|Vietnam Veterans of America|
For many Americans, the Vietnam War ended when the last troops returned home on March 29, 1973. From that moment on, the day-to-day events of the war receded from headlines until Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.
While the closure of American bases and the final collapse of the Saigon government brought a formal end to the war, it opened up new problems for the postwar government: what to do with millions of acres of land that either through warfare or base operations were contaminated with toxic waste and unexploded ordnance. U.S. forces and their allies, not to mention communist forces, dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than all the bombs dropped in World War II.
The communist Vietnamese government has worked for almost 50 years to clean up and breathe new life into old military sites. This work initially relied on thousands of scrap metal collectors, many of whom suffered injuries or died in the process. Since the res-toration of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995, the Vietnamese have welcomed help from U.S. aid, veterans groups, and many non-governmental organizations to replant forests and clean up toxic chemicals.
Today, former mega-bases such as the U.S. Army’s Long Binh Post have been repurposed into industrial parks and are thriving as export processing zones. Old military runways, as in the United States, are now bustling with cargo aircraft serving a global logistics supply chain. In the hills of central Vietnam, once-embattled mountains such as Hamburger Hill in the A Shau Valley and Khe Sanh are now covered in tree and coffee plantations and serve as gateways for cross-border trade and tourism. New towns have sprung up on mountain highway junctions such as A Luoi and Lao Bao. Today, tourists are hard pressed to visualize the old war landscape amid the boom in economic development during the last two decades.
AN UNKNOWN STORY
The story of the base “footprints” in Vietnam and what happened after the American bases closed is largely unknown. But the Vietnamese experience may be instructive as American bases close in Iraq and Afghanistan and transition to other uses. Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) happened suddenly and haphazardly in Vietnam in the early 1970s, and the rapid evacuation of American troops had dire effects in South Vietnam and at home as many domestic bases also downsized, cutting tens of thousands of military jobs.
BRAC also coincided with the beginning of toxic-waste cleanups at home; military bases were among the worst-polluted sites. Since the 1980 passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as Superfund, the process of base realignment and environmental remediation has evolved into a global industry. The U.S. government remains legally responsible for cleaning up its domestic bases and overseas facilities, but not former war zones and overseas bases transferred to host nations.
Increasingly, though, Congress has responded to international and domestic pressure to extend technical and financial support to these foreign sites, including former bases in Vietnam. Former American base sites now benefit from decades of technical experience on cleanups as local and state authorities work to retool them for civilian use.
Despite these successes at the large former bases, many challenges remain. Nowhere in Vietnam are debates over these military footprints more complex than in the central region near the former demilitarized zone, especially in the mountains near Laos and along the coastal highway running south from Quang Tri to Hue and Danang. Covering an area roughly the size of Orange and San Diego Counties in California, these two provinces were subjected to more bombing during the Vietnam War than just about any other place on Earth. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, the U.S. Military Assistance Command deployed thousands of troops to the area, and new bases such as Camp Eagle and Phu Bai Combat Base mushroomed into virtual cities.
They were nerve centers for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and XXIV Corps with a dozen helipads supporting a network of firebases on mountaintops and large-scale combat operations. Phu Bai Airfield near Hue supported fixed-wing operations, and a Radio Research Unit there coordinated B-52 strikes inland. Camp Eagle was home to more than 10,000 troops.
For three years until these bases abruptly closed in February 1972, their combined area and troop population was larger than the city of Hue. Built on “dead land”—sand dunes and treeless hills dotted with cemeteries—these bases offered a stark contrast to life in the surrounding villages. Grids of electric and water lines followed dirt roads into enormous makeshift camps with wooden barracks and pre-fab hangars. One resident in a neighboring village described Camp Eagle “like New York—bright lights like crazy.”
And then, beginning in January 1972, the 101st redeployed and the bases turned into ghost towns. The 101st came home as part of President Nixon’s Vietnamization effort to replace American ground forces with ARVN troops. The base closure and transfer at Eagle—documented extensively in photographs, reports, and news media—may have boosted Nixon’s re-election chances and helped his diplomatic mission to the People’s Republic of China, but it was nothing short of a disaster for the ARVN.
South Vietnamese generals and President Nguyen Van Thieu were furious over the condition of the transferred bases, which were little more than ruins. American contractors such as Pacific Architects & Engineers had removed power plants and water treatment systems, while American units had moved communications centers, fire trucks, and air conditioners to rear bases. The ARVN’s Inspector General ordered a detailed survey of the bases.
One week before Nixon met Mao in Beijing, the ARVN 1st Division’s generals held a press conference in Hue to highlight their troubles. They showed reporters the demolished bases and a bill from the United States for “land improvements” at Camp Eagle and Phu Bai totaling more than $4 million. The ARVN 1st Division relocated its headquarters to the old Camp Eagle and took responsibility for defending the base perimeters as well as most of the region north to the DMZ.
North Vietnamese Army forces took advantage of this power vacuum and quickly massed troops north of the DMZ and in the A Shau Valley just 50 kilometers west of Hue. This action, which included well over 100,000 troops, was in preparation for a spring-summer 1972 offensive. While Americans at home followed Nixon’s trip to China, ARVN generals sounded the alarm about the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive.
