The past has gone, but its traces are still present in Vietnam today. It may be to your surprise, but the devastating effects of the Vietnam War continue to torture many Vietnamese both physically and mentally long after its end in 1975. And a large part of that devastation comes from a type of defoliant called Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is one of the six types of Rainbow Herbicides, a group of chemicals meant to kills plants, trees, and crops. The use of Rainbow Herbicides was adopted by United States military during the Vietnam War, as a war tactic known as Herbicidal Warfare, which means using defoliant substances to kill forests and agricultural land, preventing the Vietnamese soldiers from using plants to camouflage or produce food to eat, thus reducing their combat capacity.
The other 5 colors in Rainbow Herbicides are green, pink, color, blue, and white - Agent Blue for crop destruction and the others for jungle defoliation. The chemicals, in fact, have no color as their names might have mistakenly suggested. Such color-coding was meant as a convenient substitution for the more complicated chemical names and stemmed from the color of the 55-gallon drums that contained the respective herbicides.
Agent Orange was the most potent and actually had 4 different variants - Agent Orange, Agent Orange II, Agent Orange III, Enhanced Agent Orange (or Super Orange). It had been the most popular one, probably the only one most Vietnamese know, because of the press coverage and the fact that it was used in the largest quantity among the Rainbow group, and also for the longest duration in the Vietnam War.
Albeit technically a herbicide, trees are not its only victim. Humans are harmed by Agent Orange due to the presence of dioxin, a highly toxic chemical - a byproduct, rather an intentional component, during the manufacturing of herbicides. Dioxin has been linked to the cultivation of several dire physical conditions, most notably birth defects, different types of cancer, heart disease, and numerous brain malfunctions. These are what’s to blame for the Agent Orange Aftermath in Vietnam.
In November 1961, with the authorization of President Kennedy, the U.S. Air Force officially launched Operation Ranch Hand, the codename for its aggressive defoliation program in the Vietnam War. The operation lasted with incredible intensity for 9 consecutive years from 1962 to 1971.
By estimation, Ranch Hand sprayed roughly 20 million gallons (75.7 million liters) of Rainbow herbicides, containing nearly 400 kilograms of dioxin on Vietnam. Of this figure, nearly 11.45 million (equivalent to over 208,000 drums) was Agent Orange, discharged mostly between 1965 and 1970. Worth noting is the fact that the intensity of spraying herbicides in Vietnam at that time was up to 50 times the normal amount for agricultural use.
Out of the 28 bases where Ranch Hand stored defoliants and loaded them onto airplanes, the main ones were Bien Hoa Air Base for operations in Mekong Delta (Bien Hoa, a populous city in southern Vietnam) and Da Nang Air Base for central coast and the Ho Chi Minh Trail regions (an important artery for Vietnamese military in the war). And during the course of 9 years, over 6,000 spraying missions took place in South Vietnam, according to U.S. Air Force statistics.
Besides the obvious purpose of clearing the jungle cover of Vietnamese troops and disabling food production as mentioned above, the intoxication of land also assisted in the American political aim of uprooting over two million refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, forcing them to flee to other countries. Major destinations included the United States, some European countries, and other camps across the world where the Southeast Asian refugees embarked on the path of an uncertain and desperate life.
U.S. Air Force aircrafts spraying Agent Orange over South Vietnam battlefields
More than 20,000 towns and up to 4.8 million people lay within spraying regions.
South Vietnam was the main suffering region. By 1971, around 12% of its total area suffered from Rainbow Herbicides spraying; millions of hectares of forests (especially mangrove forests) and agricultural land were annihilated due to one-off or repetitive spray missions. Most concerning was the extremely high levels of dioxin in the soil, especially at the main bases like Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and Phu Cat.
The sole target of Operation Ranch Hand was Vietnamese guerrillas (troops that hide well to make sudden attacks on the enemy). However, it was surely inevitable that Vietnamese civilians had to bear the brunt. In Quang Ngai province (in the southern half of the central coast), for example, 85% of the croplands were demolished in 1970 alone, leading to severe famine across the town; hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation or suffered from severe malnutrition, especially kids.
In total, “since the US troops sprayed AO/dioxin in Vietnam for the first time, over three million hectares of forests and rice fields and 26,000 villages have been infected with this toxicant. Among five million people exposed to AO/dioxin, over three million ones are still suffering from diseases and leaving birth defects on their children.” (Vietnamese in the US raise funds for AO victims, 2011, Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Of the 3 million victims as aforementioned, hundreds of thousands died, others lived with chronic excruciating health condition with their family in desperation and poverty.
