“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Four decades ago to this day, the bureaucrats who had been facilitating assassination, obliteration and camps of concentration were tending bonfires. They were making crisp a paper trail that led all the way to Washington.
A rare thing happened as those papers burned and those Hueys took on their final load: a superpower conceded defeat. Opening the way to the rag-tag forces that the USA had been carpet-bombing, gassing and turning into soap not so long before. The battered Vietcong and northern forces had finally reached their goal – a grey bastion which would soon become known as Ho Chi Minh.
The South Vietnamese General Duong, the latest in a long line of Western puppets, ordered his men to lay down their weapons. And much to their relief they stood by as Minh’s tanks and red flags consumed the city. At last, it looked as if this poor, beleaguered army had managed to pull off an almost impossible task.
Taking on the combined forces of colonial France, Imperial America and their multi-national (and largely Korean) mercenary allies, the popular forces in Vietnam reunified their nation, and installed a representative government for the very first time. A remarkable event for any former colonial possession but particularly this one.
But anyone who has read histories which go beyond 1975 know that the country and its people never really recovered from the wounds that war inflicted. The lush tropical rain-forested landscape which defined Indochina was reduced to mush, utterly deformed – a hellish representation of its former self. Agent Orange ensured the populace shared similar make-overs.
Chemical weapons, supposedly rejected by all civilized peoples as they dragged themselves out of that great meat-grinder which was the Great War, made a gruesome come-back. In the 1960s, the Vietnamese people became unwitting subjects in a plethora of toxic herbicide trials.
Unsurprisingly for those suffering the White Man’s Burden, American strategists of the day found Asians a more acceptable target for testing weapons (or “defoliants”) than actual guinea pigs. (Rodents, in comparison, have the unfortunate tendency of eliciting sympathy in their captors.)
Over three million Vietnamese were directly affected. In the forty years since, many of that number have developed terminal illnesses or disorders of the brain. But exposure doesn’t limit itself there. No, it invades the ovaries as much as the cortex, and infects any unfortunate caught growing within. Babies with twisted or missing limbs. Oblong heads drooping, eyes missing. Torsos peppered with sinister bulges reminiscent of the Plague. They are today’s victims of that war waged half a century ago and it’s the stuff of nightmares (forgive the cliche).
The political leadership of the newly unified Vietnam did initially lobby for recompense. They pleaded with the suits in Washington for clean-up funds or, at the very least, expertise in decontamination. Nixon reluctantly promised $3.3 billion in secret talks (before the potency of Agent Orange was fully understood). But the funds never arrived as Congress never sent them. Instead American law makers busied themselves conceiving of more and more ludicrous conditions for the plaintiff to meet (such as materializing POWs to return to the States). And in a cold aside by a US ambassador the Gooks were informed that, seeing as both sides suffered during the conflict, any talk of reparations was “extortion”. Those who despised moral equivalence so much were only too eager to put victim-hood on a unrealistic level pegging.
As of yet, the compensation agreed upon in 1975 has not materialised.
With a subsequent US embargo on Vietnamese goods the latter country was forced into the suicidal Soviet embrace. This only went to intensify American demonisation of the small nation, with several Western commentators declaring that this proved the Vietnamese liberation forces were little more than Ruskie stooges all along.
Not unlike Cuba, whose population made the same grievous error of choosing their own government (if not through the ballot box), Washington D.C. could not forgive the insubordination of the Vietnamese. A good Third World government would turn its country into a glorified sweat shop, its people into low-wage workers – like the much lauded Suharto’s Indonesia. (Wolfowitz, the great democrat and liberator of Iraq was stationed there, showering the ruthless dictator with praise.)
Regardless, the elites have got their way in the end. As the USSR fell, any illusions remaining of an independent, egalitarian Vietnam emerging went with it.
It has been members of the new political class that the great socialist leaders Minh and Lê Duẩn helped create which has been responsible for the latest insults. Vietnam, they claim, is now a “socialist-orientated market economy”. For those unfamiliar with Newspeak, this in practice means the worst possible of both worlds: a neo-liberal economy reliant on cheap labour, mixed with an overbearing state in matters of military, policing, justice and free-speech. The Economist magazine not unfavourably described the contemporary leadership as “ardently capitalist communists”. Vietnamese politicians have claimed (as if to help quell their inner demons) that there is simply no alternative to this unsavoury hybrid.
Somewhere in this process throwing out Das Capital and latching onto Thatcherism has also tempered any criticism of the US and other aggressors – such as their trading partner Korea. The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes opened in 1975 was renamed the more internationally-pleasing “War Remnants Museum”. Truth and reconciliation, Hanoi’s great and good have decided, is going to have to wait.
Thankfully there are those with an eye on more than the bottom line. NGOs have been successful in bringing some semblance of normalcy back to the country. Project RENEW is a fine organisation which helps locals in clearing the countryside of unexploded bombs and mines. It could be argued that General LeMay’s threat to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age was, well, spot on – more explosives were dropped on it than Germany during the entirety of WWII (this attack-dog of JFK was also responsible for the fire-bombing of Tokyo). But RENEW is making progress, with many guilt-ridden American veterans volunteering their services.
Christopher Hitchens made his reputation in opposition to the American War on Indochina and, even when he appeared to ally himself with American power years later, this tragic episode maintained a special place in his amygdala. He wrote about the horror in 2006:
Of this Vietnam syndrome, some of us have sworn, there will … be no forgetting, let alone forgiving, while we can still draw breath. But some of the victims of Agent Orange haven’t even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn’t shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs [of its victims] will do.
Spare a thought for that triumphant moment forty years ago and what it meant for the Vietnamese. No one should ever have to endure a victory like that.