International New York Times
Sat, 28 Mar 2015
BY THOMAS FULLER
One woman has led a single-minded effort to clean up the fallout of a nine-year American air campaign that made Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.
Thao Kae and his friends were foraging for their dinner, collecting the bamboo shoots that grow in the jungle a halfhour’s walk from their remote hamlet along the Mekong River. As they dug and sifted the soil, one of the boys found a small metal sphere and brought it back to a house in the village.
More than 8,000 people have been killed by leftover American ordnance in Laos. Channapha Khamvongsa, right, is trying to rid her native land of the millions of bombs still buried.
‘‘They thought it was a pétanque ball,’’ said Khamsing Wilaikaew, a 59-year-old farmer, referring to the bowling game also known as bocce. ‘‘They were throwing it against the ground.’’
Four decades after it was dropped from a warplane, the metal ball, an American-made cluster bomb, did what it was designed to do. Thao Kae, 8 years old, was killed on the spot. Mr. Khamsing’s wife and a 9-year-old boy died of their injuries several days later.
The accident in Houaykhay happened a year and a half ago, but two boys are still limping from untreated and painful injuries to their feet, and the villagers are still traumatized.
They recounted the story on a recent morning to a visitor, Channapha Khamvongsa, an irrepressibly cheery Lao-American woman who for the past decade has led a single-minded effort to rid her native land of millions of bombs still buried here, the legacy of a nineyear American air campaign that made Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.
‘‘There are many, many problems in this world that might not be able to be solved in a lifetime,’’ she said. ‘‘But this is one that can be fixed. Given that it was ignored for so long, we need to redouble our efforts and finish the job.’’
From 1964 to 1973, American warplanes conducted 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, one of the most intensive air campaigns in the history of warfare. The campaign is often called the Secret War because the United States did not publicly acknowledge waging it.
The targets were North Vietnamese troops — especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a large part of which passed through Laos — as well as North Vietnam’s Laotian Communist allies.
Since the war’s end, more than 8,000 people have been killed and about 12,000 wounded in Laos by cluster bombs and other live, leftover ordnance.
Thanks largely to Ms. Channapha’s lobbying, annual United States spending on the removal of unexploded bombs in Laos increased to $12 million this year from $2.5 million a decade ago.
‘‘The funding increase is almost singlehandedly due to the dogged efforts of Channapha,’’ said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ‘‘She operates from a tiny shoe-box operation in Washington with almost no budget. Her only tools are her charm, conviction and persistence.’’
A vast amount of unexploded ordnance remains in Laos, a mountainous and landlocked former French colony. Clearance teams working across the country pull hundreds of unexploded munitions and bomb fragments from rice paddies and jungle every week. Last year alone, 56,400 munitions were found and destroyed in Laos.
‘‘This country, every time I’ve been here, blows my mind,’’ said Tim Lardner, a former British Army bomb disposal officer who has worked on clearing unexploded ordnance from Laos and other countries for 25 years. ‘‘The scale of the contamination is horrendous.’’
Having worked in many war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola and Mozambique, he added, ‘‘In terms of the amount still in the ground, Laos is worse than any other country I’ve seen.’’
Kingphet Phimmavong, the coordinator of the Laotian government’s bomb clearance efforts in Xieng Khouang Province, one of the most heavily bombed areas, said he had found bombs in riverbeds and in termite mounds and tangled in the roots of a tree. ‘‘They are everywhere,’’ he said. Tragic stories of bombs unexpectedly detonating are distressingly common. Mr. Kingphet’s mother and brother were killed in 1976 when they were tilling a rice paddy and struck a bomb with a hoe.
These days bombs are most often detonated by children who play with them, scavengers seeking scrap metal to sell and villagers who unwittingly build cooking fires near where they are buried.
Three years ago, Nengyong Yang, a farmer in a remote village in Xieng Khouang, was chopping down a tree when a bomblet embedded in the tree trunk exploded and blinded him.
Unable to farm, he later hanged himself, said Maw Khang, 32, his widow, who was left to raise their four children.
‘‘I have to work in the fields, and there is no one to take care of the children,’’ she said.
Designed to cause maximum casualties to troops, the casing of a cluster bomb splits in midair and sprays hundreds of bomblets onto the ground. In Laos, many of these bomblets did not explode for a variety of reasons, including muddy soil that cushioned the impact. Experts estimate that around 30 percent of the American cluster bombs dropped in Laos remain unexploded.
Despite the scale of the bombing campaign, Ms. Channapha, 42, said she only became aware of it as an adult. It was not discussed by her family, who fled Laos in 1979 when she was 6, or in the Laotian community where she grew up in Virginia.
‘‘I considered myself somewhat wellread and conscious of right and wrong,’’ she said. ‘‘Yet this major piece of Lao-American history was unknown to me.’’
Ms. Channapha said she was spurred into action when she came across a collection of drawings of the bombings made by refugees and collected by Fred Branfman, an antiwar activist who helped expose the Secret War.
In 2004, when Ms. Channapha founded an organization to raise awareness about unexploded ordnance, Legacies of War, she used the drawings in a traveling exhibition.
Her campaign was initially met with resistance, especially from within the Laotian diaspora in the United States.
Lao-Americans, many of them aristocrats and high-ranking soldiers, were not inclined to help Communist-run Laos; many also wanted to leave the past behind.
‘‘The elders in the community were not supportive,’’ Ms. Channapha said. ‘‘They had lost their land, their country, their homes and their status.’’
So she rebranded her campaign. Instead of describing it as ‘‘a project on the secret U.S. bombing in Laos,’’ she called its mission ‘‘history, healing, hope.’’
She brought over a young amputee from Laos who was born after the war and who delivered a message of humanitarian need free from politics.
She targeted members of Congress with large Laotian populations in their districts. In 2010, she testified before Congress, urging more funding for bomb clearance and assistance for victims.
And the attitudes of Lao-Americans have changed in recent years as more have returned to Laos, Ms. Channapha said. ‘‘As their own personal relationship with the country was evolving and changing, so did their opinion about what we were doing,’’ she said. ‘‘They were starting to understand that it wasn’t about taking sides.’’
Mr. Kingphet, the ordnance clearance manager, praises Ms. Channapha’s efforts, but he said the United States should do more. Many Americans are still unaware of the war in Laos, he said.
‘‘Some Americans come here and they are shocked at how many bombs were dropped,’’ he said.
It will be decades before all the unexploded bombs are removed. In the meantime, officials are traveling to remote corners of the impoverished country and urging caution.
Houmphanh Chanthavong, a government official who was among the group visiting Houaykhay village, told residents of the painstaking process to remove ordnance from the ground, the metal detectors and the clearance experts who delicately dig for them.
‘‘We keep on digging, and we keep on finding more,’’ he said.
A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past.
BY SEYMOUR M. HERSH
Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, was eleven at the time of the massacre. His mother and four siblings died. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY KATIE ORLINSKY
There is a long ditch in the village of My Lai. On the morning of March 16, 1968, it was crowded with the bodies of the dead—dozens of women, children, and old people, all gunned down by young American soldiers. Now, forty-seven years later, the ditch at My Lai seems wider than I remember from the news photographs of the slaughter: erosion and time doing their work. During the Vietnam War, there was a rice paddy nearby, but it has been paved over to make My Lai more accessible to the thousands of tourists who come each year to wander past the modest markers describing the terrible event. The My Lai massacre was a pivotal moment in that misbegotten war: an American contingent of about a hundred soldiers, known as Charlie Company, having received poor intelligence, and thinking that they would encounter Vietcong troops or sympathizers, discovered only a peaceful village at breakfast. Nevertheless, the soldiers of Charlie Company raped women, burned houses, and turned their M-16s on the unarmed civilians of My Lai. Among the leaders of the assault was Lieutenant William L. Calley, a junior-college dropout from Miami.
By early 1969, most of the members of Charlie Company had completed their tours and returned home. I was then a thirty-two-year-old freelance reporter in Washington, D.C. Determined to understand how young men—boys, really—could have done this, I spent weeks pursuing them. In many cases, they talked openly and, for the most part, honestly with me, describing what they did at My Lai and how they planned to live with the memory of it.
In testimony before an Army inquiry, some of the soldiers acknowledged being at the ditch but claimed that they had disobeyed Calley, who was ordering them to kill. They said that one of the main shooters, along with Calley himself, had been Private First Class Paul Meadlo. The truth remains elusive, but one G.I. described to me a moment that most of his fellow-soldiers, I later learned, remembered vividly. At Calley’s order, Meadlo and others had fired round after round into the ditch and tossed in a few grenades.
Then came a high-pitched whining, which grew louder as a two- or three-year-old boy, covered with mud and blood, crawled his way among the bodies and scrambled toward the rice paddy. His mother had likely protected him with her body. Calley saw what was happening and, according to the witnesses, ran after the child, dragged him back to the ditch, threw him in, and shot him.
The morning after the massacre, Meadlo stepped on a land mine while on a routine patrol, and his right foot was blown off. While waiting to be evacuated to a field hospital by helicopter, he condemned Calley. “God will punish you for what you made me do,” a G.I. recalled Meadlo saying.
“Get him on the helicopter!” Calley shouted.
Meadlo went on cursing at Calley until the helicopter arrived.
Meadlo had grown up in farm country in western Indiana. After a long time spent dropping dimes into a pay phone and calling information operators across the state, I found a Meadlo family listed in New Goshen, a small town near Terre Haute. A woman who turned out to be Paul’s mother, Myrtle, answered the phone. I said that I was a reporter and was writing about Vietnam. I asked how Paul was doing, and wondered if I could come and speak to him the next day. She told me I was welcome to try.
The Meadlos lived in a small house with clapboard siding on a ramshackle chicken farm. When I pulled up in my rental car, Myrtle came out to greet me and said that Paul was inside, though she had no idea whether he would talk or what he might say. It was clear that he had not told her much about Vietnam. Then Myrtle said something that summed up a war that I had grown to hate: “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”
Meadlo invited me in and agreed to talk. He was twenty-two. He had married before leaving for Vietnam, and he and his wife had a two-and-a-half-year-old son and an infant daughter. Despite his injury, he worked a factory job to support the family. I asked him to show me his wound and to tell me about the treatment. He took off his prosthesis and described what he’d been through. It did not take long for the conversation to turn to My Lai. Meadlo talked and talked, clearly desperate to regain some self-respect. With little emotion, he described Calley’s orders to kill. He did not justify what he had done at My Lai, except that the killings “did take a load off my conscience,” because of “the buddies we’d lost. It was just revenge, that’s all it was.”
Meadlo recounted his actions in bland, appalling detail. “There was supposed to have been some Vietcong in [My Lai] and we began to make a sweep through it,” he told me. “Once we got there we began gathering up the people . . . started putting them in big mobs. There must have been about forty or forty-five civilians standing in one big circle in the middle of the village. . . . Calley told me and a couple of other guys to watch them.” Calley, as he recalled, came back ten minutes later and told him, “Get with it. I want them dead.” From about ten or fifteen feet away, Meadlo said, Calley “started shooting them. Then he told me to start shooting them. . . . I started to shoot them, but the other guys wouldn’t do it. So we”—Meadlo and Calley—“went ahead and killed them.” Meadlo estimated that he had killed fifteen people in the circle. “We all were under orders,” he said. “We all thought we were doing the right thing. At the time it didn’t bother me.” There was official testimony showing that Meadlo had in fact been extremely distressed by Calley’s order. After being told by Calley to “take care of this group,” one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier “were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.” When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, “Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, ‘Waste them?’ ” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley “opened up and started firing.” But then Meadlo “started to cry.”
Mike Wallace, of CBS, was interested in my interview, and Meadlo agreed to tell his story again, on national television. I spent the night before the show on a couch in the Meadlo home and flew to New York the next morning with Meadlo and his wife. There was time to talk, and I learned that Meadlo had spent weeks in recovery and rehabilitation at an Army hospital in Japan. Once he came home, he said nothing about his experiences in Vietnam. One night, shortly after his return, his wife woke up to hysterical crying in one of the children’s rooms. She rushed in and found Paul violently shaking the child.
I’d been tipped off about My Lai by Geoffrey Cowan, a young antiwar lawyer in Washington, D.C. Cowan had little specific information, but he’d heard that an unnamed G.I. had gone crazy and killed scores of Vietnamese civilians. Three years earlier, while I was covering the Pentagon for the Associated Press, I had been told by officers returning from the war about the killing of Vietnamese civilians that was going on. One day, while pursuing Cowan’s tip, I ran into a young Army colonel whom I’d known on the Pentagon beat. He had been wounded in the leg in Vietnam and, while recovering, learned that he was to be promoted to general. He now worked in an office that had day-to-day responsibility for the war. When I asked him what he knew about the unnamed G.I., he gave me a sharp, angry look, and began whacking his hand against his knee. “That boy Calley didn’t shoot anyone higher than this,” he said.
I had a name. In a local library, I found a brief story buried in the Times about a Lieutenant Calley who had been charged by the Army with the murder of an unspecified number of civilians in South Vietnam. I tracked down Calley, whom the Army had hidden away in senior officers’ quarters at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. By then, someone in the Army had allowed me to read and take notes from a classified charge sheet accusing Calley of the premeditated murder of a hundred and nine “Oriental human beings.”
Calley hardly seemed satanic. He was a slight, nervous man in his mid-twenties, with pale, almost translucent skin. He tried hard to seem tough. Over many beers, he told me how he and his soldiers had engaged and killed the enemy at My Lai in a fiercely contested firefight. We talked through the night. At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom. He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood.
In November, 1969, I wrote five articles about Calley, Meadlo, and the massacre. I had gone to Life and Look with no success, so I turned instead to a small antiwar news agency in Washington, the Dispatch News Service. It was a time of growing anxiety and unrest. Richard Nixon had won the 1968 election by promising to end the war, but his real plan was to win it, through escalation and secret bombing. In 1969, as many as fifteen hundred American soldiers were being killed every month—almost the same as the year before.
Combat reporters such as Homer Bigart, Bernard Fall, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, Frances FitzGerald, Gloria Emerson, Morley Safer, and Ward Just filed countless dispatches from the field that increasingly made plain that the war was morally groundless, strategically lost, and nothing like what the military and political officials were describing to the public in Saigon and in Washington. On November 15, 1969, two days after the publication of my first My Lai dispatch, an antiwar march in Washington drew half a million people. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s most trusted aide, and his enforcer, took notes in the Oval Office that were made public eighteen years later. They revealed that on December 1, 1969, at the height of the outcry over Paul Meadlo’s revelations, Nixon approved the use of “dirty tricks” to discredit a key witness to the massacre. When, in 1971, an Army jury convicted Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life at hard labor, Nixon intervened, ordering Calley to be released from an Army prison and placed under house arrest pending review. Calley was freed three months after Nixon left office and spent the ensuing years working in his father-in-law’s jewelry store, in Columbus, Georgia, and offering self-serving interviews to journalists willing to pay for them. Finally, in 2009, in a speech to a Kiwanis Club, he said that there “is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse” for My Lai, but that he was following orders—“foolishly, I guess.” Calley is now seventy-one. He is the only officer to have been convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre.
In March, 1970, an Army investigation filed charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty against fourteen officers, including generals and colonels, who were accused of covering up the massacre. Only one officer besides Calley eventually faced court-martial, and he was found not guilty.