On March 30, 1972, more than 40,000 NVA troops marched with several hundred tanks across the DMZ and down Highway 1 to Quang Tri. Thousands more in Laos moved east down Highway 9 past Khe Sanh, overpowering ARVN forces defending the former U.S. Marine base before connecting with forces in Quang Tri. In the A Shau Valley, thousands of communist troops moved east to Highway 547, the single embattled highway connecting the mountainous valley to Hue.
The same road that American forces had worked so diligently to extend inland in a bid to control the Highlands now posed a threat to Hue as enemy troops with tanks pushed toward the coast. Firebase Bastogne, one of the 101st Airborne’s most important outposts, was the only fortified point blocking the NVA advance to Hue. ARVN 1st Division troops on the hill took heavy artillery fire and held it for several months while U.S. planes dropped wave after wave of bombs around it.
The Easter Offensive lasted almost seven months and levied a devastating toll on communist troops, as well as on ARVN units. The map below, derived from a U.S. Air Force database of historic bombing missions, shows the unprecedented but unsustainable intensity of American bombing at the chokepoints of Quang Tri and Bastogne.
Every dot in the map represents a U.S. bombing mission that took place between March 30 and October 22, 1972. The missions varied from a single rocket strike of 300 lbs. to high-altitude carpet bombing by three or four B-52s carrying payloads of 10 to 15 tons each. More than 256,000 tons of bombs were dropped during those six months. To put that in perspective, the United States dropped approximately 500,000 tons of bombs in the entire Pacific Theater (including Japan) during World War II and 635,000 tons of bombs over Korea in the Korean War. Badly mauled remnants of the NVA finally retreated north of the DMZ and the offensive ended. In the A Shau Valley, however, ARVN forces never recovered.
ENVIRONMENTAL & SOCIAL ‘GHOSTS’
What this history of base operations and episodes of intense bombing meant in environmental terms is almost unimaginable, even today. Until the mid-1990s, when the Vietnamese government began allowing private land leases for forestry, the hills in central Vietnam were deeply eroded, treeless moonscapes. For decades after the war, travelers could easily find metal pieces from the shelling and glimpse rusting skeletons of tanks and APCs. The white sand dunes around Quang Tri were pockmarked by perfectly circular ponds—old bomb craters filled with water.
While most of the wreckage is no longer visible, invisible effects persist. In one of the poorest regions of Vietnam many people continue to struggle with injuries from unexploded ordnance and from health problems widely attributed to exposures to toxic chemicals.
Fortunately today, incidences of injury are becoming rarer, while improved medical testing and research has helped identify cancers and degenerative diseases much earlier. The immediate, toxic legacies of the war in such places as Quang Tri and the A Shau Valley are finally fading. Nevertheless, environmental and social “ghosts” of the war, as in historic war zones everywhere, make frequent appearances.
The war’s relics not only disrupt new construction projects but sometimes even festive social occasions. A Vietnamese friend recounted a tale of his wedding: His bride’s father cut down and milled a giant jackfruit tree to provide highly decorative, mahogany-like trim for the young couple’s new home. Upon delivering the wood, the father-in-law cursed the lumber, saying he’d gone through 15 saw blades because metal shrapnel peppered the tree. This image of a jackfruit tree with shrapnel inside its living branches highlights the complex ways that physical legacies of war are still layered into everyday life.
As an environmental historian and a specialist in Vietnamese history, I set out as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011 to study these social, political, and ecological processes. My main question was: How has “militarization”—a term used to describe military processes from political and tactical events to cultural and ecological changes—shaped landscapes and influenced postwar land development? As I walked former base sites, studied with local experts, and researched official American and Vietnamese records, the picture of the war’s environmental legacies grew increasingly complicated.
My first lesson in “militarization studies” came on a motorbike when, as I retraced local roads that had once run through Camp Eagle, I inadvertently drove through the open gate of an active Army base. I’d neglected to take into account one of the most obvious facts about former military bases: They often continue to serve the same purpose. After profuse apologies and showing my credentials, I managed to extricate myself. The commanding officer turned out to be friendly and we stayed in touch. I shared U.S. Army records of the base areas with him, including detailed aerial photographs, which helped efforts to locate landfills and potential chemical hotspots.
Today in Vietnam the re-purposing of former bases brings up many of the same issues as BRAC does in the United States. Local municipalities, state governments, and military organizations must work out agreements over access, responsibility for cleanups, and how to balance civilian needs with military uses.
TOXIC WASTE HAZARDS & LAND DISPUTES
The chemical legacies of the war have been, until very recently, dominated by concerns over Agent Orange, but local governments in Vietnam are now turning to more comprehensive action like the Superfund cleanups in the U.S. As industrial land prices rise in Vietnam’s export-driven economy, people are finally considering the full spectrum of hazards posed by toxic waste. These include industrial chemicals—solvents, heavy metals, propellants, and pesticides—as well as tactical chemicals in addition to Agent Orange.
