Fallen Leaves, Broken Lives

30 years after the fighting stopped in Viet Nam, Agent Orange still wages war


| January-February 2005


VIET NAM: You’ll note that in this article Viet Nam and Ha Noi are both spelled out in two words, as opposed to the Americanized spellings Vietnam and Hanoi. We maintained this spelling at the request of the author. “Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, and all its words consist of one syllable,” Edward Tick says. “When I write about Viet Nam, I use the original spelling as much as possible to restore cultural integrity and return a little of what we have taken through Americanization of the globe. It is small but it counts.”

 

Viet Nam’s endlessly rolling flatlands covered with rice paddies glow an emerald green. The Mekong Delta, stricken with killer floods for the past six summers, is a floating nest of variegated green vegetation. And the mountains of the Central Highlands, with their steep slopes and narrow, snaking highways, are covered with green weeds, scraggly bushes, or quick-growing trees.

This lush living carpet stretches from one end of Viet Nam to the other. But it is deceptive. After one recent visit to Viet Nam, I reported the Delta’s opulence to an American veteran, a “river rat” who had patrolled the muddy Mekong in his deadly boat. “That’s what it first looked like when I arrived in ‘65,” he said. “By the time I left a year later, it was nothing but a wasted moonscape.”

Between 1962 and 1971, in an effort to expose guerrilla forces hiding in forested areas, the United States military sprayed 11.7 million gallons of an herbicide known as Agent Orange on Viet Nam. By Vietnamese count, 4.5 million of 25.5 million acres of forest and 585,000 of 7 million acres of cultivated land were destroyed. The Central Highlands were hit particularly hard: The timberlands, once thick with 120-foot trees, were reduced to matchsticks; the jungles were left muddy and barren.

Viet Nam has made urgent efforts to reclaim and restore its land at the cost of $120 to $200 per acre—a vast sum for an impoverished country in which the per capita income is only about $480 a year. The Vietnamese plant fast-growing but nutrient-sucking eucalyptus trees from Australia on barren mountains away from farmlands. These prevent further erosion and are harvested to make paper. Peasants and cooperatives plant tea, coffee, pepper, and other cash crops. Now plantations, tree farms, or spreading scrub weeds instead of impenetrable jungle constitute the Vietnamese earth’s green swath.