A couple of months later, at the height of widespread campus protests against the war—protests that included the killing of four students by National Guardsmen in Ohio—I went to Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to give a speech against the war. Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s loyal Vice-President, was now a professor of political science at the college. He had lost to Nixon, in the 1968 election, partly because he could not separate himself from L.B.J.’s Vietnam policy. After my speech, Humphrey asked to talk to me. “I’ve no problem with you, Mr. Hersh,” he said. “You were doing your job and you did it well. But, as for those kids who march around saying, ‘Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?’ ” Humphrey’s fleshy, round face reddened, and his voice grew louder with every phrase. “I say, ‘Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em.’ ”
I visited My Lai (as the hamlet was called by the U.S. Army) for the first time a few months ago, with my family. Returning to the scene of the crime is the stuff of cliché for reporters of a certain age, but I could not resist. I had sought permission from the South Vietnamese government in early 1970, but by then the Pentagon’s internal investigation was under way and the area was closed to outsiders. I joined the Times in 1972 and visited Hanoi, in North Vietnam. In 1980, five years after the fall of Saigon, I travelled again to Vietnam to conduct interviews for a book and to do more reporting for the Times. I thought I knew all, or most, of what there was to learn about the massacre. Of course, I was wrong.
My Lai is in central Vietnam, not far from Highway 1, the road that connects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now known. Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, is a survivor of the massacre. When we first met, Cong, a stern, stocky man in his late fifties, said little about his personal experiences and stuck to stilted, familiar phrases. He described the Vietnamese as “a welcoming people,” and he avoided any note of accusation. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said. Later, as we sat on a bench outside the small museum, he described the massacre, as he remembered it. At the time, Cong was eleven years old. When American helicopters landed in the village, he said, he and his mother and four siblings huddled in a primitive bunker inside their thatch-roofed home. American soldiers ordered them out of the bunker and then pushed them back in, throwing a hand grenade in after them and firing their M-16s. Cong was wounded in three places—on his scalp, on the right side of his torso, and in the leg. He passed out. When he awoke, he found himself in a heap of corpses: his mother, his three sisters, and his six-year-old brother. The American soldiers must have assumed that Cong was dead, too. In the afternoon, when the American helicopters left, his father and a few other surviving villagers, who had come to bury the dead, found him.
The ditch where Lieutenant Calley ordered the killing of dozens of civilians. PHOTOGRAPH BY KATIE ORLINSKY
Later, at lunch with my family and me, Cong said, “I will never forget the pain.” And in his job he can never leave it behind. Cong told me that a few years earlier a veteran named Kenneth Schiel, who had been at My Lai, had visited the museum—the only member of Charlie Company at that point to have done so—as a participant in an Al Jazeera television documentary marking the fortieth anniversary of the massacre. Schiel had enlisted in the Army after graduation from high school, in Swartz Creek, Michigan, a small town near Flint, and, after the subsequent investigations, he was charged with killing nine villagers. (The charges were dismissed.)
The documentary featured a conversation with Cong, who had been told that Schiel was a Vietnam veteran, but not that he had been at My Lai. In the video, Schiel tells an interviewer, “Did I shoot? I’ll say that I shot until I realized what was wrong. I’m not going to say whether I shot villagers or not.” He was even less forthcoming in a conversation with Cong, after it became clear that he had participated in the massacre. Schiel says repeatedly that he wants to “apologize to the people of My Lai,” but he refuses to go further. “I ask myself all the time why did this happen. I don’t know.”
Cong demands, “How did you feel when you shot into civilians and killed? Was it hard for you?” Schiel says that he wasn’t among the soldiers who were shooting groups of civilians. Cong responds, “So maybe you came to my house and killed my relatives.”
A transcript on file at the museum contains the rest of the conversation. Schiel says, “The only thing I can do now is just apologize for it.” Cong, who sounds increasingly distressed, continues to ask Schiel to talk openly about his crimes, and Schiel keeps saying, “Sorry, sorry.” When Cong asks Schiel whether he was able to eat a meal upon returning to his base, Schiel begins to cry. “Please don’t ask me any more questions,” he says. “I cannot stay calm.” Then Schiel asks Cong if he can join a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the massacre.
Cong rebuffs him. “It would be too shameful,” he says, adding, “The local people will be very angry if they realize that you were the person who took part in the massacre.”
Before leaving the museum, I asked Cong why he had been so unyielding with Schiel. His face hardened. He said that he had no interest in easing the pain of a My Lai veteran who refused to own up fully to what he had done. Cong’s father, who worked for the Vietcong, lived with Cong after the massacre, but he was killed in action, in 1970, by an American combat unit. Cong went to live with relatives in a nearby village, helping them raise cattle. Finally, after the war, he was able to return to school.
There was more to learn from the comprehensive statistics that Cong and the museum staff had compiled. The names and ages of the dead are engraved on a marble plaque that dominates one of the exhibit rooms. The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died. The museum’s accounting included another important fact: the victims of the massacre that day were not only in My Lai (also known as My Lai 4) but also in a sister settlement known to the Americans as My Khe 4. This settlement, a mile or so to the east, on the South China Sea, was assaulted by another contingent of U.S. soldiers, Bravo Company. The museum lists four hundred and seven victims in My Lai 4 and ninety-seven in My Khe 4.
Hersh at work in North Vietnam, in 1972, three years after he broke the massacre story. COURTESY SEYMOUR M. HERSH
The message was clear: what happened at My Lai 4 was not singular, not an aberration; it was replicated, in lesser numbers, by Bravo Company. Bravo was attached to the same unit—Task Force Barker—as Charlie Company. The assaults were by far the most important operation carried out that day by any combat unit in the Americal Division, which Task Force Barker was attached to. The division’s senior leadership, including its commander, Major General Samuel Koster, flew in and out of the area throughout the day to check its progress.
There was an ugly context to this. By 1967, the war was going badly in the South Vietnamese provinces of Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, and Quang Tri, which were known for their independence from the government in Saigon, and their support for the Vietcong and North Vietnam. Quang Tri was one of the most heavily bombed provinces in the country. American warplanes drenched all three provinces with defoliating chemicals, including Agent Orange.
On my recent trip, I spent five days in Hanoi, which is the capital of unified Vietnam. Retired military officers and Communist Party officials there told me that the My Lai massacre, by bolstering antiwar dissent inside America, helped North Vietnam win the war. I was also told, again and again, that My Lai was unique only in its size. The most straightforward assessment came from Nguyen Thi Binh, known to everyone in Vietnam as Madame Binh. In the early seventies, she was the head of the National Liberation Front delegation at the Paris peace talks and became widely known for her willingness to speak bluntly and for her striking good looks. Madame Binh, who is eighty-seven, retired from public life in 2002, after serving two terms as Vietnam’s Vice-President, but she remains involved in war-related charities dealing with Agent Orange victims and the disabled.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “My Lai became important in America only after it was reported by an American.” Within weeks of the massacre, a spokesman for the North Vietnamese in Paris had publicly described the events, but the story was assumed to be propaganda. “I remember it well, because the antiwar movement in America grew because of it,” Madame Binh added, speaking in French. “But in Vietnam there was not only one My Lai—there were many.”
One morning in Danang, a beach resort and port city of about a million people, I had coffee with Vo Cao Loi, one of the few survivors of Bravo Company’s attack at My Khe 4. He was fifteen at the time, Loi said, through an interpreter. His mother had what she called “a bad feeling” when she heard helicopters approaching the village. There had been operations in the area before. “It was not just like some Americans would show up all of a sudden,” he said. “Before they came, they often fired artillery and bombed the area, and then after all that they would send in the ground forces.” American and South Vietnamese Army units had moved through the area many times with no incident, but this time Loi was shooed out of the village by his mother moments before the attack. His two older brothers were fighting with the Vietcong, and one had been killed in combat six days earlier. “I think she was afraid because I was almost a grown boy and if I stayed I could be beaten up or forced to join the South Vietnamese Army. I went to the river, about fifty metres away. Close, close enough: I heard the fire and the screaming.” Loi stayed hidden until evening, when he returned home to bury his mother and other relatives.
Two days later, Vietcong troops took Loi to a headquarters in the mountains to the west. He was too young to fight, but he was brought before Vietcong combat units operating throughout Quang Ngai to describe what the Americans had done at My Khe. The goal was to inspire the guerrilla forces to fight harder. Loi eventually joined the Vietcong and served at the military command until the end of the war. American surveillance planes and troops were constantly searching for his unit. “We moved the headquarters every time we thought the Americans were getting close,” Loi told me. “Whoever worked in headquarters had to be absolutely loyal. There were three circles on the inside: the outer one was for suppliers, a second one was for those who worked in maintenance and logistics, and the inner one was for the commanders. Only division commanders could stay in the inner circle. When they did leave the headquarters, they would dress as normal soldiers, so one would never know. They went into nearby villages. There were cases when Americans killed our division officers, but they did not know who they were.” As with the U.S. Army, Loi said, Vietcong officers often motivated their soldiers by inflating the number of enemy combatants they had killed.
The massacres at My Lai and My Khe, terrible as they were, mobilized support for the war against the Americans, Loi said. Asked if he could understand why such war crimes were tolerated by the American command, Loi said he did not know, but he had a dark view of the quality of U.S. leadership in central Vietnam. “The American generals had to take responsibility for the actions of the soldiers,” he told me. “The soldiers take orders, and they were just doing their duty.”
Loi said that he still grieves for his family, and he has nightmares about the massacre. But, unlike Pham Thanh Cong, he found a surrogate family almost immediately: “The Vietcong loved me and took care of me. They raised me.” I told Loi about Cong’s anger at Kenneth Schiel, and Loi said, “Even if others do terrible things to you, you can forgive it and move toward the future.” After the war, Loi transferred to the regular Vietnamese Army. He eventually became a full colonel and retired after thirty-eight years of service. He and his wife now own a coffee shop in Danang.
Almost seventy per cent of the population of Vietnam is under the age of forty, and although the war remains an issue mainly for the older generations, American tourists are a boon to the economy. If American G.I.s committed atrocities, well, so did the French and the Chinese in other wars. Diplomatically, the U.S. is considered a friend, a potential ally against China. Thousands of Vietnamese who worked for or with the Americans during the Vietnam War fled to the United States in 1975. Some of their children have confounded their parents by returning to Communist Vietnam, despite its many ills, from rampant corruption to aggressive government censorship.
Nguyen Qui Duc, a fifty-seven-year-old writer and journalist who runs a popular bar and restaurant in Hanoi, fled to America in 1975 when he was seventeen. Thirty-one years later, he returned. In San Francisco, he was a prize-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, but, as he told me, “I’d always wanted to come back and live in Vietnam. I felt unfinished leaving home at seventeen and living as someone else in the United States. I was grateful for the opportunities in America, but I needed a sense of community. I came to Hanoi for the first time as a reporter for National Public Radio, and fell in love with it.”
Duc told me that, like many Vietnamese, he had learned to accept the American brutality in the war. “American soldiers committed atrocious acts, but in war such things happen,” he said. “And it’s a fact that the Vietnamese cannot own up to their own acts of brutality in the war. We Vietnamese have a practical attitude: better forget a bad enemy if you can gain a needed friend.”
During the war, Duc’s father, Nguyen Van Dai, was a deputy governor in South Vietnam. He was seized by the Vietcong in 1968 and imprisoned until 1980. In 1984, Duc, with the help of an American diplomat, successfully petitioned the government to allow his parents to emigrate to California; Duc had not seen his father for sixteen years. He told me of his anxiety as he waited for him at the airport. His father had suffered terribly in isolation in a Communist prison near the Chinese border; he was often unable to move his limbs. Would he be in a wheelchair, or mentally unstable? Duc’s father arrived in California during a Democratic Presidential primary. He walked off the plane and greeted his son. “How’s Jesse Jackson doing?” he said. He found a job as a social worker and lived for sixteen more years.
Some American veterans of the war have returned to Vietnam to live. Chuck Palazzo grew up in a troubled family on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and, after dropping out of high school, enlisted in the Marines. In the fall of 1970, after a year of training, he was assigned to an élite reconnaissance unit whose mission was to confirm intelligence and to ambush enemy missile sites and combat units at night. He and his men sometimes parachuted in under fire. “I was involved in a lot of intense combat with many North Vietnamese regulars as well as Vietcong, and I lost a lot of friends,” Palazzo told me over a drink in Danang, where he now lives and works. “But the gung ho left when I was still here. I started to read and understand the politics of the war, and one of my officers was privately agreeing with me that what we were doing there was wrong and senseless. The officer told me, ‘Watch your ass and get the hell out of here.’ ”
Palazzo first arrived in Danang in 1970, on a charter flight, and he could see coffins lined up on the field as the plane taxied in. “It was only then that I realized I was in a war,” he said. “Thirteen months later, I was standing in line, again at Danang, to get on the plane taking me home, but my name was not on the manifest.” After some scrambling, Palazzo said, “I was told that if I wanted to go home that day the only way out was to escort a group of coffins flying to America on a C-141 cargo plane.” So that’s what he did.
After leaving the Marines, Palazzo earned a college degree and began a career as an I.T. specialist. But, like many vets, he came “back to the world” with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with addictions. His marriage collapsed. He lost various jobs. In 2006, Palazzo made a “selfish” decision to return to Ho Chi Minh City. “It was all about me dealing with P.T.S.D. and confronting my own ghosts,” he said. “My first visit became a love affair with the Vietnamese.” Palazzo wanted to do all he could for the victims of Agent Orange. For years, the Veterans Administration, citing the uncertainty of evidence, refused to recognize a link between Agent Orange and the ailments, including cancers, of many who were exposed to it. “In the war, the company commander told us it was mosquito spray, but we could see that all the trees and vegetation were destroyed,” Palazzo said. “It occurred to me that, if American vets were getting something, some help and compensation, why not the Vietnamese?” Palazzo, who moved to Danang in 2007, is now an I.T. consultant and the leader of a local branch of Veterans for Peace, an American antiwar N.G.O. He remains active in the Agent Orange Action Group, which seeks international support to cope with the persistent effects of the defoliant.
In Hanoi, I met Chuck Searcy, a tall, gray-haired man of seventy who grew up in Georgia. Searcy’s father had been taken prisoner by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and it never occurred to Searcy to avoid Vietnam. “I thought President Johnson and the Congress knew what we were doing in Vietnam,” he told me. In 1966, Searcy quit college and enlisted. He was an intelligence analyst, in a unit that was situated near the airport in Saigon, and which processed and evaluated American analyses and reports.
“Within three months, all the ideals I had as a patriotic Georgia boy were shattered, and I began to question who we were as a nation,” Searcy said. “The intelligence I was seeing amounted to a big intellectual lie.” The South Vietnamese clearly thought little of the intelligence the Americans were passing along. At one point, a colleague bought fish at a market in Saigon and noticed that it was wrapped in one of his unit’s classified reports. “By the time I left, in June of 1968,” Searcy said, “I was angry and bitter.”
Searcy finished his Army tour in Europe. His return home was a disaster. “My father heard me talk about the war and he was incredulous. Had I turned into a Communist? He said that he and my mother don’t ‘know who you are anymore. You’re not an American.’ Then they told me to get out.” Searcy went on to graduate from the University of Georgia, and edited a weekly newspaper in Athens, Georgia. He then began a career in politics and public policy that included working as an aide to Wyche Fowler, a Georgia Democratic congressman.
