The Endless Tragedy of Vietnam, Part 4

Part 4 in a series by Myra MacPherson, adapted from an article published in Consortium News February 16, 2015:

 Valley of A Luoi. Kan Lay, 55 years old, and her son, Ke Van Bec, 14 years old, physically and mentally handicapped, posing to show to the world the effects of chemical weapons such as agent orange.

Valley of A Luoi. Kan Lay, 55 years old, and her son, Ke Van Bec, 14 years old, physically and mentally handicapped, posing to show to the world the effects of chemical weapons such as agent orange.
Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

 

We travel further south, to Nha Trang. This fashionable resort mecca — with high-rise hotels, turquoise bay and sandy beaches — is in wild contrast to another world that tourists do not see. We visit a spotless home filled with family mementos; photos everywhere, stuffed toys near a Buddhist shrine. Lying flat on a brightly colored mat are two sisters with horribly twisted limbs, spines too weak for them to sit up, ravished by Agent Orange birth defects, carried to them genetically through a Vietnamese soldier father.

Their mother, with a smiling face and pleading eyes, moves them to a wall and props them up. Their bodies are so small that they look far younger than their ages. One is 30 and her sister is 20. An awkward silence
envelops the room as visitors stand, helpless.

Don Blackburn, another Vietnam Veteran who works non-stop to aid Agent Orange victims, plunks himself down between the two, as casually easy as a comforting friend. The sisters smile gratefully at him. Their father has left the family and the mother is frantic with worry about who will care for her daughters when she becomes too old or ill.

It would be hard to underestimate the damage Agent Orange dioxin caused. Between 2.1 million to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other poisonous chemicals, according to the American Public Health Association. Agent Orange poisoned the soil where Vietnamese grow crops, the rivers and streams where they fish, and created cancer, illnesses and birth defects, now into this younger generation.

From 1961 to 1972, U.S. aircraft sprayed poisonous herbicides, until this lush country looked as grey and denuded as the moon. In all, more than 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land.

Americans who view the Vietnam War as an ancient event stare in shock when visitors returning from this country tell them that the dioxin affects children born today.

American veterans who suffer from Agent Orange diseases have had to fight governmental denial and scorn, some recognition of related illness and compensation, although often inadequate, has finally happened. However, the United States still refuses to attribute diseases, illness and defects among the Vietnamese to Agent Orange.“It is hypocritical for the U.S. to place this unnecessary burden of proof on the Vietnamese while it does not do so for its own veterans,” says Palazzo, who works here with Agent Orange victims. He cites
international and Vietnamese studies linking dioxin to health and birth defects here.

The United States bristles at Vietnam claims that half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many as 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. There is no measure to prove they are Agent Orange victims but some studies estimate that the rate of birth defects here in Vietnam has quadrupled since the war, and that most of them occur where Agent Orange was sprayed or stored.

Myra MacPherson is the author of the Vietnam classic, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. She has continued to lecture and write about Vietnam and veterans.

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The Endless Tragedy of Vietnam, Part 3

Part 3 in a series by Myra MacPherson, adapted from an article published in Consortium News February 16, 2015

A U.S. Air Force Fairchild UC-123B Provider C-123 Ranch Hand aircraft sprays defoliant over the target area of "Operation Pink Rose" in January 1967. During the Pink Rose test program target areas near Tay Ninh and An Loc, South Vietnam were sprayed with defoliation agents twice and with a drying agent once. Ten flights of three Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses each dropped 42 M-35 incendiary incendiary cluster bombs (per aircraft) into the target area setting fires that should burn the heavy growth as well as enemy fortifications hidden there. Image is in the public domain.

A U.S. Air Force Fairchild UC-123B Provider C-123 Ranch Hand aircraft sprays defoliant over the target area of “Operation Pink Rose” in January 1967. During the Pink Rose test program target areas near Tay Ninh and An Loc, South Vietnam were sprayed with defoliation agents twice and with a drying agent once. Ten flights of three Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses each dropped 42 M-35 incendiary incendiary cluster bombs (per aircraft) into the target area setting fires that should burn the heavy growth as well as enemy fortifications hidden there.
Image is in the public domain.

Back out of darkness, squinting in the sun, we walked to meet a nearby villager. His family thought him out of harm’s way; he was only four when the war ended in 1975. The man scooted over the ground like a crab, using his strong arms, pads protecting his knees. His legs ended in stumps just below. One hand was missing. He was not wearing his artificial legs, the ones he had to sell a cow to pay for. They were too cumbersome for the work he was doing, dragging pieces of used lumber to build a chicken coop. He was 20 in 1991, out looking for scrap metal, when an unexploded bomb, dropped 25 years before, blew up.

“He knew the risks, but he also knew he could sell the metal for cash income. It was purely economics,” said Chuck Searcy.

Cluster bombs dug six feet circle indentations that can still be seen as dips in the green land. They contained hundreds of small but very lethal bomblets that were supposed to explode on impact, but thousands, about 10 percent, did not do so, Searcy says, citing an old Pentagon estimate. All these years later, they bring the war home again, exploding in fields and villages, killing and maiming curious children, farmers tilling their fields, poor peasants searching for scrap metal to sell. Official estimates put the number of casualties from unexploded bombs in Vietnam at around 100,000, including 34,000 killed. The true numbers are probably higher, says Searcy.

 Myra MacPherson is the author of the Vietnam classic, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. She has continued to lecture and write about Vietnam and veterans.

