“I’m going to Saigon,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis last month before correcting himself. “Ho Chi Minh City — former Saigon.”
It was the fifth time that Mattis would meet with his Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich, and it marked the defense secretary’s first visit to a former U.S. military base outside of Ho Chi Minh City. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Bien Hoa Air Base was home to 550 aircraft. Today, it is one of many sites heavily contaminated by America’s toxic defoliant of choice, Agent Orange.
During that conflict, the United States deliberately sprayed more than 70 million liters of herbicidal agents across the Vietnamese countryside to wipe out forests providing cover for the guerrillas — known as the Viet Cong, or “VC” — and across rice paddies to drive civilians from their villages. A 1967 analysis by the RAND Corporation concluded that “the civilian population seems to carry very nearly the full burden of the results of the crop destruction program; it is estimated that over 500 civilians experience crop loss for every ton of rice denied the VC.” Of course, toxic defoliants didn’t just fall on foliage. According to hamlet census data, herbicides were sprayed on as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese. Immediate reactions to such exposure included nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. In the longer term, the defoliants have been associated with a higher incidence of stillbirths as well as cancers and birth defects like anencephaly and spina bifida that affect Vietnamese children to this day.
“USAID is about to start a major remediation project there at Bien Hoa Air Base from the old days,” said Mattis, using the acronym for the United States Agency for International Development. That soil restoration project at the former base, agreed upon in 2014, will take at least several years to complete and cost U.S. taxpayers $390 million. “So, this is America keeping her promise to remediate some of the past,” Mattis explained. Some indeed. So many decades later, there are countless other contaminated hotspots, as well as at least 350,000 tons of live bombs, artillery shells, rockets, and mines that could take hundreds of years to clear. There are also the surviving wounded of the conflict and those who continue to be injured by all that leftover ordnance. And then, of course, there are the still-mourning relatives of those slain then and of the victims of its lethal remains. The past, in such cases, has yet to be remediated.
“So, between our two nations, we respect the… past, or we have. But we’re also looking toward the future,” Mattis told reporters. “And the legacy of the war has turned into, actually, a basis for defense cooperation.” If conflicts do, indeed, breed cooperation 40 years later, then the future looks blindingly bright for the U.S. military. In an era marked by armed interventions from Afghanistan to Yemen, Iraq to Niger, Libya to Somalia, Syria to Tunisia, the United States has, it seems, set itself up for a golden age of future alliances in the second half of this century or sometime in the next one. That era-to-come may also see Pentagon commemorations of America’s many War-on-Terror conflicts. But if they’re anything like the Defense Department’s current effort to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War — chronicled today by TomDispatch regular Arnold Issacs, who covered that conflict for the Baltimore Sunin the 1970s — let’s hope that Americans of the 22nd century view them with a jaundiced eye.