In 1992, Searcy returned to Vietnam and eventually decided to join the few other veterans who had moved there. “I knew, even as I was flying out of Vietnam in 1968, that someday, somehow, I would return, hopefully in a time of peace. I felt even back then that I was abandoning the Vietnamese to a terribly tragic fate, for which we Americans were mostly responsible. That sentiment never quite left me.” Searcy worked with a program that dealt with mine clearance. The U.S. dropped three times the number of bombs by weight in Vietnam as it had during the Second World War. Between the end of the war and 1998, more than a hundred thousand Vietnamese civilians, an estimated forty per cent of them children, had been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance. For more than two decades after the war, the U.S. refused to pay for damage done by bombs or by Agent Orange, though in 1996 the government began to provide modest funding for mine clearance. From 2001 to 2011, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund also helped finance the mine-clearance program. “A lot of veterans felt we should assume some responsibility,” Searcy said. The program helped educate Vietnamese, especially farmers and children, about the dangers posed by the unexploded weapons, and casualties have diminished.
Searcy said that his early disillusionment with the war was validated shortly before its end. His father called to ask if they could have coffee. They hadn’t spoken since he was ordered out of the house. “He and my mother had been talking,” Searcy said. “And he told me, ‘We think you were right and we were wrong. We want you to come home.’ ” He went home almost immediately, he said, and remained close to his parents until they died. Searcy is twice divorced, and wrote, in a self-deprecating e-mail, “I have resisted the kind efforts of the Vietnamese to get me married off again.”
There was more to learn in Vietnam. By early 1969, most of the members of Charlie Company were back home in America or reassigned to other combat units. The coverup was working. By then, however, a courageous Army veteran named Ronald Ridenhour had written a detailed letter about the “dark and bloody” massacre and mailed copies of it to thirty government officials and members of Congress. Within weeks, the letter found its way to the American military headquarters in Vietnam.
On my recent visit to Hanoi, a government official asked me to pay a courtesy call at the provincial offices in the city of Quang Ngai before driving the few miles to My Lai. There I was presented with a newly published guidebook to the province, which included a detailed description of another purported American massacre during the war, in the hamlet of Truong Le, outside Quang Ngai. According to the report, an Army platoon on a search-and-destroy operation arrived at Truong Le at seven in the morning on April 18, 1969, a little more than a year after My Lai. The soldiers pulled women and children out of their houses and then torched the village. Three hours later, the report alleges, the soldiers returned to Truong Le and killed forty-one children and twenty-two women, leaving only nine survivors.
Little, it seemed, had changed in the aftermath of My Lai.
In 1998, a few weeks before the thirtieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre, a retired Pentagon official, W. Donald Stewart, gave me a copy of an unpublished report from August, 1967, showing that most American troops in South Vietnam did not understand their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions. Stewart was then the chief of the investigations division of the Directorate of Inspection Services, at the Pentagon. His report, which involved months of travel and hundreds of interviews, was prepared at the request of Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Stewart’s report said that many of the soldiers interviewed “felt they were at liberty to substitute their own judgment for the clear provisions of the Conventions. . . . It was primarily the young and inexperienced troops who stated they would maltreat or kill prisoners, despite having just received instructions” on international law.
McNamara left the Pentagon in February, 1968, and the report was never released. Stewart later told me that he understood why the report was suppressed: “People were sending their eighteen-year-olds over there, and we didn’t want them to find out that they were cutting off ears. I came back from South Vietnam thinking that things were out of control. . . . I understood Calley—very much so.”
It turns out that Robert McNamara did, too. I knew nothing of the Stewart study while I was reporting on My Lai in late 1969, but I did learn that McNamara had been put on notice years earlier about the bloody abuses in central Vietnam. After the first of my My Lai stories was published, Jonathan Schell, a young writer for The New Yorker, who in 1968 had published a devastating account for the magazine of the incessant bombing in Quang Ngai and a nearby province, called me. (Schell died last year.) His article—which later became a book, “The Military Half”—demonstrated, in essence, that the U.S. military, convinced that the Vietcong were entrenched in central Vietnam and attracting serious support, made little distinction between combatants and noncombatants in the area that included My Lai.
Schell had returned from South Vietnam, in 1967, devastated by what he had seen. He came from an eminent New York family, and his father, a Wall Street attorney and a patron of the arts, was a neighbor, in Martha’s Vineyard, of Jerome Wiesner, the former science adviser to President John F. Kennedy. Wiesner, then the provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also involved with McNamara in a project to build an electronic barrier that would prevent the North Vietnamese from sending matériel south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (The barrier was never completed.) Schell told Wiesner what he had seen in Vietnam, and Wiesner, who shared his dismay, arranged for him to talk with McNamara.
Soon afterward, Schell discussed his observations with McNamara, in Washington. Schell told me that he was uncomfortable about giving the government a report before writing his article, but he felt that it had to be done. McNamara agreed that their meeting would remain secret, and he said that he would do nothing to impede Schell’s work. He also provided Schell with an office in the Pentagon where he could dictate his notes. Two copies were made, and McNamara said that he would use his set to begin an inquiry into the abuses that Schell had described.
Schell’s story was published early the next year. He heard nothing more from McNamara, and there was no public sign of any change in policy. Then came my articles on My Lai, and Schell called McNamara, who had since left the Pentagon to become president of the World Bank. He reminded him that he had left him a detailed accounting of atrocities in the My Lai area. Now, Schell told me, he thought it was important to write about their meeting. McNamara said that they had agreed it was off the record and insisted that Schell honor the commitment. Schell asked me for advice. I wanted him to do the story, of course, but told him that if he really had made an off-the-record pact with McNamara he had no choice but to honor it.
Schell kept his word. In a memorial essay on McNamara in The Nation, in 2009, he described his visit to McNamara but did not mention their extraordinary agreement. Fifteen years after the meeting, Schell wrote, he learned from Neil Sheehan, the brilliant war reporter for the United Press International*, the Times and The New Yorker, and the author of “A Bright Shining Lie,” that McNamara had sent Schell’s notes to Ellsworth Bunker, the American Ambassador in Saigon. Apparently unknown to McNamara, the goal in Saigon was not to investigate Schell’s allegations but to discredit his reporting and do everything possible to prevent publication of the material.
A few months after my newspaper articles appeared, Harper’s published an excerpt from a book I’d been writing, to be titled “My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath.” The excerpt provided a far more detailed account of what had happened, emphasizing how the soldiers in Lieutenant Calley’s company had become brutalized in the months leading up to the massacre. McNamara’s twenty-year-old son, Craig, who opposed the war, called me and said that he had left a copy of the magazine in his father’s sitting room. He later found it in the fireplace. After McNamara left public life, he campaigned against nuclear arms and tried to win absolution for his role in the Vietnam War. He acknowledged in a 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” that the war had been a “disaster,” but he rarely expressed regrets about the damage that was done to the Vietnamese people and to American soldiers like Paul Meadlo. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things I’ve made errors,” he told the filmmaker Errol Morris in “The Fog of War,” a documentary released in 2003.
Declassified documents from McNamara’s years in the Pentagon reveal that McNamara repeatedly expressed skepticism about the war in his private reports to President Johnson. But he never articulated any doubt or pessimism in public. Craig McNamara told me that on his deathbed his father “said he felt that God had abandoned him.” The tragedy was not only his. ♦
Fifty years after the first US troops came ashore at Da Nang, the Vietnamese are still coping with unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.
George Black February 25, 2015 | This article appeared in the March 16, 2015 edition of The Nation.
American troops in action on Hill 875 at Dak To (fall 1967), one of the bloodiest engagements of the war (US Army Heritage and Education Center)
On a mild, sunny morning last November, Chuck Searcy and I drove out along a spur of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail to the former Marine base at Khe Sanh, which sits in a bowl of green mountains and coffee plantations in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, hard on the border with Laos. The seventy-seven-day siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968, coinciding with the Tet Offensive, was the longest battle of what Vietnamese call the American War and a pivotal event in the conflict. By the off-kilter logic of Saigon and Washington, unleashing enough technology and firepower to produce a ten-to-one kill ratio was a metric of success, but the televised carnage of 1968, in which 16,592 Americans died, was too much for audiences back home. After Tet and Khe Sanh, the war was no longer America’s to win, only to avoid losing.
I learned later that this ravishing forested landscape was something of an illusion. In defense of Khe Sanh, the US Air Force dropped 100,000 tons of bombs on the surrounding mountains, stripped the forests bare with Agent Orange and incinerated them with napalm. Since the war, the Vietnamese government has replanted this barren and eroded land, part of a national effort to rehabilitate the portions of Vietnam that were devastated by herbicides—an area the size of Massachusetts.
A trickle of American veterans come back to Khe Sanh these days, said Nguyen Viet Minh, a chatty, hospitable man in his late 30s who runs a small museum and memorial site that includes various chunks of abandoned American hardware—a C-130 aircraft, a Huey helicopter, an armored personnel carrier, a tank—and a reconstructed airstrip and bunkers. These visitors often share their memories with him. “They witnessed by their own eye some bad thing happen,” he said in English. “Everything very bloody, everything shock them, life, death, and they cannot forget it.”
Searcy himself first came to Khe Sanh in 1992, twenty-four years after Tet and twenty-four years after he shipped out of Vietnam at the end of a tour of duty with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Saigon. He is a tall, lean man with a head of thick, gray-white hair and a courtly charm that seems entirely without effort or artifice. His speech still has the soft cadences of his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Probably no American, and certainly no veteran of the US military, has ever immersed himself so completely in the realities of Vietnam. The war defined Searcy’s young adulthood, and its aftermath has defined the past third of his life. That initial visit to Khe Sanh was part of his first trip back since the war. In January 1995, after returning for the third time, he moved to Hanoi, fell for the city’s magical blend of elegance and chaos, and has never left. He turned 70 last September—or perhaps it was 71, he said; it all depended on how you count time. When friends invited him to a surprise birthday party, they reminded him that Vietnamese add a year for the time spent in the womb.
As we walked out across the red-dirt airstrip, trailed by an old man who wanted to sell us a trayload of spent bullets and faux American dog tags, Searcy pointed out a line of trees along the perimeter. On that first visit, he said, he encountered two boys herding cows. “I asked them if there were still any bombs here. They walked us over to those trees and pointed to the ground. There was a small artillery shell lying on the ground, intact, unexploded. And they said it’s all around, it’s everywhere. I asked if anyone came around to clean it up. They said no. So we’re standing there and staring at this weapon, and the younger boy, who’s about 8 or 9 years old, tentatively sticks his toe out, just to nudge it a bit out of curiosity. And I say, ‘Stop! stop!’ That was my first awareness of the problem.”
If anywhere embodied Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay’s famous threat to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age, it was Quang Tri province, which was split in two by the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. This is the skinny waist of Vietnam, a long snake of a country that stretches 1,000 miles from north to south. Hemmed in by the Annamite Mountains to the west and the South China Sea to the east, Quang Tri is only thirty miles wide in places. It’s smaller than Delaware, covering a little more than 1,800 square miles. Yet that tiny piece of earth is the most heavily bombed place in history; a greater tonnage was dropped here than on Germany in the whole of World War II.
When the war ended, Searcy said, “Quang Tri was a moonscape.” Farmers returning to work their rice paddies and their fields of corn, cassava and peanuts were walking into a death trap. Ten percent of the munitions that rained down on the province failed to detonate, so there was the constant risk of stepping on a piece of unexploded ordnance, and many thousands did. They also had no idea of how dioxin, the lethal contaminant in Agent Orange, might blight their lives down through three generations. After putting down new roots in Hanoi, Searcy decided this would be his purpose in life: to address this legacy of destruction, or, as he puts it, “to build on the ashes and bones of war.”
* * *
The Tet offensive broke at the midpoint of Searcy’s year in Saigon. In the early hours of January 31, everyone was asleep in the barracks. Things had been quiet. The only recent excitement had been a USO show with Bob Hope and Raquel Welch. Suddenly, the alarm siren went off. “Everybody groans and moans and drags out of bed because it’s going to be another practice alert,” he said, “and you hate it, you have to put all your gear on, get your weapon, go out to the perimeter and wait until the all-clear is sounded.”
Except that this time it didn’t. Instead, “This captain in a jeep comes around with a bullhorn and says the US consulate has been overrun. Saigon is getting the shit kicked out of it.”
The captain’s radio was tuned to the frequency of a helicopter pilot who was circling overhead, bringing in troops to retake the embassy. Searcy listened to the conversation in disbelief. “It turns out he’s only been in Vietnam for about two weeks, he’s never even been to Saigon,” Searcy said. “He doesn’t know where to go. So they’re marking instructions for him on this squawk-box radio, asking if he can see the church. ‘OK, then turn east from there, turn right two blocks, three blocks, and you’ll see the embassy.’”
What stayed with Searcy after Tet was not only these sometimes farcical elements of military conduct, but the scale of destruction that followed. His compound was in a converted blanket factory on the outskirts of town, “a neighborhood of little houses and cafes and old men smoking pipes, water buffalo, rice paddies, kids and chickens.” Now there were streams of refugees and “a rain of fire from the sky, night after night. By June ‘68, there was almost nothing left, just blackened rubble.”
This was not what Searcy had imagined two years earlier, when, with the draft board breathing down his neck, he decided to enlist. He came from conservative Southern stock. He was born in Alabama and moved at age 3 to Thomson, Georgia, where his father, a proud veteran and POW captured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, ran the local Coca-Cola plant. Every male in the family served in the military.
“As a Georgia boy, it was just something you did,” he said. “You joined the military and you served your country.” He was a regular at the Presbyterian church. He liked Barry Goldwater’s politics and volunteered in his 1964 election campaign. He saw no reason to doubt the government’s assurances that America had honorable motives in Vietnam or that victory would be swift.
At Fort Benning, Georgia, he went through the customary rigors of basic training, with screaming drill sergeants trying to turn him against his quiet nature to become a killer and a hater of gooks. His first doubts crept in when he went on to Fort Holabird, Maryland, for training as an intelligence analyst. When his superiors asked what language he’d like to learn, Searcy chose Vietnamese. They rejected his request. When he asked why, they said it was because he was going to be posted to Vietnam. When he eventually got to Saigon, he found that no one in his battalion, whose job was, after all, intelligence, spoke the language. The logic of this remained obscure.
When Searcy arrived at the Tan Son Nhut air base, he was driven into the city in a “deuce and a half,” a two-and-a-half-ton truck, with a driver who enjoyed swerving from side to side, aiming for mud puddles. “He passed an old woman carrying baskets on a shoulder pole and just covered her with a sheet of water from head to foot,” Searcy said. “I looked in her eyes, and she looked in my eyes, and the look on her face was not anger or malice, it was just like, why did you have to do that? That was my introduction to Saigon.”
At the Combined Intelligence Center of Vietnam (CICV), known as Sick-Vee, much of the raw intelligence that crossed Searcy’s desk came from bushy-tailed young officers from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) or analysts from the RAND Corporation. He synthesized their rose-colored reports on rice production targets and on political loyalties in the “strategic hamlets,” where peasants forcibly displaced from their homes could be reclassified as “friendlies.” But their unrelenting optimism made him queasy, especially when he saw CICV’s final reports constantly revised and rewritten to reflect the war that Washington liked to imagine rather than the one that was actually being fought.
In the months after Tet, Searcy’s doubts hardened into disgust. “It didn’t take long to see that what I’d been told about America’s role in the war was distortions, exaggerations and lies,” he said. “Although ‘lies’ implies malice. Like so many things Americans do, we had good intentions, but I saw very quickly that they had gone awry.”
