Eyewitness Vietnam: U.S. bombs still kill

Sign outside a school warns students about unexploded weapons.WW photo: Joyce Chediac

Sign outside a school warns students about unexploded weapons.
WW photo: Joyce Chediac

Quang Tri is on the 17th parallel, which artificially cut this country in half for two decades until Vietnam won its liberation in 1975. Surrounding it is a six-mile-wide strip called the Demilitarized Zone, which saw the heaviest fighting of the 10-year U.S. war.

Quang Tri Province, a little larger than Rhode Island, is the most bombed piece of earth in history. The Pentagon dropped more tonnage of explosives here, obliterating the provincial capital and about 3,500 villages, than was dropped on Germany in all of World War II.

Some 20 percent of the U.S. weapons did not detonate. (Huffington Post, Sept. 14, 2013) They are still here, armed and dangerous, and they can be found in 83.8 percent of this province.

Forty years after Vietnam decisively defeated the Pentagon and reunited the country, Washington’s war continues by other means. Vietnamese people are killed and maimed every day by unexploded U.S. bombs littering the landscape and hampering social and economic development.

Vietnam’s environment is still straining to recover from the massive amount of defoliants the Pentagon sprayed here for 10 years, destroying rainforests and unique ecological habitats and poisoning the soil. Washington has neither acknowledged these war crimes nor made significant compensation to Vietnam for these terrible wrongs.

Since 1975, some 7,078 people, or 1.2 percent of Quang Tri’s population, have been killed and many thousands seriously maimed — losing a limb, being blinded or both — when they accidentally come upon U.S. mines and cluster bombs. (Landmine Monitor 2013, Vietnam Profile) Between 1975 and 2002 in Vietnam, some 42,135 people have been killed and another 62,143 wounded by these bombs. (AP, May 12, 2011)

Most victims are young people in rural areas, especially children naturally curious about a piece of metal glittering in the ground. Rice paddies are also common sites of explosions as people try to reclaim land for farming. (Journal of ERW and Mine Action, Summer 2011)

One-fifth of Vietnam contaminated with explosives

We enter Klu village of the Paku people, one of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities. In the early stages of the Pentagon invasion, the Paku people used their bows and arrows to fight U.S. fighter planes. Their determination to defend their land gave heart to many Vietnamese and showed the world the fighting spirit in Vietnam.

Ms. Thach, our guide, calls our attention to a large sign in front of the school picturing a large bomb in the grass and a skull and crossbones. It reminds the children to stay away from unexploded bombs.

Quang Tri is the only province where students have to study textbooks on mine identification and prevention. Cluster bombs are the most malignant of the buried bombs and most easily picked up by children.

But Quang Tri is not alone. Some 7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, nearly three times the amount dropped on all countries during World War II. According to the Vietnamese government, 16 million acres, or roughly a fifth of the country, is contaminated with some 600,000 tons of U.S. bombs, and only 5 percent has been cleared.

Washington boasts that it allocated $62 million toward bomb cleaning in Vietnam. This is a drop in the bucket of U.S. criminal war pollution. A recent Vietnamese government plan to clear 1.2 million acres will cost $595 million over the next five years.

From rainforest to moonscape

Unexploded bombs aren’t the Pentagon’s only legacy here. From 1961 to 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres of crops and trees, affecting an estimated 13 percent of South Vietnam’s land. Much of Quang Tri, one of the most heavily defoliated provinces, looked like a moonscape by the end of the war.

We were glad to see that most of the land before us is now green. Our guide explained that reforestation was accomplished and erosion stopped by planting fast-growing eucalyptus trees, which are cut for timber. We also see cultivated areas of corn, cassava (tapioca) and coffee.

This is a far cry, however, from the three-tiered rainforest canopy that originally covered this land, with its varied vegetation, animal life and medicinal plants rivaling the Amazon in diversity and unique ecosystems.

In some areas of Quang Tri the ecology was so disrupted that reforestation was impossible, and only scrub brush grows. The Vietnamese call this invasive grass on land that defoliants turned barren “American grass.”

Bombs couldn’t shut down Ho Chi Minh Trail

We stop at Route 9, where the Dakrong Bridge crosses the Cam Lo River, the site of a major road on the Vietnamese resistance’s north-to-south supply route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When U.S. planes took out the bridge, says Thach, supplies were carried through the river until the bridge was repaired. Local women maintained the trail here, she adds.

But all the Pentagon’s bombs and defoliants could not shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Even the U.S. National Security Agency’s official history of the war called the trail system “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.”

Thach points to the tallest peak in the highlands — what U.S. soldiers called “the Rock pile.” This high-tech observation post was part of the base network the U.S. built along Route 9.

We stop at Khe Sanh, one of those bases. Heavily armed and on high ground, Khe Sanh was thought invulnerable. But the People’s Liberation Army captured it in 1968. We visit the war museum that now stands there and honors the 320 Division of the Liberation Army, which besieged the base; the ethnic minorities who fought with sticks, bows and arrows, and scythes; and the women and men who ceaselessly brought supplies over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Deliberate U.S. destruction

Although U.S. imperialism lost this war, it still wrote about much of its history. Washington neglects to report that some of the heaviest U.S. bombing took place when it was already clear that the Vietnamese would win their complete independence.

In 1965 General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, said that his “solution to the problem” in Vietnam was to “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” This is exactly what Washington tried to do — create as much damage as possible in Vietnam, poison it, set it back, destroy its infrastructure and burden it as much as possible. LeMay added to his infamous record by running as the vice presidential candidate on arch-racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s ticket in 1968.

The Pentagon still wages war on the people of Vietnam — an economic war; a war of isolation; the lasting effects of a genocidal war that killed about 3 million men, women and children; and a war of denial of any responsibility for this deliberate devastation.