Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Civilian Victims of the Vietnam War

by Anna Sykes

A Vietnamese victim of  US chemical weapons
Historians tend to focus their attention on the atrocities and effects of prominent tragedies such as the Holocaust, massacres or slavery. However, many fail to acknowledge the significance of the effects of the Vietnam War on ordinary civilians. 

The Vietnam War lasted for 20 years (1955-1975) and resulted in the death of 2 million people, leaving around 3 million wounded, many of whom were civilians. During the war, the U.S forces used a total of around 20 million gallons of herbicides from 1962 to 1971, most of which was focused in the dense jungle vegetation surrounding the boarder with Laos and Cambodia. The mass use of chemical warfare was primarily in order to cut down the jungle foliage, thus enabling air forces to spot Vietcong troops more easily. 

This was not an ordinary war. The Vietcong (National Liberation Front) used tactics of attrition and fought a guerrilla war using techniques such as ambushing, planting landmines and “hanging onto the belts” of the Americans- all of which appeared alien to the American troops. These methods far from resembled the familiar warfare which had been used during the First and Second World War.

Many say that the tactics which were used by the guerrilla forces in Vietnam represented the ‘classic’ three-phase Maoist model, a Theory of People’s War that divides warfare into three stages. The first phase consists of guerrillas earning the support of the population through various propaganda techniques, gaining the “hearts and minds” of the people and attacking the centre of government. This is followed by the second phase, in which attacks are directed towards the government’s military forces and institutions. In Phase Three, conventional fighting is used to seize and take over cities, overthrowing the government in order to establish control of the nation. Guerrilla warfare was successfully waged in Vietnam, a form of fighting which was along the lines of Mao Zedong’s Ten Principles of War. In response to this, the American troops resorted to the use of defoliants, such as Napalm and ‘Agent Orange’ (a combination of the code names for Herbicide Orange and Agent LNX). These were used to focus on destroying crops and by 1969 around 1,034,300 hectares of forest had been destroyed. However, this major herbicide also had huge social and ecological impacts, affecting the lives of many soldiers (both American and Vietnamese) and ordinary citizens. The overall herbicidal warfare programme which lasted till 1971 was named ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, in which the U.S Air Force flying C-123s, fitted with developed spray tanks able to hold up to 1,000 gallons of herbicides (50 times the concentration than for normal agricultural use), sprayed 5 million acres of forest.

Result of eco-destruction on the Vietnam jungle
It has been recorded that US forces sprayed more than 110,00 tons of toxic chemicals between 1961 and 1971, causing the Vietnam was to be the biggest chemical warfare and the first war of eco-destruction in world history. A crucial factor in the destruction and harm caused by such warfare was due to the chemical components of the liquids used. Agent Orange consisted of dioxin, one the most toxic elements ever produced and in Agent Blue there was arsenic long-time poison.  Furthermore, Dioxin and hexachlorobenzen are known to be persistent organic pollutants. An article posted in early 2014 exposed the horrors of chemicals, such as those aforementioned, on Vietnamese children in orphanages fifty years on from the disaster. The effects ranged from physical disabilities, including missing or under-developed limbs and extremely curved spines, to various mental disorders. The photographer Matt Lee Anderson was quoted saying: 'Americans are the ones responsible, but we aren't giving any aid to the country at all. I felt horrible photographing these poor children.' The lack of support for these casualties from the American Government is down to the fact that there isn’t solid enough evidence to link such health problems to America’s use of these chemical weapons. CNN reported figures from the Vietnam Red Cross, which showed that Agent Orange has affected around one million Vietnamese people and led to some 150,000 children suffering from birth defects. These diseases range from cancer and reproductive abnormalities, to type 2 diabetes.

Agent Orange wasn’t the only chemical weapon that produced horrendous results, U.S. troops also used a substance known as napalm from 1965-1972. Napalm is a jelly-like substance, formed of a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline. When such a substance is ignited, it sticks to the skin and burns for up to ten minutes, resulting in an unbearable pain and normally causing death. This effect occurs due to the fact that napalm partially combusts oxygen in air, turning carbon dioxide into the poisonous substance, carbon monoxide. Kim PhĂșc’s village was napalmed by American forces when she was only nine years old. Kim is one of the rarest survivors of a napalm attack stating that “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can ever imagine”, she then went on to explain that“ water boils at 212°F. Napalm generates temperatures 1,500°F to 2,200°F.” Thus although unlike Agent Orange, the effects of such weapons are not persisting, 60% of those who were victims of napalm attacks suffered fifth degree burns, meaning that the burn corroded the skin and went down to the bone.

So we are thus lead to question why such effects and questioning surrounding the war and the warfare used are so commonly disregarded. 


Firstly, on a simple level this could be attributed to the fact that American ‘lost’ the war. It was a personal failure on a national scale. Fifty-eight thousand were killed, two thousand captured, and three hundred fifty thousand maimed and wounded; the effects of the war can be seen on a global scale. The consequences are not simply limited to physical effects but they also encompass a gamut of psychological trauma. In particular, there were large number of cases regarding the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So, the war was ignored and forgotten as it was a failure for the Government and an embarrassment for the people; the Americans simply didn’t understand the war in which they were fighting. 

The veterans returned home, having been portrayed by the media to the public as crazed psychopathic killers who lacked morals or control over their aggression. This is clearly captured in the example of the My Lai Massacre, where American troops were said to have killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1978. This made it hard for soldiers returning to transition and fit comfortably back into society. Many also point to the lack of care and assistance for the soldiers who had experienced such harrowing traumas. Thus, for many US citizens the war is over and long forgotten.




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