* * *
Searcy was rotated out of Saigon after a year and served out his enlistment in Germany. There were beautiful women, great beer, the Keystone Cops follies of Cold War intelligence-gathering, like the American colonel who had the bright idea of photographing a factory in East Germany from a car concealed in a haystack, only to be seized by farmers wielding pitchforks after they saw the haystack barreling across their field.
Staying on as a civilian in Germany was enticing, but in the fall of 1970, Searcy decided it was time to come home. He found the antiwar movement at its zenith, and his changed opinions brought a bitter two-year schism with his parents. Yet he was more sad than angry, and to this day he eschews labels like “liberal” and “conservative.” He was never a flag-burner, preferring to give talks to local Kiwanis and Rotary Club chapters and hand out petitions at Georgia football games. When about 1,000 vets threw their medals down on the steps of the Capitol, he chose to lay his discreetly on the desk of his senator. Besides, he said wryly, it wasn’t as if his were Bronze Stars or Purple Hearts; they were just the basic set you got for serving, surviving and not screwing up.
For the next twenty years, Searcy followed a conventional career path, cleaving to the mainstream of Georgia Democratic Party politics. He started a small newspaper in Athens, spent a year with the Small Business Administration in Washington, ran the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, grew close to future Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost two legs and part of one arm to a grenade near Khe Sanh in 1968. Then one day he got a call from an old friend from his military intelligence days, who was in Atlanta for a convention. They had dinner together. By the time dessert came, they’d decided to go back to Vietnam.
“As we landed, both of us had a panic attack,” he said. “For God’s sake, what are we thinking? We’re ex-GIs; the country is devastated. But I couldn’t believe the welcome we got, the curiosity. ‘Were you in the war? My father was in the war. Where were you?’ But without any animosity or anger. It was astonishing.” Everywhere they went for the next month, it was the same story: not a harsh word.
By late 1994, when Searcy made his third trip, Bill Clinton had finally lifted the US embargo, paving the way for full diplomatic relations. As part of the goodwill offensive, USAID asked the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to administer a humanitarian project to provide orthopedic braces for children, and Searcy agreed to run it. “The Vietnamese were doing prosthetic limbs for amputees,” he said. “But for children with polio or cerebral palsy or club foot, they only had crude implements of bamboo, wood, metal and leather.”
He began to wonder about the cause of all these disabilities. “And of course, there was always the hanging question,” he said. “Could any of this be related to Agent Orange?” The Vietnamese doctors demurred: it’s possible, we can’t be certain, there isn’t enough research, perhaps yes, perhaps no. The government, too, was reluctant to raise the issue, given the delicate rapprochement with the United States. And the new ambassador, Pete Peterson, a former Air Force pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi, declared bluntly that any talk of Agent Orange was propaganda designed to extort war reparations.
“It didn’t seem fair,” Searcy said. “The Vietnamese were getting hammered, going beyond any expectations to help us find the remains of MIAs, flying all over the country, even digging up Vietnamese cemeteries. A lot of us veterans felt that they should have been asking for US cooperation in return in dealing with these war legacies.”
While Agent Orange remained a political third rail, unexploded ordnance (UXO) proved an easier sell. The US government offered Vietnam $3 million to help with a cleanup program, and, with Searcy acting as a back-channel go-between, the Vietnamese defense ministry was finally persuaded that there would be no strings attached. Other governments and private groups also kicked in funding. There was no better place to start than Quang Tri and the former DMZ. And so, to make a long story short, Project RENEW was born, in 2001. The acronym stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War. Today, most of its funding comes from Norwegian People’s Aid.
* * *
Project Renew has its headquarters in the bustling provincial capital, Dong Ha, where it also runs a small Mine Action Visitor Center, with its own Facebook page and a TripAdvisor sticker on the wall. “Mine” is actually a bit of a misnomer, Searcy said, for the minefields in Quang Tri were mainly around old military bases and on the beaches, and these were quickly cleared. But the word resonates with people, perhaps because they associate it with Princess Diana, who made eradication of mines her personal crusade. In reality, Searcy said, UXO includes everything from hand grenades to naval shells “the size of Volkswagens” that were fired from battleships twenty-five miles offshore.
Local schoolchildren visit the center in good numbers under a program that until recently was funded by the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. On one occasion, I found a group of elementary school kids from nearby Cam Lo district intent on an energetic role-playing game: what to do when you find UXO. Their teacher had called to report the discovery, in a patch of vegetation at the edge of the school’s soccer field, of three shoulder-fired M-79 grenades and a 37-millimeter projectile.
No one really knows how many people have been injured or killed by unexploded ordnance in Vietnam since the war ended, said Searcy’s colleague Ngo Xuan Hien, but the best estimates are at least 105,000, including about 40,000 deaths. An estimated 84 percent of Quang Tri’s 1,800 square miles are contaminated with UXO. Provincial records show that since 1975, 3,419 people have died in the province and another 5,095 have been maimed—commonly meaning the loss of one or more limbs and/or being blinded.
There were clear patterns among the victims. Poor farmers accounted for more than half of them, perhaps not surprisingly, since most of the fighting and bombing took place in rural areas. Rice paddies are the most common site of explosions. These are people who often earn barely a third of Quang Tri’s annual per capita income of less than $1,000. “People were desperate to have land for farming,” Hien said, “so they defied all the risks to reclaim it.”
In recent years, the casualty numbers have steadily declined—not because the bombs aren’t still there, but because Project RENEW has gotten better at finding them. And the pattern of victims has changed, from those who stumble on munitions accidentally to the scrap-metal scavengers who go out looking for them in full knowledge of the danger. “What they’re looking for is larger items like bombs or artillery shells, because those have the greatest value,” Searcy said, and the methods they use to get the metal can be hair-raising—sawing or hammering away at the seam that separates the body of the bomb from the warhead.
One day, we paid a call on one of Quang Tri’s dozens of scrap dealers. A young man pulled up on a motorbike and unloaded a rattling bag of metal. The dealer took a look inside, placed the bag on an old-fashioned scale and, after some perfunctory negotiation, handed over the equivalent of a dollar or two.
His yard was littered with rusted weaponry of every description. Off in a shed, he had set aside a shelf and a sheet of pegboard that had the air of a small museum. The items on display were for sale, everything from aluminum mess tins and water canteens to rocket-propelled grenades and cluster bombs. I could have a rocket with all its fins intact for about $40, the dealer said. I asked about a helmet with a jagged gash in it that might have been a bullet hole, but I preferred to think was rust. One hundred thousand Vietnamese dong for that one, he said. Five bucks.
* * *
Cluster bombs are the most malignant of all the UXO, Hien told me. It takes a kind of perverse ingenuity to design such things (although Leonardo da Vinci, of all people, is credited with the original idea). An airplane drops a mother pod, an elongated canister that springs open in midair. As many as 600 individual bomblets, each the size of a baseball and with its own explosive charge, fly out in all directions, blanketing an area the size of two or three football fields and shredding anything in their path. As the unexploded ones rust away in the ground, some become inert, while others become unstable. You never know.
“There’s a footprint to a cluster-bomb strike pattern that’s different from any other kind of blast,” Searcy explained. “If you find one or two bombs, you can assume there are others in the immediate area.” It helps, he said, that the US Air Force has turned over many of its maps, tracking the planned bombing runs—although pilots had discretion to drop bombs wherever they saw fit. Sometimes the path of a cluster-bomb strike will match that of an Agent Orange spraying run, fighter jets having cleared the way to eliminate the risk of ground fire.
We went out one morning with a cluster-bomb survey team in a village in Cam Lo district, which was the scene of intense fighting. We were joined there by retired Col. Bui Trong Hong, Project RENEW’s national technical officer. The colonel learned his skills when he was assigned to a de-mining team in Quang Tri after the war, helping villagers reclaim their land for farming and resettlement. A tiny man who barely came up to my shoulder, he seemed to regard life as an inexhaustible source of humor. He laughed when he told me of his childhood in Nghe An province, the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, how he and his classmates would be dispersed into improvised classrooms in the jungle to reduce the number of deaths if fighter jets hit their school. He laughed when he described villagers shooting at airplanes with World War I–era rifles. He laughed when I was asked to sign a liability waiver, writing down my blood group in exchange for a promise that if anything went wrong, they’d have me in the hospital in Dong Ha in the blink of an eye.
The team leader showed me a map of the survey area, divided up into a color-coded grid with hundreds of smaller boxes. Red for cluster bombs, blue for other munitions, dark green for all clear. We were in box 103. Covering about one square kilometer, it had been under cultivation with sweet potato and cassava. His team had already found one mortar round and two cluster bombs, and five men with mine detectors, accompanied by a paramedic, were sweeping the field for more. I was told to turn off my cellphone, because it would interfere with their signal. And to follow exactly—exactly—in their footsteps.
As we crisscrossed the field, the detectors made a rhythmic, high-pitched chatter, like a flock of angry geese. Suddenly, one of them gave a loud squawk. Maybe it was a bomb, maybe just a piece of shrapnel, the colonel said. The spot was flagged for later inspection.
* * *
When local people find something nasty in their fields, they can call Project RENEW for help, and out goes another kind of crew, the first responders, usually in a matter of minutes. I went out on another day with one of these teams, to a soccer field just off the highway, sodden with recent rains. The previous week, workers widening an irrigation ditch had unearthed a grenade and a five-inch white phosphorus bomb. A cassava farmer who lives nearby told me that he had seen the phosphorus ignite when it was exposed to the air and had called the hot line. Kids had been playing soccer on the field; people were tending water buffalo. Now there was another find, this time three 40-millimeter grenades, small but lethal items.
The shallow holes that had been dug to expose the grenades were ringed with sandbags, yellow and candy-cane pink. When the team leader was satisfied that everything was in place, we retreated to a safe distance. On the count of three, a member of the crew pressed the button. There was a dull boom, and an inverted cone of mud and debris shot thirty feet into the air.
When it was over, I asked Colonel Hong—who was still compelled to do this, often responding to five calls a day, forty years after the war ended—what he thought of Americans. He had felt hatred as a child, he said, seeing all the killing, the bombing of schools. But what the Americans had done here had to be placed in context, he added. Vietnam had been attacked and invaded by China for more than a thousand years. France had occupied the country for a century. Up to 2 million people had died from famine in the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. And perhaps the experience of the North had been different than in South Vietnam. “We saw the enemy only coming from the sky, the enemy without a face,” he said. I was reminded of a line in Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the war, Fire in the Lake, about “bombs released by an invisible pilot with incomprehensible intentions.”
Getting rid of the UXO “is a continuing, dynamic process,” Chuck Searcy said later. For a long time, people had spoken of removing every last piece of ordnance from the fields of Vietnam. But that’s impossible. What’s realistic, he said, is to make the country safe—in the way that Europe is now safe, even if construction workers in London or Berlin still dig up the odd unexploded bomb left over from World War II.
By one estimate, more than 370,000 pieces of ordnance have been destroyed in Quang Tri since 1998. No one knows how many remain. But there are few fatalities these days, and Searcy now sees a new window of opportunity to finish the job. Thanks largely to the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy, the State Department will continue to provide annual funding to help with UXO removal in Vietnam. Just as significant, there will also be a little new money to address the darkest and most intractable of all the legacies of the war: Agent Orange.
* * *
As we drove one day through Cam Lo district, Ngo Xuan Hien, who is 38, recalled his childhood here, the constant struggle to find food, classmates who had seizures and fell to the ground and drooled, a girl who was cruelly teased because of her harelip.
The low, rolling hills were carpeted with long, even rows of spindly trees. It had all been replanted since the war, Hien said, first with pepper and then with stands of rubber and, above all, acacia, a fast-growing wood used in the making of paper and furniture. “In the old-growth forests, there used to be bears and monkeys and wildcats,” Searcy said. “Now it’s all just acacia, acacia, acacia.” Though the new plantation monoculture is drab by comparison with the lush ecosystem that once existed, it’s part of an intensive government effort to restore badly eroded lands that were sprayed with herbicides and then invaded by coarse grasses, while providing some cash income for local farmers.
No one could dispute that Agent Orange was responsible for denuding the forests. But was it also the reason for the disabilities that afflicted Hien’s classmates? That question has occupied the tortured intersection of science and politics for forty years now, though for many Vietnamese, the connection is an article of faith.
Although the Romans used to destroy their enemies’ fields, and armies have always bombed and burned adversaries out of their hiding places, there is no real precedent for the systematic use of science and technology to destroy large portions of a country’s natural environment, as the United States did with its herbicide-spraying program in Vietnam. The overall operation was called Trail Dust, but it’s generally referred to as Ranch Hand. Another name that was sometimes used was Hades, and that may be the most apposite of the three.
The most authoritative estimate of the scale of the program comes from a 2003 study by Jeanne Stellman, a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Using US Air Force flight records and a sophisticated geographic information system, Stellman calculated that between 1961 and 1971 about 20 million gallons of herbicides were dropped on South Vietnam, exposing as many as 4.8 million people to the toxic chemicals. The spraying began modestly, with small amounts to clear the perimeter of roads, waterways and military bases. But as it escalated, it took on the dual purpose of destroying crops that might feed the Vietcong and removing forest cover to make their presence more visible to spotter planes and airstrikes. Most of the herbicides were delivered by modified Fairchild C-123 aircraft, though smaller quantities were delivered by helicopter, patrol boat, truck and backpack spray tanks.
Agent Orange accounted for more than 60 percent of the spraying, but actually it was just one in a rainbow spectrum of herbicides, each employing a different cocktail of chemicals and color-coded by a painted band around its fifty-five-gallon storage barrel. Agent White was the second most widely used defoliant, while substantial amounts of Agent Blue were also sprayed, mainly to kill crops by desiccation. Agents Pink, Green and Purple were used in smaller quantities during the early years of the war.
Agent Orange was a fifty-fifty mix of two components, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). Seven different companies manufactured it on government contracts, Monsanto and Dow Chemical being by far the biggest. They insisted the stuff was safe, as did the US military. Psywar teams were routinely sent into villages after a spraying run to deliver the message, in the words of a declassified Air Force document, that these were “standard defoliants which are widely used throughout the world in controlling weeds and other vegetation. They have no harmful effects of any kind on human or animal life.” American and South Vietnamese troops often sluiced out the residue from the empty barrels, cut them in half and used them as barbecue pits, or punched holes in them to make improvised showers. Chuck Searcy heard tales of Marines drinking cupfuls of dilute Agent Orange as an initiation ritual.
But there were two problems with the assertion, true enough on its face, that these were just your everyday weed killers. First, they were sprayed on Vietnam in concentrations up to ten times higher than when used in the United States. More important, a combination of military imperatives and market forces turned them lethal. In the course of accelerated production, the Agent Orange was contaminated with an unwanted byproduct, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD. This is sometimes referred to as the most toxic substance known to man, depositing itself in fat cells, disrupting hormone systems and triggering complex cellular and genetic changes. In the natural environment, dioxin can persist for decades, passing through soil into water, where it gloms on to organic matter in sediment and from there can move on up the food chain.
But the other herbicides were toxic too, Stellman told me when we met in New York. Cacodylic acid, the active ingredient in Agent Blue, is an arsenical that has promoted a variety of cancers in rats. Agent White was a mixture of 2,4-D and Picloram, a proprietary product of Dow Chemical that contains hexachlorobenzene, a probable human carcinogen. Agent Purple, Stellman said, had even higher levels of TCDD than Agent Orange.
