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Agent Orange: 40 years after the Vietnam War, the ghosts of chemical warfare live on

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By Harshmeet Singh

This  April 30 would mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (South Vietnam’s erstwhile capital), which led to the conclusion of Vietnam War. Lasting two decades, the Vietnam War was fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. While North Vietnam was backed by China, Soviet Union and other communist allies, South Vietnam was aided by the powerful USA and its allies.

North Vietnam majorly depended on the guerrilla war tactics as it trained the National Liberation Front (NLF) to fight against the US and its anti-communist allies. South Vietnam, on the other hand, relied on major air attacks and heavy firepower of the USA to uproot its enemy.

The US was ready to pull out all stops to check the spread of communism and avert the communist powers from taking over South Vietnam. While North Vietnam forces wanted to unify the two countries and establish communist rule over a unified Vietnam, the USA’s actions were based on its domino theory, according to which, if one country takes the communist path, the other nations in the region would soon follow suit.

Role of the US

By the time North Vietnam captured Saigon in 1975 and the war ended, the loss of life was unparalleled. The war casualties were numbered close to a staggering 3 million.

USA’s biggest involvement in the war was its air strikes over North Vietnam. The US army sprayed more than 20 million gallons of ‘Agent Orange’ over the agricultural land in South Vietnam and some parts of Laos and Cambodia. Codenamed ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, this move was aimed at exposing the guerrillas hidden in forest land and depriving them of cover and food. This also led to the peasants vacating their lands, thus eroding the support base of guerrilla fighters.

Exposure to Agent Orange led to horrendous after effects. According to the data furnished by the Vietnam Government, over 3 million people have suffered disabilities and illness due to this exposure. Even after 40 years since the conclusion of war, a number of birth and respiratory defects are still found among the people living in the affected areas of Vietnam and the US war veterans who served in these areas. Contaminated soil in the region has led to poisonous food which has given rise to health problems such as skin cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. The chemicals from Agent Orange have entered the food chains in the region through the animals that feed over the affected area.

John Kerry, the present US Secretary of State and a fierce opponent of Vietnam War, served in the Vietnam War as an officer in charge. In 1971, he testified before the senate, saying –

“They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

The impact of a war long outlives the actual war. Children born without eyes, new born babies with twisted bodies and disabled adults are usual sights in the area where the deadly Agent Orange was sprayed. The victims now run in third generations. Albeit the war is long over, even today, the parents keep their fingers crossed while a new born is checked by the doctors for any signs of disability.

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US war veterans also affected

The US war veterans, who served in the affected areas of Vietnam, have incurred deadly diseases such as skin cancer, leukaemia and throat cancer at exceptionally higher rates than the average US citizens. The worse impacted ones were the personnel who were involved in loading the planes with Agent Orange and storing the chemical on the ground.

Astonishingly, according to many war veterans, while they were using this chemical in Vietnam, they were told that it is harmless. By 1993, over 39,000 war veterans in the US had filed for disability claims with the ‘Department of Veteran Affairs’, citing their exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Of them, only 486 victims were compensated.

Over the past decade or so, various consultations have taken place between the US and Vietnam, regarding the ill effects of Agent Orange and USA’s accountability. Although the US has agreed, more than once, to transfer technical and financial assistance to Vietnam to clean up the remaining bits of Orange Agent, the process is taking far too long to save the present generation from the chemical’s implications.

The Vietnam War possibly represents one of the biggest foreign affairs miscalculations on the part of the US. This also gave birth to the phrase ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in the US, which depicts the government’s and public’s reluctance to enter any conflict, post the Vietnam War. Despite USA’s best efforts to stop the spread of communism in the region, Vietnam today stands as a unified, communist country. Amongst the effects of war on the US were huge federal budget deficit, over 58,000 dead soldiers and some important lessons on future military interventions. But considering the number of conflicts the US has been a part of since then, the lessons don’t seem to be taken well enough.

  • In nutshell, the US in garb of spreading democracy and ensuring peace has always been the reason for wars.