In several heavily affected areas of Vietnam, dioxin levels in blood samples are a dozen times higher than permitted, and occurrences of deformities, birth defects, and cancer have been significantly more frequent than other regions. While a small amount of dioxin can actually reduce the risk of cancer contraction, a greater level than permitted would do exactly the reverse, increasing the risk of cancer substantially.
Vietnamese refugees have also reported having suffered from frequent pain in the eyes, skin, stomach upsets, incessant fatigue, miscarriages, and even monstrous births.
Dioxin can have devastating, lethal effects on human health, and on top of that, it is hereditary.
World Health Organization has listed dioxin as a cancer-causing substance, capable of impairing internal organs, the immune system, and the nervous system.
What’s more dreadful is that dioxin can permeate into the soil and groundwater of Vietnam, and dig its way into plants and animals, which later can be consumed by people and accumulated in their body tissues without their knowledge.
Nurses caring for two children in dioxin victims’ care centers in Vietnam
As a result of herbicide spraying, watershed forests of over 28 major rivers suffered serious damage, according to Vietnam Environment Administration Magazine; their flood-preventing capability has dwindled considerably; numerous animal and plant species have gone extinct.
After just one spray mission, over 10 to 20% of the forest canopy (taking up 40% to 60% of forest biomass) went dead (cited from Vietnam Science TV magazine). Due to this, climatic conditions in lower levels got changed dramatically with decreased moisture levels and increased light intensity, causing massive killing of plants and animals. Many areas of forest in Vietnam suffered from such great contamination that recovery has been impossible ever since - no trees ever managed to grow there again.
In general, the once affluent rainforest and mangrove ecosystem of Vietnam have been superseded to a large extent by a much poorer one, and eco-balance is markedly less robust since the re-formation of young forest were disrupted by the birth and the growing ubiquity of rats.
Rainforests in Vietnam destroyed by Rainbow herbicides
The largest organization for dioxin victims in Vietnam is the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA). Founded in 2004 and now with over 350,000 members, VAVA has established its bountiful member groups across up to 61 out of 63 cities and provinces in Vietnam. Above all, it has succeeded in raising over US$ 50 million and establishing over 26 care centers for victims and their families. Thanks to the association’s proactivity, countless dioxin victims in Vietnam have received precious gifts that go beyond material values. Regular medical check-ups, reimbursement allowances, medical care, and special needs education program for their children are a few among the wonders VAVA has brought to the unlucky war survivors.
Over the past decade, Vietnam and the U.S. governments have discussed and put into practice with remarkable success several short-term, and long-term operation plans to address the legacy of dioxin in Vietnam. US Agency for International Development (USAID) responded to requests from Vietnam in agreeing to send the US$3 million aid package approved by US Government to assist AO/dioxin programs in Vietnam, part of the sum to be spent on improving the health of residents in dioxin-affected areas in Da Nang and on dealing with dioxin contamination at Da Nang airbase.
American University in Vietnam students visited DAVA, the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin
Numerous domestic and foreign-based associations have been founded to promote relief acts for the Agent Orange aftermath in Vietnam. Their substantial contribution has been greatly appreciated and remembered with profound gratitude by dioxin victims and their families. Agent Orange Working Group based in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vietnamese Entrepreneurs Association in France are prime examples for the great NGOs that are working towards resolving dioxin legacy in Vietnam.
NGO activist campaign for Vietnamese dioxin victims in France
Promising projects are underway, modeling on four major targets penned by the Vietnamese government. First, building effective systems to monitor dioxin contamination, preventing the birth of new pollutants. Second, finding better technology to eradicate all dioxin residues in Agent Orange hotspots in the past - Bien Hoa, Da Nang, Phu Cat airbases. Third, refining policies for dioxin victims, promoting relief efforts and ensuring better living conditions for them. Finally, soldiering on the fight for justice for the dioxin victims, with efforts to win more advocacy from the international public.
The Vietnamese with their inherently optimistic and laid-back nature certainly bear no grudges over the past. No matter what legacy the war left, life is moving on in this young and dynamic country. What counts now is the peace we have gained, and how we are always willing to join hands with our international friends in shaping a better present and future. No matter how hard it is, Vietnam is bound to pull it off.
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