After disturbing patterns of disease began to appear in American veterans, the wall of denial about the toxicity of Agent Orange began to crumble. A 1990 report by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who had commanded US naval forces in Vietnam, was a searing takedown of corporate and official mendacity, written in language that still burns holes in the page. Monsanto’s studies were “fraudulent.” Dow Chemical was aware of the TCDD levels in Agent Orange and knew that exposure could cause “general organ toxicity.” The Chemical Weapons Branch of the US Air Force knew about the risks, but “because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned.” It seems not to have occurred to anyone that the 4.8 million villagers who were exposed to the spraying were precisely those on whose behalf the war was ostensibly being fought.
After years of political pressure and class-action suits and out-of-court settlements, the Department of Veterans Affairs eventually drew up a list of fourteen diseases, including several kinds of cancer, that were presumptively related to Agent Orange. A vet suffering from any one of these would be entitled to disability compensation. A separate list of birth defects was later added—spina bifida in the children of male veterans, and eighteen other conditions for the offspring of women who had served in Vietnam.
All this was more politics than science. There was no doubt, Stellman said, that Agent Orange, the larger herbicide program and the war in general had done terrible things to people, both Americans who served in Vietnam and the much greater number of Vietnamese whose lives were torn apart. But cause and effect? It was one thing, she said, to step on a cluster bomb in Quang Tri and have your legs blown off. No great debate there. But serving in Vietnam and later contracting a soft-tissue sarcoma or Parkinson’s disease, let alone Type 2 diabetes? Those links could never be convincingly demonstrated without a large-scale epidemiological study—and the fact that none had ever been conducted was, to her, the real scandal.
For the Vietnamese, meanwhile, the burden of proof was infinitely higher.
* * *
In Dong Ha, Chuck Searcy and I went to see Le Van Dang, president of the Quang Tri chapter of the nongovernmental Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA). About 10 percent of Quang Tri’s population of 600,000 suffer from a disability of some kind, he told me, well above the national average, and thousands of them are the consequence of stepping on unexploded ordnance. Dang’s list of “Victims Affected by Toxic Chemicals” included 15,485 people, though he acknowledged that the statistics were out-of-date. The most striking thing on the list was the number of homes with multiple disabilities. In one of Quang Tri’s ten districts, an astonishing 117 households had five or more family members who were classified as victims of Agent Orange.
But who was to say that the herbicide was responsible? Well, Dang answered, that’s the presumption if they’re diagnosed with one of the conditions on the official list. He read these from a sheet of paper on his desk, and I checked them off one by one against the VA list, starting with the cancers. They all tallied until we got to the end, where the Vietnamese version added a category that Hien translated as “unusual births, deformities and birth defects”—language that might embrace anything from stillbirth to Down syndrome. Casting such a broad net has led to the US government’s continued rejection of Vietnam’s claims as no more than propaganda without scientific merit.
To American vets who had returned to Vietnam to address the legacies of the war, this blanket dismissal of humanitarian concerns was an insult that “we jumped on like a chicken on a june bug,” Searcy said. Whatever the shortcomings of Vietnamese science, there was a lack of basic fairness here, an evasion of responsibility.
It was also an oversimplification of Vietnam’s position. Dang’s list embodied the sense of injustice felt by VAVA, the military and government agencies concerned with health, social welfare and the environment. But those more focused on Vietnam’s integration into the global economy kept their mouths shut. In fact, Stellman told me, when Vietnam was offered a high-performance mass spectrometer capable of testing for dioxin, it was used only to check for contamination in catfish, raised in the heavily sprayed Mekong Delta and destined for export.
Faced with government inaction, private organizations in the United States, led by the Ford Foundation, put more than $20 million into research on dioxin contamination in Vietnam and possible remedies. A Canadian firm, Hatfield Consultants, began field tests in 1996, collecting samples from three former US Special Forces bases in the A Luoi valley in Thua Thien-Hue province, immediately adjacent to Quang Tri. Hatfield’s lead scientist, Wayne Dwernychuk, told me in an e-mail, “The data retrieved through a general comparison of sprayed vs base levels early on in our studies, in my mind, triggered the ‘model’ of contamination pointing at the former U.S. military bases in Vietnam as being ‘hot spots’ or ‘reservoirs’ of dioxin.” In time, this produced a list of twenty-eight such locations, although, Dwernychuk added, “there are quite conceivably many more.”
By far the worst were the three air bases that acted as the nodal points for Ranch Hand operations. These were where the chemicals were shipped, stored, mixed, pumped aboard the C-123s and not infrequently spilled. Flights over the Mekong Delta operated out of Bien Hoa; Phu Cat covered the Central Highlands; and the worst hot spot of all, Da Nang, was where the planes took off for Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue and the northern section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The toxicity of dioxin is such that it is measured in parts per trillion. Anything above 1,000 ppt is dangerous. In some soil samples from Da Nang, Hatfield found levels of 365,000 ppt. In the A Luoi valley, Dwernychuk’s team had detected the heaviest concentration of dioxin in the food chain in fish and ducks, which root around in contaminated pond sediment and are the main source of protein for local farmers.
* * *
That was one kind of hot spot, but there was also the other kind—the thousands of rural villages that had the misfortune to find themselves in the flight path.
As Project RENEW has progressively eliminated the threat of UXO, Searcy has begun to look for ways of providing material assistance to those worst affected by disabilities and birth defects—knowing that there’s no scientific way of proving that their sufferings can be ascribed to Agent Orange. “It’s a matter of presumption and guesswork,” he said when we visited one such village in Cam Lo district. “You have to do a kind of triage.”
The few studies that have been conducted in the province fall far short of the peer-review standards demanded by the US government or by rigorous scientists like Jeanne Stellman. Nonetheless, they offer some fragmentary shards of evidence. A team from the Asian Development Bank, looking to promote reforestation efforts in Cam Lo district, found elevated levels of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in household wells and concluded that they were the result of runoff from Agent Orange (though Stellman questions this). A joint study by Vietnamese and Japanese scientists found a high rate of reproductive failure in women in two sprayed communes in Cam Lo, as well as disturbing levels of dioxin in breast milk. Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, a physician at Hue Medical School, found strikingly high numbers of certain disabilities among children in Cam Lo, many of which appear on the VA’s list of congenital disorders in the offspring of female veterans. In comparison with a nearby unsprayed area, Nhan found twice as many cases of cleft lip and cleft palate; three times the incidence of clubfoot, polydactyly (extra fingers and toes) and syndactyly (where the digits are fused); four times that of hypospadias (where the urethra emerges from the underside rather than the tip of the penis); and six times as many children with oscheocele (a swelling or tumor of the scrotum).
Until now, reconstructing exactly what happened in these localities during the war would have been next to impossible. But after years of painstaking research, Stellman has opened up radical new possibilities. With funding from the National Academy of Sciences, she and her colleagues at Columbia have crunched vast quantities of data about the Ranch Hand program, including details of more than 9,000 flights, to calculate the precise “exposure risk” of those who were in or near the spray path on particular days. Using Stellman’s database, which is not yet public, I was able to go into some of the worst-affected villages of Quang Tri and mesh the flight records and the exposure index with the accounts of families with disabled children who were present at the time.
The broad contours of the program in the province have long been known. The western mountains around Khe Sanh and the Ho Chi Minh Trail were relentlessly sprayed throughout the war. In 1965–66, the focus was on destroying food crops in the southern part of Quang Tri. Declassified Air Force documents in the Stellman archive show that these missions were timed according to the harvest cycles—three annual rice crops, roughly in March, August and October; potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and cassava between April and June. Later in 1966, the first defoliation missions targeted Cam Lo district. Then, in 1967–68, dozens of sorties crisscrossed the area immediately south of the DMZ, focusing on an area known as “Leatherneck Square.” On March 30, 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, issued instructions that this 222-square-mile section of Quang Tri was “the priority one defoliation task” in South Vietnam.
By my count, going through the Air Force flight records, more than 700,000 gallons of herbicides were dropped on Quang Tri—600,000 of Agent Orange and another 100,000 of Agents White and Blue. In total gallons sprayed, this ranks Quang Tri ninth among Vietnam’s fifty-eight provinces. But arguably a more meaningful yardstick would be the volume of herbicides in proportion to land area. Measured that way, Quang Tri would rank closer to fifth.
* * *
When Searcy and I reached the hamlet of Tan Hiep, a mile or so north of the Cam Lo River, we could hear the guttural cries of Nguyen Van Bong’s elder daughter well before we reached his house. We found her and her younger sister sprawled diagonally across a bare wooden bed frame, swaddled in a thick, floral-patterned blanket. Their mother, Tran Thi Gai, sat at the end of the bed, stroking their short-cropped hair and making small soothing noises. The older girl thrashed and writhed and clutched at her legs; the younger lay rigid and motionless, staring at the ceiling. I judged them to be 10 or 12 years old. Bong told me they were 26 and 21. Doctors had said that neither would survive childhood, but here they were still.
The elder daughter rarely slept, but moaned and screamed all night, so Bong and his wife traded round-the-clock shifts. This made it difficult for him to work, leaving the family heavily reliant on the pittance they receive from the government—about $17 a month for each child. Dr. Nhan, who knew the family well, had certified both girls as Agent Orange victims, although his diagnosis was cerebral palsy, which is on neither the American nor the Vietnamese list of diseases. Two of Bong’s younger children are also disabled. A son has abnormal bone growths in his knees. Another daughter is in her first year of college in Dong Ha, though her disabilities are more severe. “Her arms stick out at strange angles,” Bong said. “She’s tiny and stunted. She weighs only thirty kilos [sixty-six pounds], and she’s always sick.”
Project RENEW had just given the family a cow, at a cost of about $800, and Bong and Searcy chatted for a bit about ways that this might produce some long-term income by breeding and selling her calves in the local market.
When I went back to see the family later, Bong talked more about the war. Born in 1958, he was still just a boy during the worst of the ground fighting around Tan Hiep. The GIs were always friendly. They liked to play with the children and shared their C rations. Once he was asked to help carry two dead Americans across the river. He remembered that one was white, the other black.
The Ranch Hand records showed that three spraying runs passed right over Tan Hiep, with two others about a mile away. In the Stellman database, the hamlet registered an exposure risk of 5.98, which is quite high. (Like the Richter scale for earthquakes, risk is calculated on a logarithmic scale, not a linear one; Stellman told me that the highest recorded number is 6.95.) Air Force documents identifying the targets made a point of stressing that the area was uninhabited. True enough, Bong said with a half-smile, but not the whole story.
By late 1967, the population had been moved at gunpoint into a ramshackle refugee-cum-concentration camp in Cam Lo town after a series of military operations, with names like Buffalo, Bear Claw and Beaver Track, turned the whole area between the river and the DMZ into a free-fire zone. It was hard, listening to his account, not to think of all the tombs one sees in the fields of Vietnam, some just small cement slabs, and others like miniature pagodas. Ancestors are buried here where the rice grows, binding people to the land that is the source of their sustenance, history and identity. Did it never occur to the rural development experts who wrote the reports analyzed by Chuck Searcy in Saigon that bombing and burning people out of their villages and herding them into squalid encampments was perhaps not the best way to win their allegiance?
The flights would go over early in the day, Bong recalled. Dead fish would float to the surface of the river, an unexpected addition to the family diet. As soon as the planes were gone, his wife—then a girl of 8—would walk back across the river with her parents to work their land, tending to the fields of rice and peas and peanuts that were still damp from the spray.
Le Van Dang at VAVA said that a special kind of curse had fallen on the commune of Cam Nghia, four or five miles south of Cam Lo. Cam Nghia is also known as Làng Chat Doc Da Cam—the Agent Orange Village. In the center of it, sandwiched between Camp Carroll, an old artillery base, and a Special Forces base and airstrip at Mai Loc, is the hamlet of Phuong An 2. It has about 100 homes, Dang said. Twenty have two or more children with birth defects.
There were fewer Ranch Hand missions on this side of the river, but the flight paths boxed in Cam Nghia along three and a half sides of a tight parallelogram. Although Phuong An was destroyed by B-52s and napalm strikes, the inhabitants stayed put, living in tunnels and improvised shelters. Le Thi Mit would probably have seen the first of the flights on September 19, 1966, when she was 18. Ranch Hand mission 1087 made a west-to-east pass over the hills to the south of her village before kicking a right-angled dogleg to the north, spraying 1,800 gallons of Agent Orange along the way. Eleven days later, mission 1125 came much closer, another 1,800 gallons; 1126 followed on the same day, this time slightly west of Phuong An, three aircraft delivering their maximum load of 3,000 gallons. On October 11, the Air Force switched to Agent White, missions 1155 and 1156, a combined 4,400 gallons, and it may have been one of these flights that caught Mit out in the fields. She remembered coming home with a furious itch all over her body, a characteristic reaction to Dow Chemical’s Picloram. She boiled some wild leaves in water and rubbed the liquid on her skin, a common local remedy, but it didn’t help. All her cassava died, and all the vegetables, but the family had no alternative but to eat them. On the Stellman scale, the exposure risk in Phuong An was 5.78.
Mit’s first child was born five years later. He was a healthy boy, and today he works in Cam Nghia as a forester. A second son followed in 1978. He had six fingers on one hand and was mentally disabled. He lay motionless in bed for four years, never recognizing his parents, then died.
“It was like sugarcane with a pest inside,” Mit said. “Maybe the next crop would be better. But if one stalk has a problem, the next one may be infected too.”
A third boy arrived in 1982, and a fourth in 1988, both with grotesque birth defects. I found these two at home. Thirty-two-year-old Nguyen Van Lanh lay on the bed, moaning and grimacing. He had an enlarged skull and suffers from excruciating headaches. Two of his toes appeared to be webbed together, and he had no teeth. Mit thought perhaps a worm had eaten them. Dr. Nhan had diagnosed hydrocephalus, which is on the VA’s list of birth defects in children of female Vietnam veterans. However, Stellman told me later, the sheer multitude of disabilities in the families I visited tended to point away from exposure to environmental toxins as the sole cause. The epic scale of their suffering suggests a multitude of possible reasons. After all, on top of being sprayed with three different kinds of herbicide, these people were also carpet-bombed, napalmed, starved, burned out of their homes and forced to live in tunnels.
Lanh’s younger brother, Nguyen Van Truong, sat on the cement floor, his matchstick legs splayed out at thirty-degree angles. He let out sharp little barks of laughter as he tried to wrap the family’s 6-week-old kitten in a plastic bag. Like Bong’s daughters in Tan Hiep, the diagnosis was cerebral palsy. Mit told me that the family had sold everything it owned to pay the $140 for medical tests, including all the jackfruit trees that they marketed for timber. Her terror, she said, was that she and her husband were growing old. What would happen to the boys when they were gone?
As we left, I asked her what felt like the inevitable question. Did she blame the Americans for the family’s torment? No, she said, she imagined ghosts were to blame.
* * *
In 1975, the new government of Vietnam opened the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. In time, as part of the rapprochement with the United States, it was given a new name, the War Remnants Museum. But its three floors are still a chamber of horrors.
The foreign tourists don’t say much as they walk from room to room, taking in the photographs of B-52s, deformed fetuses, bodies incinerated by napalm and white phosphorus, the My Lai massacre. On one visit, I saw a group of older Americans quietly studying a picture of soldiers from the First Air Cavalry waterboarding a prisoner.