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Vietnam Gets Support to Build Islands in Asia’s Most Disputed Sea While China Receives International Criticism

Vietnam has slowly added buildings on some of its 10 major islets since 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a report earlier this month

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FILE - An aerial view of Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, controlled by Vietnam and part of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. VOA

Both China and Vietnam are building up tiny islets across Asia’s most disputed sea, but while China receives international criticism Vietnam receives very little, and even gets some support because its pace of construction is slower and widely seen as defensive.

Vietnam’s work on islets it has held for decades is kept to areas of the South China Sea closest to its mainland coasts. The country shuns military mega projects that might appear offensive. And it belongs to the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) known for working out any bilateral differences. These factors differ from China.

“They’ve never had, I think, a standoff with any other country, because all the other claimants have respectfully kept to their developable spheres around the South China Sea, and I think there’s this intra-ASEAN consensus, that within ASEAN the claimants do not rock the boat so as to present a common front towards China,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Vietnam has slowly added buildings on some of its 10 major islets since 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a report earlier this month. The initiative under the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies also tracked new communications equipment, a sports field and the extension of a runway from 750 meters to 1,300 meters on its largest holding Spratly Island.

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FILE – A Vietnamese floating guard station is seen on Truong Sa islands or Spratly islands, April 12, 2010. VOA

Locking in occupation

Development of military-controlled islands that Vietnam has occupied for decades in the South China Sea’s Spratly Island chain involves landfill work plus installation of solar panels on some buildings, the initiative report says. The report points also to 25 “pillbox” forts that Vietnam has built on sometimes submerged reefs or banks.

Vietnam is very slowly reclaiming land for construction that offers self-defense against harsh weather, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Construction has shunned use of large ships that might grab international attention, he said.

“The Vietnamese government has made it very clear they just reclaim the islands for self-defense, and they do not expand massively for other purposes,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think the Vietnamese government wants to draw a lot of attention from other countries on their reclamation, so that’s the reason they want to do it quietly.”

Hanoi hopes its tiny islets can get by without much help from mainland Vietnam, Chong said. He said the country is preparing for a long stay on the islets.

Vietnam is upgrading islets to make them harder for China to take without a cost, not for offensive military use, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative Director Gregory Poling said.

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FILE – Anti-China protesters shout “down with invasive China” and hold placards that read “The country will not forget – Johnson South Reef – 14th March, 1988” during a gathering to mark the anniversary of the Spratly Islands clashes between Vietnam and China. VOA

“The Vietnamese endgame seems to be making these facilities more survivable, raising the cost for the Chinese to try to take them,” he said. China normally leaves Vietnam alone at sea because they have shown a willingness to “bump shoulders” with Chinese vessels if pushed, he said.

China contrast

China claims about 90 percent of the disputed sea, overlapping Vietnam’s smaller claim as well as tracts that four other governments call their own. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Chinese reclamation work particularly alarms Vietnam because China controls the full Paracel archipelago, also claimed by Hanoi, and three major islands in the Spratly chain.

Beijing’s reclamation work has created infrastructure for military aircraft and radars, the think tank initiative says. Chinese contractors had used 1,294 hectares of reclaimed land to help develop reefs and atolls under their control, according to a Pentagon estimate in 2016.

China draws attention from other countries, including the United States, when it sends bombers and naval vessels into the sea. Both China and Vietnam cite historic usage to back their maritime claims.

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South China Sea Territorial Claims. VOA

Keeping peace

China and the Philippines have complained occasionally to Vietnam over the years because its islets fall into their claims. But the complaints fade because the other countries do not see Vietnam as a threat, scholars believe.

Vietnam’s armed forces and maritime development budget lag China, which is Asia’s top economic and military power. Chinese officials meet sometimes with ASEAN leaders but lack access to the regular events for Southeast Asian heads of state, defense chiefs and foreign ministers.

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“One ASEAN country is not going to war with another ASEAN country,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “We would find consensus. That’s the true spirit of diplomacy.”

Vietnam also has picked up support from Japan and the United States, both keen to limit Chinese expansion. Japan’s agreement in 2014 to donate six coast guard vessels to Vietnam helped prove its “power projection abilities,” Chong said. The U.S. Navy regularly passes ships through the sea to warn China. (VOA)