One of the most concerning war chemicals is a powdered concentrate used to produce tear gas, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile or CS. American forces dropped CS in 55-gallon drums from helicopters in “smoke drops” to flush enemy troops from underground bunkers. Stockpiles were destroyed by burying the drums in ravines. Caches of the drums recently have been uncovered in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, often with lethal consequences as the highly caustic powdered chemical can cause lesions or asphyxiation when inhaled.
I quickly learned in Vietnam that, as with former military sites in the U.S., land disputes are intensely local affairs. After 1975 the NVA formally took control of the military bases previously operated by the ARVN and the Americans. This transfer of several million acres of land derived, in many cases, from a long history of basing agreements, including the 1972 base transfer of Camp Eagle. Some bases and training areas dated back to French colonial-era military sites. Other properties were built during the Japanese military occupation in World War II.
In 1975 the victors inherited all of these agreements. The NVA became Vietnam’s single largest landlord. As privatization of surplus lands began in the late 1990s, local grievances about past land seizures resurfaced. The downsizing of these bases in the 2000s has in many cases re-opened old wounds as villages seek to reclaim historic cemeteries and cultural sites before industrial parks or other private users can claim them.
Especially in central Vietnam where flat land is scarce, disputes have centered around the hills fringing the coast. Since the 1600s family tombs have been located in the deforested hills behind the villages and above the rice fields that stretch out across the coastal plain. While these bare, hilly lands had little value, they were symbolically important as each tomb served as an anchor for village families whose identity is deeply connected to their ancestral past.
As bases such as Camp Eagle were created, the U.S. military seized these “dead lands” because taking residential or farm lands would have been a political nonstarter. In 1966, when the first U.S. construction battalions started to bulldoze the tombs to clear space for bases, a minor insurrection followed. So from then until 1972, the tombs remained as American troops worked in the midst of what everyone understood were village cemeteries.
Since the war’s end—especially with the exodus of refugees and more recent migrations of young people to booming cities—these ancestral tombs have attracted special attention as a focal point for many families that had been scattered by the war and its aftermath. Restoring ancestral tombs, even those located in this contested military land, has become an important component for overseas descendants reconnecting with relatives and their home villages. For millions of Vietnamese living in big cities and abroad, the annual Tet holiday is a time for visits to ancestral villages and family tombs.
In the hills, the privatization of former military lands is further complicated by the claims of indigenous groups. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of roads and bunkers that supplied the communist forces, also brought several million ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese) into areas that before 1950 were home to more than fifty indigenous groups with unique languages and cultures.
After 1975 the Hanoi government, anxious to protect its mountainous borders and develop the region, encouraged Vietnamese lowlanders to settle there. NVA veterans and their descendants received preferential treatment in acquiring leases of forest land. Companies tied to the military continue to play a major role in managing forestry, mining, and other enterprises close to the border areas. Repeated protests by Highland minorities have shifted this balance somewhat as indigenous communities have expanded economic opportunities through a rapid boom in domestic tourism.
The postwar environmental fate of old bases and heavily bombed areas in Vietnam shares many problems in common with former bases in the United States and elsewhere—conflicts over who will pay for cleanups and who will benefit from economic revitalization. However, de-militarizing old lands is, like most politics, a local problem. Returning land to local governments to resell or hold often triggers long-standing differences about who should benefit. And this question has become especially interesting as a younger generation today enjoys more freedom and can travel to Vietnam’s cities and throughout Southeast Asia.
I am reminded of a trip with American students and a Vietnamese ecologist to the former A Shau Special Forces Base and a nearby village. Unlike most of these sites now converted to forests and fields, that base’s old runway and circular, water-filled bomb craters are still visible. A dioxin hotspot has prevented the commune from reusing this precious flat land.
The village chairman, a Ta Oi indigenous person, welcomed our group and told us that many people had come there offering medical help setting up poorly supplied clinics, and collecting DNA samples. “We don’t want or need anyone poking needles in us,” he said. “What we need today are tests to prove that our ducks, eggs, and produce are clean.”
The village’s association with Agent Orange research has produced a stigma that continues to have an economic impact on residents. When we walked through the village and returned to the wide-open vista of the runway, the chairman suggested that, since the old military landscapes had been “erased” everywhere else, maybe his villagers should keep theirs. Given their economic hardship as an “Agent Orange village,” perhaps they could make lemonade out of lemons, becoming a center for future generations of war tourists.
What was once unimaginable—the disappearance of hundreds of sites such as A Shau and the diminishing presence of toxic chemicals and ordnance—is now increasingly common. This is, undoubtedly, a good thing for the people and communities still struggling to move past the legacies of the war and grow their economies.
However, sites such as A Shau cause many people—especially veterans of that war—to pause. Perhaps the targeted preservation of A Shau or the embattled Bastogne firebase, now hidden under a thick planting of acacia trees, can serve an important purpose—memory—for the future.
David Biggs is a Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside. He is the author of Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2010) and Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam (2018). Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the second book is now open-access and available for purchase or as a free, downloadable pdf at the University of Washington Press or at https://www.jstor.org Biggs’ other essays can be found at http://davidbiggs.net
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