Vietnamese visitors tend to cluster outside in the courtyard, where high school kids mug for selfies in front of captured tanks and Chinook helicopters. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man named Quy, who was hawking pirated photocopies of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam and knew a little English. He had no arms and one eye, and I asked him what had happened. He said that when he was 8 years old, he had stepped on a land mine in his village in the Central Highlands. Didn’t that make him feel bitter toward Americans? I asked. No, he said: “The war is over; it was a long time ago.” He offered his stump, which was amputated above the elbow, and said, “Please shake my hand. We can be friends, yes?”
Ever since he returned to Vietnam, Chuck Searcy has wondered at the mystery of Vietnamese forgiveness, not least because of the healing it has brought to the American vets who come back to confront their demons. He told me of a friend in Da Nang, a former Marine from the Bronx, who had summoned the courage to go back to My Lai. “There was a woman there, one of the survivors,” Searcy said, “and she reached out to him and held his hand and said, ‘We have forgiven you, now you need to forgive yourself.’”
This ability to forgive seemed unfathomable, given all the destruction the United States rained down on this country. The Vietnamese I spoke to offered a multitude of explanations: It all happened a long time ago. We need to put the past behind us. War was part of the natural cycle of life. Perhaps it was punishment for some wrong done in the past. We are by nature a forgiving people. Confucius said that to show anger was to sink to the level of the barbarians. To achieve prosperity, we need friendship with America. The Chinese abused us more than you did. It was all the work of ghosts.
In the end, Col. Bui Trong Hong had said after his crew blew up those grenades, “Maybe because you’re from the Western side it’s hard for you to understand our Oriental culture.” He was a man who loved to laugh, and we both laughed over that one, because it echoed the oldest cliché of colonialism: the Inscrutable Orient.
Agent Orange is the last remaining obstacle to full reconciliation, Searcy said, “and I think the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war gives us a real opportunity to close the book on it, in ways that give us some small measure of satisfaction, a recognition that finally we did the right thing.”
For those in Vietnam who still feel resentment, the terms on which the book is closed will probably involve some reluctant concessions. On my last day in Hanoi, Searcy and I went to see retired Gen. Nguyen Van Rinh, the head of VAVA, who fought in Quang Tri during the siege of Khe Sanh and came under the spray several times himself. I asked him what it would take for the United States to make amends. Admit the truth, he said; acknowledge that a great crime was committed here. It was hard to tell him that this was never going to happen, that America didn’t make a habit of apologizing. Besides, Searcy said, an apology would open up questions of legal liability, and Monsanto, he added, was a powerful corporation that made $4 billion in profit last year.
Though it’s not all that General Rinh might wish, the Obama administration has finally committed serious money to cleaning up the worst of the dioxin hot spots. Work on the Da Nang airport began in 2012 and is now projected to cost $84 million. And USAID, which half a century ago was part of a military-run committee that evaluated new Ranch Hand targets, is now set to disburse another $21 million in humanitarian aid for people with serious birth defects and disabilities. While it may never be said in so many words, the tacit understanding is that this will include many of those the Vietnamese government regards, correctly or not, as “victims of Agent Orange.”
After we left Dong Ha, Chuck Searcy and I took the train south from Hue to Da Nang. It’s a beautiful ride, switchbacking across the green divide of the Bach Ma range. As we approached Da Nang, hugging the coast, a sudden sweeping view opened up, a crescent of sand and surf hundreds of feet below, and I realized that we were looking down on Red Beach, where the first US Marines came ashore on March 8, 1965.
“In so many ways the Vietnamese hold us in high esteem, aspiring to match our idealism as they understand it from afar, assuming that we are such decent and honorable people,” Searcy said. “In a lot of ways it makes those of us who live here want to be as good as we can be as Americans.”
It sounded as if he was looking to make the United States worthy of the forgiveness Vietnam seems so willing to offer; he agreed that this wasn’t a bad way of putting it.
It’s impossible, of course, to put a dollar value on the harm that was done to Vietnam, and in that larger scheme of things the money that is now on offer for the country’s legions of disabled people doesn’t amount to much. But Searcy prefers to see it as an implicit acceptance of responsibility, a modest acknowledgment that the Vietnamese, so long held to impossible standards of proof, should finally, like American veterans, be granted some benefit of the doubt. Again, this may be more politics than science, but it’s a belated leveling of the moral playing field, and the blasted hamlets of Quang Tri province would seem an excellent place to start.
Wednesday, Feb. 18th: A Glimpse of the Past and a Glimpse of the Future
Standing at the center of every country, there seems to lie a defining moment in the state’s history that, more often than not, stands as a point of pride. In the United States, people are proud of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that ensued, serving as a reminder of the freedom that stands at the center of the country. April 17, 1975, was meant to be that moment for Cambodia, which would known as Democratic Kampuchea. As the Khmer Rouge regime paraded through the streets, some Cambodians cheered at the thought of a new country centered around the ideal of total equality. However, April 1975 and the four-year time period that followed now seems to cloud both the citizens’ minds and foreign perceptions of the country’s history and people.
With this in mind, we headed to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Immediately after we arrived, we were surprised by the serenity of the center. Standing as one of over 300 “killing fields” around Cambodia, Choeung Ek served as the final destination for those tortured at Tuol Sleng Prison, which we had seen the day before. Ultimately, the killing fields combined to slaughter over 2 million people, or 35% of the Cambodian population. Guided by an audio tour, we walked independently through the compound, noting the stark contrast between the natural serenity of the compound and the atrocities committed over 40 years ago; however, the calmness was disturbed by horrifying stories and statistics. Around the grounds were areas demarcated by bamboo sticks, indicating graves that once held the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, including women and children.
This grave contained the remains of over 150 women, most of whom were stripped of their clothing and sexually abused before, and to, death.
This tree is notorious for the young lives ended here, as guards grabbed babies by their legs and smashed their heads against the tree until death, usually while their mothers watched. As was the case with many of the mass graves, bracelets contributed by the public adorned the killing tree as a symbol of support for those who lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Although the site was excavated over years, bones still surface on the trails, hinting at the sheer number of people still buried underneath.
Accompanying the guided tour were stories of real survivors, recounting incidents of rape, the loss of family members, and the arduous process of healing. We heard all these stories and more as we walked around a lake. The lake is known to hold many more remains, but has been left untouched in reverence to those who lost their lives there, in hopes that they may find peace.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
The tour concluded with a memorial stupa, constructed to display some of the 9,000 who lost their lives at Choeung Ek. With its small square footage, most of which was taken up by the large case of skulls at its center, we were forced to edge around its interior, only inches from the glass container.
Constructed with Buddhist principles in mind, the Stupa stands at the center of the compound.
Eerily similar to the Tuol Sleng prison shelves displaying skulls, the stupa contained seven stories of skulls.
Small colored stickers allowed for us to distinguish between them, labeling them according to age, sex, and types of injuries before death.
Shaken by the haunting memorial, the tour was appropriately concluded with a rendition of “Oh, Phnom Penh,” which offered a hopeful outlook on the future of Cambodia, a glimpse of which we saw at our next destination.
In contrast to the killing fields, the Seametrey Children’s Village offered a more promising depiction of Cambodia. This primary school seemed like a half-built paradise. We encountered flourishing foliage, red flowers, palm trees, and even an Indochinese rat snake. The soon-to-be-campus very much reflected the school’s mission. Contrary to most schools, the focus was not only to educate its students, but also to help its students find serenity and happiness. As we walked into the school we were immediately welcomed by the main teacher and director of the school, Muoy You, who is also the host of the guesthouse where we are staying. She led us upstairs into a room with a projector. Children, arriving one-by-one on bicycles, saw us going up the stairs and immediately ran to meet us. With smiles on all of our faces, the children encouraged the teacher to take a little break from the schedule and show us their version of The Wizard of Oz.
Kids watching their version of The Wizard of Oz, made in collaboration with a group from the University of Leeds in the UK.
The footage seemed to be of professional quality, with an elaborate script, creative cinematography, and fun costume designs. Only two of the kids can afford to pay the $25 per month tuition to go to school, but all the children were treated equally. Muoy then showed us a short introductory film to the school’s mission and how our help was going to benefit the kids of the surrounding community. The plan is simple: Along with the classrooms, the school would build a full-scale recreational zone that could be rented out to the community and generate enough revenue to make the school self-sustaining. Before she could tell us our role as volunteers, Muoy could not help but cry as she spoke about the killing fields. It was then when we realized why the school was built so beautifully. It would serve as a place of joy and comfort for the community. As a place of education and peace, it offered a path to the future for the Cambodians. With education the students could perhaps move on. It offered the hope that maybe the Pol Pot regime would not be the defining moment in their society, but rather that this moment has yet to come.
As we began to understand the larger purpose of this school, Muoy told us our jobs. In a rotation, half of us would work in the gardens, and the other half would would play with school children. The work in the gardens was hard and hot.
Mr. Holbrook, senior Matthew Wei, junior Angelica Vera, Mr. Wineholt and our guides Sayha and Samnang work in a nearby field removing grass.
The blazing heat beamed down on us as we dug up grass and placed it in a planter. Just one hour of work sucked the energy out of us. We could not even imagine what it would be like to work a twelve-hour day in this heat. Once we rotated, playing with children was extremely refreshing. The children immediately grabbed our hands and took us to their places of play. After witnessing the horror and incredible amounts of pain, the children’s faces refreshed us with hope and happiness.
Senior Karina Dominguez, senior Olivia Ghosh, junior Mitchell Capp, junior Nicole Keeney, and senior Zak Brownlie play duck duck goose with the kids.
Throughout our travels in Cambodia, we have repeatedly heard references to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was the cutting off of the Buddha heads in the temples we visited in Siem Reap or the struggles of the families of our tour guides during the 70s, it is clear that the Khmer Rouge largely deflated a country known for its resilience and cultural heritage. However, through our interactions at the Seametrey Children’s Village and the culmination of our experiences in Cambodia, we have discovered that the atrocities the Khmer Rouge committed less than half a century ago make up a mere page in this country’s history. Over the past week, we have been fortunate enough to meet incredibly gracious people who have shared their pride in their country with open arms. Maybe that is what should define Cambodia: a people full of pride who want to show the rest of the world their homeland.
Tuesday, Feb. 17: Reflections on Cambodian Fortitude: Reconciling a Painful Past and a Moment of Bliss
She is dressed like an ordinary young woman, albeit a glamorous one, wearing a professional-looking red dress and blazer. Suddenly, her face twists into an expression of intense grief as she opens her mouth to smote, or sing a funeral song. The high notes sound like a beautiful cry, while the low, throaty notes are reminiscent of a lullaby. The smote is typically performed at funeral ceremonies or deathbeds because it is through this particular song that souls can travel to heaven after death. At the same time, the smote provides peace and solace to the souls left living. It was through this ancient art form that we were introduced to the most difficult day our group has faced thus far: the visit to Tuol Sleng.
This prison lies in the middle of Phnom Penh, and it was the center for the Khmer Rouge’s torture and killing of Cambodia’s intellectuals. We entered the compound and immediately felt the grimness of the buildings, whose only decorations were garlands of barbed wire. We were led into a small, stuffy room to hear the smote performance, and as we listened, we were stared at by the eye sockets of rows and rows of skulls. When it dawned on us how recently these skulls were found (for many still had yellowing teeth in the broken jaws), and as the sounds of the funeral chant welled around us, the experience became even more poignant than we had expected.
Seniors Pedro Gallardo and Sam Pryor and juniors Snigdha Nandipati and Angelica Vera listen to the smote singing in a room at Tuol Sleng.
When our tour of the prison began, the first striking fact of the day was that the prison compound was originally built as a high school. Though the reasons may have been more practical than symbolic, this “coincidence” could not be ignored. We saw how blatantly the Khmer Rouge targeted people, places, and symbols of learning, and we realized as we walked along the hollow concrete halls that the Khmer Rouge was targeting our people. We are young intellectuals, exploring the world in order to learn. Our families have put an emphasis on education. We are the very population that would have been put in Tuol Sleng, our values attacked and obliterated. What happens to a culture when all of the educated people are destroyed? Thankfully, the Khmer Rouge did not last long enough for us to find out, but even Pol Pot (hypocritically) admitted to needing artists and learned people: out of 20,000 prisoners at Tuol Sleng, only seven survived, and all were portrait artists, translators, and other skilled workers who could keep the government running. However, even though seven were spared, their families were not so lucky. As our tour guide described the horrific devices used against prisoners, our eyes wandered around the ghostly cells, only to land on the most disturbing sight any of us had encountered. There were bloodstains. On the floors, the ceilings, and the walls. It is hard to articulate just how intense that sight was, but the blood of innocent people that remains tattooed on the surfaces in the prison shocked even the most resilient among us. As a group, we shared the burden of the visit by taking breaks and listening to the guide in shifts. It was as if we silently understood that each of us needed a break at certain points, and we supported each other through the process. While this is at a minuscule scale compared to what Cambodians went through, it is comforting to think that perhaps there was a similar kind of support among prisoners. Although they could not take breaks from the horror in which they were living, we still got the sense that prisoners held on to their humanity and dignity for as long as possible, and that resilience lasts to this day.
Prison cell for high-ranking officials. The desk is for interrogation.
The group sits in the courtyard of the Tuol Sleng prison, which used to be a high school.
On the note of resilience, we had the incredible opportunity to meet with the two remaining survivors of the prison. The situation seemed so powerful, and yet the presentation was bizarre. As our group moved towards where the survivor was set up, we were bombarded by the street-vendor line, “Lady, lady, you want to buy?”, referring to the survivor’s memoir. It seemed so inappropriate in the middle of the courtyard of the Tuol Sleng prison, but the survivor was right in front of us. The strange part was that he seemed to be selling his story of intense suffering to turn a profit. While the profits went to an organization to help victims of the Khmer Rouge, it felt wrong to see a sign reading, “They tortured me, they poured salt water in my wounds, they killed my wife,” as if he was commodifying his pain. Perhaps we are attuned to it, being part of a consumerist culture, but the situation felt, nonetheless, bizarre.
A survivor of Tuol Sleng sells his story in the courtyard of the prison.
We left the Toul Sleng prison and bussed to Bophana Film Center, where an employee spoke to us about the center and their goal for film in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy anything that made people individual, which included family pictures, many of which were lost during the regime. The Film Center works to preserve, protect, and collect these lost family pictures from the Khmer Rouge. The Film Center’s main efforts, however, are in the direction of films, both protecting films from before the Khmer Rouge and producing films to fill the gaps of information about the Khmer Rouge. We were able to view a film in the Center called The Missing Picture, a full-length film that sought to recreate the missing pieces of the past of a man who lived and survived during the Khmer Rouge. Having lost his whole family during the regime, through clay figurines and real footage of the Khmer Rouge the survivor was able to formulate a beautifully symbolic, intense, and longing story of his lost childhood. It was deeply personal and yet incredibly universal in such that it represented the real-life pains of the survivor aching for his family as well as representing the suffering that every Cambodian person experienced during the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Having come straight from the Toul Sleng Prison, seeing this movie further broadened our understanding of the Khmer Rouge and how the suffering was widespread throughout the entire country. Both intellectuals, such as the people who were tortured in the prison, and the peasants of the countryside, such as the survivor in The Missing Picture, experienced great pain during the Khmer Rouge. A central theme to these two experiences we had today was the idea of what it means to be human–how the Khmer Rouge dehumanized Cambodian people, and the silent rebellion of the people in response. The Khmer Rouge sought to control everything, even death, leading some people such as the survivor’s father and some prisoners from Toul Sleng to accept that they could no longer control their lives, which in turn led them to try to control their death through suicide.