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The Endless Tragedy of Vietnam, Part 2

Part 2 in a series from by Myra MacPherson adapted from an article published in Consortium News February 16, 2015

Four U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief aircraft of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, each drop six M117 343 kg bombs over Vietnam during

Four U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief aircraft of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, each drop six M117 343 kg bombs over Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder”.
In the public domain.

We are in Quang Tri Province at the DMZ, the former demilitarized zone that once separated South and North Vietnam. “You are standing in the most heavily bombed area in the history of warfare,” said Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy, the American voice of Project RENEW  [“Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War”], a humanitarian organization he co-founded 15 years ago that helps victims of unexploded bombs the United States dropped during the war.

Today lush foliage belies the past. One has to look at war photos to understand such pulverizing devastation when this province was destroyed — gray, bomb-blasted fields and land, village huts incinerated, civilians racing for their lives as fighter jets screamed overhead and B-52s marauded silently at 30,000 feet, dropping bomb after bomb after bomb. Some15 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam — more than all of World War II — much of it here. An estimated three million civilians were killed during the decade of war.

To me the U.S. bombings were an ultimate mass torture delivering fear, trauma, injuries and death,” remarked Californian Sally Benson, who, along with her husband, Steve Nichols, funded the Mine Action Visitor Center here in Quang Tri to teach awareness of the 300,000 plus tons of unexploded ordnance remaining in the province. Nichols and Benson met in Vietnam as civilian teachers during the war, returned anti-war and maintain close ties with the five veterans, visiting Vietnam often.

How could anyone possibly survive, one wonders, imagining a daily hailstorm of bombs. We find out. We crawl deep into the Vinh Moc tunnels, moving slowly on slippery stones, hunching in the engulfing walls of earth, so close that one did not need to extend arms to feel them, cold to the touch. As we inch our way through the dark, tiny lights on our foreheads dimly pick out the winding narrow strip of earth as we go further and further down.

Suddenly a small cramped space dug out of the wall is illuminated. We gasp. A body is lying there and another crouching next to her. But they are models; a woman lying down and a woman leaning over her, holding her baby. On the wall is an incongruous sign, “maternity ward.”

It is hard to imagine even one baby born there, and yet 17 Vietnamese women had given birth deep in the soil during the years of “search and destroy” when millions of bombs pummeled their peasant huts and land constantly. Villagers lived underground for months on end; children, babies, mothers, elderly parents, ancient aunts and uncles:  eating, sleeping, enduring. From 1966 to 1972 when the bombing stopped, 300 Vietnamese lived in their mole-like world, digging nearly 100 feet underground.

Myra MacPherson is the author of the Vietnam classic, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. She has continued to lecture and write about Vietnam and veterans.

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The Endless Tragedy of Vietnam, Part 1

Part 1 in a series from by Myra MacPherson adapted from an article published in Consortium News February 16, 2015

Napalm bombs explode on Viet Cong structures south of Saigon in the Republic of Vietnam
In the public domain.

This series shows us Vietnam as seen through the lens of five American ex-soldiers: They returned to their former battlefield, where three of them had seen fierce fighting, to live full time among and to aid the people burdened by two terrible legacies of that war:

1) the thousands of children and farmers who still are blown up or injured by bombs dropped half a century ago that didn’t explode back then and

2) the chillingly large number of children and adults who suffer from the effects of the world’s most poisonous defoliant, Agent Orange; today fourth-generation children continue to be born with twisted and useless limbs.

Throughout Vietnam today, this band of brothers in peace travel and work tirelessly to help victims of a war long past. The group includes a poet, a psychiatric social worker, a former aide to a United States senator, a former cop, and a long ago gang member who found peace and purpose back here, in Vietnam.

They came here first as innocent young soldiers andreturned to the United States shattered. They never unpacked their pain, anger, sorrow, sense of betrayal, guilt and disillusionment about what had been done to the people of Vietnam. They returned, burdened with memories and driven by a mission. They live from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and points in between — Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Nha Trang.

Not only are these men fighting for the lives of modern-day Vietnamese victims of that old war, they are — like fellow members of the 3,300 Veterans for Peace (VFP} around the world and a large contingent of distinguished Vietnam scholars, historians and peace activists — outraged at the whitewashing they see in a mammoth Department of Defense 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War that will soon saturate the media and the public.

The Pentagon material, which will be disseminated to schools and the public, even includes the ancient lie about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” which pushed the United States into full-scale war in 1964. The Department of Defense Commemorative website states that the Gulf of Tonkin incident began with “The U.S. response to the North Vietnamese attack on USS Maddox (DD 731) in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. [This] marked the beginning of the Navy’s air and surface bombardment against North Vietnam.”

However, for decades it has been known that the North Vietnamese attack never happened; this false allegation incited Congress to give the green light to go to war. As retired Capt. Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (ret), wrote “the string of intelligence mistakes, mistranslations, misinterpretations and faulty decision-making that occurred in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 reveals how easily analysts and officials can jump to the wrong conclusions and lead a nation into war.”

“The DOD commemoration of our war is a farce,” explodes Chuck Palazzo, one of the former combat veterans who lives in Da Nang. “A waste of money [taxpayers cost will run into the millions of dollars] and a feeble attempt to brainwash the younger generation as well as the rest of us, that what we did was right – it was, of course so wrong!”

The complexities of this war make it difficult for many who served; VFP members respect the idea of honoring veterans who were shunned on their return but denounce a fictionalized version of the war itself.

Myra MacPherson is the author of the Vietnam classic, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. She has continued to lecture and write about Vietnam and veterans.

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