humanitarian legacies of the war would be addressed. For more than a decade, it blocked any talk of reconciliation until Vietnam accounted for the 2,600 or so Americans still missing in action, while there were at least a hundred times as many Vietnamese MIAs. The double standard was egregious. Things began to change with the start of the Doi Moi economic reforms in 1986, while the Americans understood at the same time that their own hard line on the MIA issue was not achieving the desired results. With some enlightened self-interest on both sides, the slow, painful process of building mutual trust could begin.

You describe how the damage done by the U.S. military to southern Vietnam, to say nothing of adjacent regions in Cambodia and Laos, was rarely discussed in the U.S. mainstream in the years immediately after the war. Indeed, you write that even after the normalization of relations in 1995, “American officials were forbidden for several years to utter the words Agent Orange in public, with their insinuation of war crimes, reparations, and corporate liability.” What accounts for this silence? And how did awareness of this issue eventually increase?

There’s a famous quote from the great anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” A lot of my book is about exactly such a group – veterans, humanitarians, and scientists – who pushed and cajoled and persuaded the U.S. government to do things it didn’t want to do. Their role is crucial to understanding how the process of reconciliation unfolded. These people didn’t come to the Vietnamese with solutions cooked up by foreigners. Vietnam had had enough of those. Instead, they asked, “What do you need, and what can we do to help?” They could then translate those needs to American officials in ways that at least partly depoliticized previously contentious issues.

Once the Vietnamese began to cooperate fully on the search for American MIAs, it was possible for the United States to reciprocate with a modest amount of aid for the least controversial humanitarian issue: providing prosthetics to the disabled – although even this caused a furious backlash in the United States when it was first proposed by some American veterans. Once a U.S. ambassador was in place in 1997, it was a fairly short and logical step to address the underlying cause of so many of these disabilities: the unexploded munitions that continued to kill and maim civilians. This was where Chuck Searcy and Project RENEW came into the picture.

What remained was Agent Orange, which was the real political third rail. In 1991, the Agent Orange Act acknowledged the links between exposure to dioxin and the serious health problems being experienced by American veterans. Yet similar claims by Vietnam, involving suffering on a much large scale, were dismissed as propaganda and extortion, and in 2004 an American court dismissed a Vietnamese lawsuit against the companies that had produced the chemicals. It wasn’t until two years after that that the U.S. government finally agreed to help Vietnam deal with the continuing effects of Agent Orange.

One interesting point of contrast to the initial U.S. reticence around the effects of Agent Orange was the POW-MIA issue – the belief that American servicemen were still being held in Vietnam after 1975. Indeed, you describe both as “a surrogate for emotions about the war itself.” The POW-MIA issue was mentioned by U.S. presidents, and became the subject of significant public mobilization, as detailed in the path-breaking work of H. Bruce Franklin and others, despite the lack of any real evidence that U.S. personnel were still being held by Hanoi. What was different about the way that the POW-MIA issue was treated, compared to the impacts of Agent Orange? What does this say about U.S. perceptions of the war?

The essential problem with the POW-MIA issue was that in the context of its time, given the anger about defeat in Vietnam and a fiercely anti-Communist administration in Washington, what should have been a purely humanitarian matter became inevitably politicized. As with the ongoing search for World War II MIAs, there should have been no controversy. If a country sends its young men to war, it’s a basic moral obligation to try to bring home their remains. But after Vietnam, right through to the early 1990s, all sorts of ugly conspiracy theories were promoted by politicians, celebrities, and pop culture artifacts like the Rambo movies, claiming that American prisoners were still being held in jungle prison camps in Vietnam and Laos – for what purpose other than inscrutable Asian-Communist cruelty no one ever managed to explain. I think this episode, unmoored from any factual evidence, played a significant role in the growth of the grievance-driven far-right populism we’re confronting in the United States today.

Yes, Agent Orange did function similarly as a surrogate for larger feelings about the war, but it was a very different kind of political problem, with multiple strands. The first, which was the only one Americans paid attention to for many years, was the plight of the veterans. Despite all its rhetoric about the war in Vietnam having been a noble cause, the Reagan administration actually treated the veterans very poorly, to the point of systematically suppressing scientific data about the effects of the defoliants.

In Vietnam, the work of a group of Canadian and Vietnamese scientists, which I write about at length, created the first breach in the wall of American denial, by showing how dioxin worked its way up through the food chain into the human body and then, through breast milk, into infants. Their 2000 study also showed that the continued threat of dioxin in the environment was limited to a small number of former U.S. bases. It was a manageable problem, in other words. But even then it was another six years before the first American aid trickled in, along two separate channels. The clean-up of the big airbases at Da Nang (now completed) and Bien Hoa (now underway) will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Vietnamese military has a huge stake in these bases, and the Pentagon has assumed part of the cost of the clean-up. So that brings us back to your question about how resolving war legacy issues fits into the larger strategic cooperation between Vietnam and the United because of their shared concerns about China’s expanding influence.

Unfortunately, getting a much smaller amount of aid to people suffering from Agent Orange-related disabilities has been more challenging. Targeted aid is now reaching eight of the provinces most severely affected by the defoliation campaign, yet government lawyers, always anxious about implied liability, still insist on specifying that it’s for disabled individuals “regardless of cause.” The challenge now is to keep that aid flowing, since it’s come mainly through the efforts of Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and his aide Tim Rieser, both of whom retired in January. Again, you can’t get away from the undertow of politics. Leahy always saw this as a bipartisan issue, but in practice, it’s always been tougher to get Republicans behind it.

The third part of your book is titled “Redemption.” Do you think that the U.S., by funding clean-up operations worth a fraction of what it spent spraying defoliants on southern Vietnam, has in any sense of the term “redeemed” itself? What does redemption even mean in the face of such widespread – and lasting – destruction? How otherwise do you assess the U.S. efforts to ameliorate the horrific impacts of the war in southern Vietnam?

I actually use the idea of “redemption” in two senses, in the interwoven threads of my narrative. One is the story of an individual, a Marine vet called Manus Campbell, and his search for personal redemption. Manus endured horrific wartime experiences in Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue, where the book is mainly set, and then struggled for decades with PTSD before finally returning to Vietnam to confront his demons. Since then, he’s managed to find personal peace and redemption through his work for disabled children and orphans – those he calls “the invisible victims of war” – and his embrace of Buddhism. In moving past his own personal trauma, he has contributed to a deeper redemption of the nation he served as a soldier. The threads converge.

Of course, there can never be complete redemption for something like the American War in Vietnam. But if that’s the operative question, the answer leads only to cynicism, denunciation, or crippling guilt, which are not emotions I find helpful. You can’t un-kill three million people, or un-drop the bombs that fell on Quang Tri, or un-poison the kids deformed by Agent Orange. But you do what you can. In that sense, while some readers may focus on my description of the horrors of the war, I see “The Long Reckoning” in the end as an inspirational story of “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” who have accomplished small miracles, fostering trust and reconciliation between former enemies – which may ultimately be our best hope of avoiding future disasters like the war in Vietnam.