The tone of the day changed completely after lunch, when we embarked on our built-in mental respite from the intensity of the morning. We went on a river cruise, courtesy of Charley Todd. We met Charley through Cambodian Living Arts, of which he is the board president, and he allowed us to experience a new part of Cambodia. A brief background of Charley: Charley is a man in his 70s and is orginally from the East Coast. He adopted a Cambodian son and later in 2000 began to live in Phnom Penh to facilitate his work with Cambodian Living Arts as well as to be closer with his family. His son is married and has two young sons, who also live in Phnom Penh. Charley lives in Cambodia eight months of the year and is almost like an adopted Cambodian. He is fluent in Khmer, rents a guest house off the Mekong, and is an active member of his son’s family. He welcomed us to his home and allowed us to experience the Mekong River on a rented boat, named “Charlie” due to a serendipitous coincidence.
The cruise down the river, followed by relaxation at Charley’s pool in his beautiful wooden house on stilts, was a time of pure happiness. It was an end to the day none of us could have imagined, given how the morning began. We spent the trip to his house learning a famous Cambodian song, similar in tune and popularity to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes.” We played for hours in the pool with Charley’s adorable grandsons, who spoke French and had extensive knowledge of the solar system at ages six and seven. On the boat trip back, we turned the rickety wooden vessel into a nightclub from the past, dancing to “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “September” with the Cambodian musicians and guides.
Emma Moore, Rex Winn, Sam Pryor, and Charley’s grandson Ream are the first to jump in the pool
The group sings and dances with Cambodian musicians at our restaurant floating on the Mekong River.
The blissful end to our day happened by design because our guides and teachers recognize the need to take a mental break from the horrors that afflicted this beautiful country less than half a century ago. However, our day of contradictions showed us the kind of choice Cambodians face in this modern time. There are those who dwell on the past: Cambodian Living Arts attempts to revive ancient art forms that were destroyed from the Khmer Rouge, and the smote singers talked about how their art form was dying because the new generation was not interested. They seemed to be struggling to keep the past alive. But every day they have to face the heaviness we felt when walking around Tuol Sleng. They have dedicated their lives to the past and in doing so have forgotten to give themselves that break we so desperately needed by noon. While it would be tragic to lose the richness of Cambodian culture, perhaps the younger generation’s rejection of smote and other traditional art forms is a coping mechanism. It is their way of cruising down the river, away from the painful past, in order to embrace a peaceful future.
Kim Phuc, the Vietnam War’s iconic “napalm girl” featured in Nick Ut’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning image, speaks to students of Brentwood School, Archer School, Westridge School and Polytechnic School. Students are moved by Kim’s message of loving kindness, peace, and forgiveness for a war-free world.
Kim speaks about the iconic image, the Vietnam War and her journey to forgiveness.
Kim speaks to students at Brentwood School.
Kim lets the students feel her arm where the napalm burned her 9-year-old skin in 1972.
Ms. Danjczek’s students pose with Kim.
Speaking to Brentwood Middle School students.
Claire’s introductory speech moved Kim to tears.
Kim and Brentwood students.
Brentwood Middle school teachers and administration thank Kim for a moving speech.
Brentwood students Asian Student-Alliance host a brownbag lunch with Kim.
A Brentwood student is moved to tears.
An Archer School student studies Nick Ut’s picture while listening to Kim’s talk.
Archer School Theater teacher Reed Farley holds a photo while Kim offers students a hopeful interpretation of the iconic imagery.
Nick Ut and Kim Phuc speak to students at Westridge School.
Kim Phuc honors “Uncle Ut” for his bravery as a wartime journalist. After capturing the iconic image of Kim’s napalm strike, he rushed Kim to the hospital and saved her life.
Westridge School students grades 7-12, teachers and parents are captivated by Kim and Nick’s stories.
The Vietnam War was raging when Fred Branfman went to Laos in 1967 as an international aid worker. Determined to immerse himself in the society, he lived with an elderly villager, learned to speak Laotian and became a translator. In time, he met Laotians who told him something startling: There was a second war in their country, a secret American bombing campaign, that was devastating remote villages.
The revelation led him to take up a new mission when his term as an aid worker, for the nonprofit organization International Voluntary Services, ended in the summer of 1969: to bring attention to what became known as the “Secret War.”
It had gone on for years — Air Force bombers attacked parts of Laos controlled by the Communist North Vietnamese, killing thousands of Laotian civilians — but it had been invisible to most Americans.
Mr. Branfman, who was 72 when he died on Sept. 24, in Budapest, became one of the first to expose the air war, publicly challenging accounts by United States officials who had initially denied the bombing campaign and later insisted that it did not target civilian areas.
In Laos, Mr. Branfman took foreign officials and journalists into bombed villages and wrote freelance articles about the campaign. In 1971, he returned to the United States, where he helped start two influential antiwar groups, Project Air War and the Indochina Resource Center, which lobbied Congress to stop financing the war. The same year, he testified before Congress opposite William H. Sullivan, the American ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969 and one of the overseers of the bombing campaign.
Mr. Sullivan, who died last year, told Congress that Mr. Branfman and others had exaggerated the issue. Mr. Branfman and another opponent of the war, Representative Paul N. McCloskey Jr., a Republican from California, testified that Mr. Sullivan and the government had concealed the campaign.
The next year, Mr. Branfman provided stark documentation in a book he edited, “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.” The book — its title refers to the hard-hit farming region of northern Laos — included 16 Laotian “autobiographies” drawn from interviews by Mr. Branfman. Some included rudimentary line drawings by villagers depicting family members and neighbors being killed. It told of people fleeing the bombardment and hiding in caves for years.
According to reports at the time, at least two million tons of bombs were dropped from 1964 to 1973, nearly a ton for every person in Laos.
“No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country’s arrogance,” the columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times in 1973.
Jerome J. Brown, an Air Force captain who had helped identify targets for the bombing campaign in the late 1960s, said in 1972 that Mr. Branfman’s work had motivated him to discuss the campaign in detail publicly.
In 1976, Graham A. Martin, the last American ambassador to South Vietnam, bitterly blamed antiwar groups for the United States’s failure to prevent the fall of Saigon. Calling the antiwar campaign “one of the best propaganda and pressure organizations the world has ever seen,” he singled out one in particular, the Indochina Resource Center.
Fredric Robert Branfman was born on March 18, 1942, in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island, in Great Neck. His father, Ivan, was a textile executive, and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964 and a master’s in education from Harvard in 1965.
Mr. Branfman taught English in Tanzania before going to work in Laos.
His wife, Zsuzsanna Berkovits Branfman, said he had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The couple had been living in Budapest for several years. Besides his wife, he is survived by three brothers, Alan, Yaakov and David.
After the war, Mr. Branfman worked in Democratic politics, spending four years in the early 1980s as a senior staff member for Gov. Jerry Brown of California running the California Public Policy Center, a research arm. He was also an adviser to Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, helping to write policy papers for the senator’s 1988 presidential campaign before Mr. Hart dropped out of the race.
Mr. Branfman was later an activist on environmental issues, particularly climate change. He returned to Laos several times, including once to be interviewed for a documentary about the bombing campaign called “The Most Secret Place on Earth.” Last year, a new paperback edition of “Voices From the Plain of Jars” was published.
The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.
Clockwise from top left: Elliott Abrams, Henry Kissinger, Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta; Reuteres/Pascal Lauener; Gage SkidmoreAP Photo/Richard Drew)
I recently happened to be in the audience for a discussion on the legacy of World War I, held at the Thompson/Reuters headquarters in New York City, when Henry Kissinger made an amazing observation: of the five major wars that the United States has fought since World War II, all were entered on behalf of “idealistic principles.” No less surprising to me was the fact that nobody else in the crowded room of media and policy bigwigs appeared to find anything odd about that statement. Given what we now know about the lies, deception and corruption that preceded the most catastrophic of these wars—Vietnam and the second Iraq War—to call them “idealistic” is to purposely evade history at best, or (more accurately) to rewrite it purely on the basis of ideology rather than evidence.
Now Kissinger, at 91, may be pretty old and famously amoral, but he is not senile and has never been stupid. He offered his blinkered version of recent events before a room full of knowledgeable people because he figured nobody really cared one way or another. After all, it was “history”—which, in contemporary American political culture, is another word for “irrelevant.” And it is this contempt for history, as the cliché correctly advises, that condemns our nation to continually repeat it. The circumstances may differ, but the pathology remains unchanged.
Neocons are surpremely aware of this tendency and exploit it to the fullest. In fact, most of their careers would be impossible without it. Would Elliott Abrams be able to mouth off as a respected Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, attacking Barack Obama in a recent Politico piece as “The Man Who Broke the Middle East,” if his patrons took the time to consider that Abrams both enabled and ran political interference for what the Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice has deemed a genocidal dictatorship? (Abrams also got himself disbarred in the District of Columbia for his lies to Congress about these and other crimes in which he participated while serving in the Reagan administration, both before and after the Iran/Contra affair.) Should that stretch American memory muscles beyond their breaking point, how about the fact that this criminal, while serving on the National Security Council during Bush II, himself helped to “break” the Middle East by undermining the 2006 Palestinian elections, which helped lead to the creation of a Hamas-run rump state in Gaza in the first place? And yet he somehow gets away with the crazy claim that “the Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace” in order to blame its alleged collapse on the current president. (Politico is, conveniently, the ground zero of American political ahistoricity: virtually everything it publishes occurred during the previous twenty-four hours and will cease to matter within the next forty-eight.)
Numerous observers have expressed incredulity over the eagerness of so many media mavens to allow the discredited armchair warriors of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to dominate discussion of the current crisis in that country—a crisis whose foundations they helped put in place. In a saner world, each one would, at a minimum, be required to answer the following question: “Given your record the last time this issue arose, why in the world should we listen to anything you have to say today?” But as the respective rehabilitations of Henry Kissinger and Elliott Abrams demonstrate, being a known liar and an arguable (Kissinger) or unarguable (Abrams) enabler of genocide is no barrier to career advancement in the American establishment, thanks to the collective amnesia of its most elite institutions, especially its elite media.
Sometimes they lie outright. Here are Dick and Liz Cheney writing in The Weekly Standardregarding the Iraq invasion: “It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Undisputed? Really? How about, just for starters, the 9/11 Commission, before which Cheney testified. Its final report, as Warren Bass noted in The Wall Street Journal, states that the commission has “seen no evidence [of] a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
William Kristol, perhaps the wrongest pundit in all of American history—and hence also the most sought-after by media institutions like The Washington Post, The New York Times,Time, ABC News, etc.—demonstrates a coy agnosticism when it comes to the choice between outright fabrication and contempt for the historical record. He doesn’t mind pretending, as he did on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, that the current crisis was caused by what he termed “our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011,” when in fact that withdrawal had been decided on in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government by George W. Bush. But Kristol is just as comfortable asserting in The Weekly Standard (in an article written with Frederick Kagan), “Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011.” This is perhaps the only path available to someone with the chutzpah to insist, back in April 2003, that it was merely a “kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni,” when that same person today is calling for yet another attack on the country to deal with the Sunni/Shiite massacres inspired by the earlier one. But as Kristol, Cheney, Abrams and Kissinger demonstrate over and over, success within our political punditocracy means never having to say you’re sorry.
For decades, Laos’ economic development and relationship with the United States has been strained by unexploded ordnance (UXO), a legacy of the Vietnam War.
Roughly 30 percent of the two million tons of bombs that the United States dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War failed to detonate on impact. To date, only about one percent of affected land has been cleared and over twenty-thousand people have been killed or injured by UXO since 1975.
However, in January 2014, Congress allocated $12 million in funding towards UXO assistance programs in Laos as part of the omnibus spending bill, four times the average annual UXO budget from 1995-2013. This creates an opportunity for the United States to address a key flashpoint in U.S.-Lao relations while making strategic development inroads with the largest single benefactor of Chinese investment in the region.
Since the end of the bombing in 1975, the United States has provided $74 million in UXO assistance in Laos, with forty-percent allocated in the last five years.
Laos receives an annual $4 billion from China in mining, hydropower, and agricultural investments.
U.S. assistance towards improving UXO clearance efficiency will focus on providing better technology and training programs, assistance for families and victims, as well as developing the capacity of national institutions to absorb this assistance.
In previous years, clearance operators reduced cluster bomb related casualties from an average of roughly 300 per year to 41 in 2013. The increase of resources, if leveraged efficiently, can bolster these efforts and set the stage for significant economic development in the country.
There is a long road ahead – or rather very little road. UXO cover half of the country, and as a result only about 53 percent of national roads and 3 percent of local roads are paved. Additionally, there is no national or transnational railway system, and roughly 40 percent of villages and 10 percent of district centers lack road access during the rainy season. Clearing land from UXOs alone add 30 to 40 cents in cost per square meter of road creation. As a result, large segments of the population remain isolated from basic social services.
UXO has also impacted critical investments in institutional infrastructure including schools, hospitals, water supply facilities, and power plants as scarce public funds are diverted to clearance efforts. The result has been a slew of development challenges that plague Laos, including falling literacy rates (from 89 percent in 2005 to 77 percent in 2012), poor access to clean water and sanitation, and an inconsistent supply of power.
The proliferation of UXO in Laos has stunted development efforts and prevented the creation of infrastructure needed to attract and absorb foreign investment. For example, the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business Indicators estimates that it costs an additional $1,155 to ship a container across a border from Laos than it does to ship one from Cambodia. In addition, investors surveyed complained that even with low-wages, poor physical and institutional infrastructure, and a poorly educated workforce make the labor force uncompetitive compared to neighboring countries like Cambodia.
UXO also severely hampers Lao agricultural productivity and contributes to persistent food crises as farmers are unable to expand production onto otherwise fertile land. Although agriculture employs 76 percent of the population, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total GDP and as of 2011, only 7 percent of total land in Laos is being used for agriculture.
It is within the United States’ interest to ensure a prosperous Laos, and addressing the issue of UXOs is the first step toward this direction. Laos will ascend to the ASEAN chairmanship in 2016, and like its predecessors Brunei and Myanmar, will be well-poised to influence the agenda in the region. To this end, the UXO issue is low-hanging fruit that yields high dividends in terms of both developmental and political gains. The United States has the chance to construct a new legacy in Laos, and for a host of reasons, it should seize the opportunity.
Image courtesy of Flickr under creative commons license.
Elena Rosenblum is a researcher for the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS
Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military commander and national folk hero who organized the army that defeated the French and then the Americans in 30 years of Southeast Asian warfare, is dead. That war ended in 1975 when the last remaining U.S. military forces evacuated Saigon, leaving behind a war-torn and battle-scarred nation, united under Communist rule.
He died Oct. 4 in a hospital in Hanoi, a government official told the Associated Press. He was 102. No cause of death was immediately reported.
Gen. Giap was the last survivor in a triumvirate of revolutionary leaders who fought France’s colonial forces and then the United States to establish a Vietnam free of Western domination. With the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, and former prime minister Pham Van Dong, who died in 2000, Gen. Giap was venerated in his homeland as one of the founding fathers of his country. To military scholars around the world, he was one of the 20th century’s leading practitioners of modern revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
From a ragtag band of 34 men assembled in a forest in northern Vietnam in December 1944, Gen. Giap built the fighting unit that became the Vietnam People’s Army. At the beginning, its entire supply of weapons consisted of two revolvers, one light machine gun, 17 rifles and 14 flintlocks, some of them dating to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, said Cecil B. Currey, Gen. Giap’s biographer.
But the original 34 men took a solemn oath to fight to the death for a Vietnam independent of foreign rule, and they promised not to help or cooperate with colonial or any other foreign authorities. By August 1945, when the surrender of Japan ended World War II, they had become an army of 5,000, equipped with American weapons supplied by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, to use against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam.
For almost three decades, Gen. Giap led his army in battle against better-supplied, better-equipped and better-fed enemies. In 1954, he effectively ended more than 70 years of French colonial rule in Indochina, dealing a humiliating defeat to a French garrison in a 55-day siege of the mountain-ringed outpost at Dien Bien Phu. To millions of Vietnamese, this was more than a military victory. It was a moral and psychological triumph over a hated colonial oppressor, and it earned Gen. Giap the status of a national legend.
Twenty-one years later, on April 30, 1975, came the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This ended a prolonged and bitter war between Vietnamese communists, based in the north, and the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam, which was based in Saigon and backed by the military might of the world’s greatest superpower.
In an internal power struggle three years earlier, Gen. Giap was replaced as field commander of the communist forces, and in 1975 he watched from the sidelines as the army he created and nurtured took the enemy capital. Nevertheless, 25 years later, he would recall the fall of Saigon as the “happiest moment in this short life of mine.”
With the capture of Saigon, Vietnam was united under a single governmental authority for the first time since its partition into North and South Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat. Gen. Giap was defense minister in the Communist government that ruled the new Vietnam and a member of the powerful politburo.
But it was as a military leader that he made his mark on history.
In the course of his career, Gen. Giap commanded millions of men in regular army units, supplemented by local militia and self-defense outfits in villages and hamlets throughout Vietnam. He journeyed to the remotest areas of his country on recruiting missions, and he learned the art of combat the old-fashioned way — by fighting.
He waged all manner of warfare: guerrilla raids, sabotage, espionage, terrorism and combat on the battlefield, and he involved as much of the civilian population in this effort as he could. Peasant women carried concealed arms, ammunition and supplies to hiding guerrilla soldiers. Children passed along information about troop movements through their villages. Everyone was a lookout for enemy aircraft.
“All citizens are soldiers. All villages and wards are fortresses, and our entire country is a vast battlefield on which the enemy is besieged, attacked and defeated,” Gen. Giap was quoted as saying.
To survive, he had to be flexible and adaptable, and he was. Facing an overpowering array of U.S. bombs and artillery, he employed a tactic that was sometimes likened to a boxer’s grabbing an opponent by the belt and drawing him too close for his punches to be effective. In close combat, the bombs and artillery shells of his enemy would be of limited use, but Gen. Giap’s men, operating in small units, could fight more effectively.
In the end, Gen. Giap would outlast his enemies. The French grew tired of paying the price of fighting him in Southeast Asia, and so did the United States, after 58,000 American deaths in a war that promised no more than a stalemate.
He said: “The United States imperialists want to fight quickly. To fight a protracted war is a big defeat for them. Their morale is lower than grass. . . . National liberation wars must allow some time — a long time. . . . The Americans didn’t understand that we had soldiers everywhere and that it was very hard to surprise us.”
To at least one U.S. military commander, this strategy was apparent even in the early years of American involvement in the hostilities. Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak, in a 1966 memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, wrote that Gen. Giap “was sure that if the cost in casualties and francs was high enough, the French would defeat themselves in Paris. He was right. It is likely that he feels the same about the USA.”
A master of military logistics and administration, Gen. Giap directed construction, maintenance and operation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which a steady stream of men and arms flowed from North Vietnam to support the war in the South.
Under his command, a corps of 100,000 Vietnamese and Laotian laborers slogged under 70-pound packs through swamps and jungles, up and down mountains to deliver the supplies, weapons and ammunition to fuel the fight. From a network of mountain footpaths used by peasants and travelers for centuries, they built a 12,000-mile system of camouflaged roadways and spurs, much of it in the neutral territory of Laos. Some sections were two-lane paved roads, capable of handling tanks and heavy trucks. Others were primitive dirt roads. There were air raid shelters, rest stops and bridges. All of it demanded unremitting repair and upkeep.
Gen. Giap was a hard-line and tenacious Communist, and one of the early members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which was founded by Ho in 1930. In the late 1940s, he led a program aimed at eradication of non-communist political organizations in Vietnam that is said to have caused the death of thousands. One technique of this campaign was to tie opponents together in batches like cordwood, then throw them into the Red River and let them drown while floating out to sea. This was known as “crab fishing.”
From a manpower base of peasant farmers, Gen. Giap constructed a paramilitary guerrilla force, which he then transformed into an army of fully trained soldiers through a combination of rigorous training and political indoctrination.
In three decades of combat, he is said to have had more than a million of his soldiers killed, a casualty level that would have cost any U.S. general his command. “Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little,” the French writer Bernard B. Fall quoted him as saying.
Metaphorically, Gen. Giap was described in Vietnamese as “Nui Lua,” which means roughly “volcano beneath the snow.” On the surface, his personality was cold and arrogant, but he was seething on the inside and capable of fearsome explosions. Colleagues said he was impatient, dogmatic, energetic and loyal to his friends.
He was ambitious and not above personal vanity. To several interviewers, he suggested that he could be considered an Asian Napoleon. Time magazine, in a 1968 article, described him as a “dangerous and wily foe . . . a tactician of such talents that U.S. military experts have compared him with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.”
Vo Nguyen Giap was born Aug. 25, 1911, in the province of Quang Binh in an area of central Vietnam, which, with Laos and Cambodia, was then part of the French protectorate of Indochina. His native village of An Xa consisted primarily of straw and bamboo huts, alongside a few tile-roofed buildings. As a boy, he attended local public schools, where his teachers beat him with a thin bamboo stick whenever he faltered in his lessons.
At age 12, he failed the first examination that would have allowed him additional schooling. French colonial authorities discouraged advanced education throughout Indochina, knowing that an ignorant population would be easier to control. But the young Vo Nguyen Giap spent the next year in intensive study, and on his second try, he passed the exam that allowed him to attend secondary school in Hue.
There, in 1926, the future general read a book that would change his life and influence the history of Southeast Asia. Its title was “Colonialism on Trial,” written by Ho Chi Minh. Gen. Giap would recall years later that Ho’s book triggered in him an abiding hatred of the French, and it launched him on the revolutionary journey that would become his life’s work.
He read other writings of Ho and studied the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, organized an underground reading library and in 1927 was expelled from school for organizing a strike in support of a student who he was sure had been falsely accused of cheating. He wrote under pseudonyms for a reform-minded newspaper, became active with the Communist Party and was jailed for revolutionary activities from 1930 to 1932.
On his release, he won a scholarship for a school in Hanoi and received a baccalaureate degree in 1934. Later he taught history and French at a private school in Hanoi, and he was admitted to the French-managed University of Hanoi’s law school, where he received a doctorate in 1938.
In 1939 he married Quang Thai, a fellow member of the Communist Party, whom he had met in prison years earlier. She gave birth to their daughter, Hong Anh, in January 1940. Four months later, the central committee of the Communist Party decided to send him to join Ho, who was then living in exile in China, where he was preparing plans for the revolution he intended to launch.
Soon after Gen. Giap left for China, his wife was taken into custody by French authorities and held in a prison facility that would become known 30 years later in the United States as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where downed American fliers were held as prisoners of war. Quang Thai would die in prison, either by suicide or while being tortured. Since her arrest, their daughter had been cared for by Gen. Giap’s parents. But not until late in World War II did Gen. Giap learn of his wife’s death. In 1947, his father would also die while in French custody, refusing to publicly denounce his son, although he never agreed with his communist ideology.
“He carries in his soul wounds that even time cannot heal,” Hong Anh told Currey in a 1988 questionnaire, speaking of her father.
In the spring of 1941, Ho and Gen. Giap had returned to Vietnam from China. At a remote hamlet called Pac Bo, Ho convened a meeting of the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party and created the organization that would become known as the “Viet Minh,” to wage a war of independence against the French and the Japanese, who had occupied Vietnam after France fell to Nazi Germany early in World War II. Also to be eliminated were the Vietnamese “jackals” who collaborated with the enemy.
During the war years, Gen. Giap began traveling regularly to the hamlets and settlements of the Vietnamese countryside, laying the recruiting groundwork for the army he intended to raise. In July 1944, after the collapse of the Nazi collaborationist government of Vichy France, he wanted to launch an armed insurrection in Vietnam, but Ho vetoed the idea. The time was not ripe for open rebellion, he said.
But with the end of World War II in 1945, it was possible to begin guerrilla operations against the French, who returned to Vietnam expecting to reclaim their colony.
Throughout the late 1940s, Gen. Giap orchestrated hit-and-run operations against French forces. His plan was to entice the enemy to expend valuable energy in fruitless pursuit of an elusive quarry in remote areas or tie him down in an unproductive or static position. “Use the feint, the ambush, the diversionary outrage,” he wrote in a training manual adapted from the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. “The enemy may outnumber you ten to one strategically, but if you compel him to disperse his forces widely, you may outnumber him ten to one locally wherever you choose to attack him.”
His army suffered heavy casualties in the Red River offensive against the French in 1951, but the Viet Minh regrouped and vanquished the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Just a month before that siege ended, top French military officials traveled to Washington, hoping for a pledge of U.S. assistance. There, on April 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: “You have a row of dominoes set up and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. . . . The loss of Indochina will cause the fall of Southeast Asia like a set of dominoes.”
No U.S. assistance was given to the French at Dien Bien Phu, but the domino theory that Eisenhower had articulated in response to the French request would influence U.S. military policy in that part of the world for the next two decades.
At the Geneva Conference that followed the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided into two countries: north and south. In the north, the Communist Party ruled under the leadership of Ho. With the French colonialists out of the picture, an ambitious land-reform program was undertaken, for which Gen. Giap would later apologize. “[W]e . . . executed too many honest people . . . and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread. . . . Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice,” he was quoted as having said by Neil Sheehan in his Pulitzer-winning 1988 book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
In the south, the United States replaced France as the major foreign influence. CIA operatives worked to blunt communist initiatives, and by the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers began arriving as “advisers” to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Men and supplies flowed southward from Hanoi, and indigenous guerrilla units throughout South Vietnam began raiding government troops and installations. The United States increased its level of support, which by 1968 had reached 500,000 military personnel.
Arguably, the turning point of the war came during the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was orchestrated by Gen. Giap. To launch this campaign, he had directed the movement of 100,000 men and tons of supplies to strategic points throughout South Vietnam. On Jan. 30, communist forces attacked 40 provincial capitals and major cities, including an unsuccessful but widely publicized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The offensive failed militarily, Gen. Giap’s forces suffered heavy casualties and a hoped-for civilian uprising against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not happen.
But politically, the offensive was devastating in the United States, where it shattered public confidence in U.S. policy and led Johnson to decide against seeking reelection as president.
In the next four years, Gen. Giap orchestrated guerrilla raids by small units against South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In the spring of 1972, he was relieved of his command after his Easter offensive failed in the face of massive U.S. attacks, which included the bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese losses were said to have included more than 100,000 fatalities. Gen. Giap retained his position as defense minister, but command of the Vietnam People’s Army passed to longtime disciple Van Tien Dung.
U.S. involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 with the signing of peace accords and the withdrawal of American military forces. Without U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military collapsed in two years.
“American soldiers were just like any others,” Gen. Giap said years later in response to a question from a former U.S. service member. “When led well, they fought well.” Rarely, if ever, did the general comment publicly on the millions of Vietnamese boat people who fled the country after the communist takeover or the stagnation of the economy under Communist Party leadership.
After 1975, Gen. Giap faded from the public scene. He resigned as defense minister in 1980 and was dropped from the politburo in 1982. He continued to lead ceremonial functions and lived in comfort in a government-assigned villa in Hanoi. In 1992, he was awarded Vietnam’s highest honor, the Gold Star Order, for contributions to “the revolutionary cause of party and nation.”
In 1946, after the death of his first wife, Gen. Giap married Dang Bich Hai, the daughter of a former professor and mentor. They had two daughters, Vo Hua Binh and Vo Hahn Phuc, and two sons, Vo Dien Bien and Vo Hoai Nam.
We are so impressed with the student travelers of Peace Works Travel. They came to Southeast Asia seeking to understand and help with the challenges of land-mined-Cambodia and the UXO-littered country of Laos. It’s incredible how they have already developed an awareness of war and an intellectual curiosity and exercised the act of social responsibility at such a young age.
Bill Morse, Director Cambodian Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
My Peace Works Travel tour taught me about my uncle’s military service of Vietnam. I appreciate his sacrifice for our country so much more now than before the trip.
Briggs Boss, Sophomore, Thacher School
This is truly the trip of a lifetime. Every day gets better and our guides make us feel like family.
Stacy Serrette, Teacher and Dean of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Peace Works Travel students are doing what we should all strive for everyday: learn from history and engage with dialogues of conflict resolution. That's the only way to prevent the next genocide from happening.
Paul Rusesabagina, Real-life Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the Rwandan genocide.
You opened our eyes to the tragedy created from a war long ago. As a family, we have had many discussions inspired by the trip. There is nothing better than sitting around and having your kids interact in intellectual conversations. Many thanks for adding new food for thought to our kitchen table.
Shirley Hahn, Beverly Hills, California
History teacher-turned social entrepreneur makes an impact on educational travel scene.
The Santa Barbara Independent
After visiting the Killing Fields, we restored our hope with a volunteer project teaching English to kids. I understood how humans can heal from tragedy: We must all invest in the hopes of a new generation.
Alex Greer, Junior, Laguna Blanca School
The Vietnamese veterans shared stories about the War, ideas about a bright future for the next generation and how it feels to connect with those they fought. It was fascinating to hear their insights. The students were awestruck.
Kelly Bennett, history teacher, Santa Barbara Middle School
Vietnam was a name I had grown up hearing: a place my father had tried to avoid, a war my mom protested against, the battlefield where my uncle lost his sight to a landmine. When my school announced the spring trip, I knew I had to go. It was the best experience of my entire life.
Alexandra Kall, Francis Parker School
Volunteering at the Peace Works Travel Village was life-changing for my students. After learning about chemical warfare they discovered we can actually "do something" for the children living with the legacy of Agent Orange. I am forever grateful for this experience.
Spencer Barr, English Teacher, Santa Barbara High School, California
I had never led a group outside the country before. Your organization and planning and daily programing is so excellent. I will definitely do this again. Thanks so much.
Stacy Serrette, Director of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Another great day yesterday. We saw the body of Ho Chi Minh and learned more about his philosophy of bringing the government close to the ordinary people, how he lived in such simple quarters to make that point, and how the country evolved from independence from the French. Our students asked such great questions that integrated their thinking on policies and personalities. It’s clear they are connecting the various stories of Vietnam together in a more comprehensive picture of the war.
Eric Taylor, Francis Parker School, San Diego, California
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Tuesday Travel Tip: Ethical Travel Photography
Student traveler in Vietnam I’d been living abroad in Vietnam for three months and was having one of those days were the cacophony of a foreign culture was starting to grate on me. I had reached that point of romanticized nostalgia for the states that my very gut throbbed for home. I was whining to […]