In his speech at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the President said the American pullout from Vietnam caused the deaths of millions in Cambodia and Vietnam. Thus spoken, Mr. Bush would have us believe invasion and bloody occupation of sovereign nations is not problematic. Instead, stopping the fighting and leaving the indigenous citizens to their own affairs is the greater evil.
The facts, however, are at variance with Mr. Bush’s statements concerning the suffering of Southeast Asians. Millions of Cambodians died on the "killing fields" because secret American carpet bombing destroyed their nation and created an environment in which armed thugs led by Pol Pot took over unchallenged. In 1969, President Nixon ordered every available American plane into Cambodia to "crack the hell out of them." He wanted them to "hit everything." Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, subsequently transmitted the order to his top aide, Alexander Haig, this way: "Anything that flies on anything that moves." When Cambodia collapsed under the weight of the American Air Force, Prince Sihanouk fled to China, and the bad guys took over. Cambodian life under the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge is well documented.
But what of the Vietnamese people and their other neighbors? In his speech, Mr. Bush spoke of "boat people" and "re-education camps," certainly a chaotic, frightful time for millions of innocent peasants, but Mr. Bush failed to mention that was not the extent of their suffering. The tragic aftermath of the American invasion of Southeast Asia kills and cripples to this day. More than thirty years after the Vietnam War, the misery index rises even though the shooting has long stopped. Historians, scholars, political scientists and high-level government officials have written volumes about America’s experience in Vietnam, and careful examination of a representative sample of this material reveals a wealth of understanding. Estimates range as high as 3,000,000 Vietnamese men, women and children and an additional 1,000,000 Cambodian/Lao were killed or wounded during the fighting, but that’s only the beginning.
Today, vast expanses of once productive Southeast Asian land threaten the native population. Death, disease and disfigurement are embedded in the very soil under their feet. Records show between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed approximately 76,000,000 liters of herbicide (Agents Orange, Green, Pink, Purple and White), 8,800 tons over an area of 6,000,000 square acres, 14% of Vietnam’s land mass. Dioxins, the active family of chemicals in Agent Orange, are known health risks to humans. Sampling studies undertaken in the 1990’s revealed dangerously high levels of contaminant in Vietnamese forests, soil, fishpond sediment, fish and fowl tissue and human blood. Agent Orange Dioxin in human blood samples taken from Vietnamese men and women ranging from twelve to twenty-five years old clearly show the contaminant chemicals have moved up through the food chain into humans.
Science has only begun to catalogue the long-term effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese, but the statistics are frightening. As early as 1970, Saigon’s leading maternity hospital reported a monthly average of 140 miscarriages and 150 premature births in 2800 pregnancies. As compared to others in the region, children living in areas sprayed with Agent Orange were found to suffer three times as many cleft palates, three times as much mental retardation, were three times as likely to have extra fingers or toes and eight times as likely to experience massive abdominal and inguinal hernias. In addition, Vietnamese children living in sprayed areas suffered dwarfism, impaired vision, Down syndrome, heart disorders, enlarged heads and other deformities. Studies show severely affected children rarely lived beyond age twenty.
More is known about the effects of Agent Orange from treating American servicemen, perhaps exposed while flying aircraft that disseminated the contaminant or ground troops caught in the fallout. Doctors treating veterans years even decades after exposure have recorded a procession of life-threatening and life-diminishing symptoms. American Vietnam veterans are far more likely to suffer immune system disorders, soft tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, respiratory cancers, liver disorders and even lower sperm counts. Children born to Vietnam veterans are more prone to birth defects relating to the nervous system, kidneys and oral clefts. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is 400% more likely to occur in infants born to the men and women who served in Vietnam. Anecdotally, friends and family of Vietnam veterans tell stories of their loved one aging decades, seemingly overnight. The veteran’s hair falls out in clumps and what remains turns white. Families report their veteran fathers, mothers, sons and brothers suffer from undiagnosed nerve disorders, irritability, weight loss, palsies and sometimes, sudden, unexplained death.
The Vietnam War misery index can be further expanded to include the estimated 100,000 Southeast Asian men, women and children subsequently killed, maimed or mutilated by unexploded landmines, artillery, bombs, grenades and a variety of other ordnance that lay concealed but still lethal in the forests and rice paddies throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. After the cessation of hostilities, 3,500,000 landmines remained armed and buried in Vietnam. Short on funds and organizational support, in 2004, the Vietnamese government claimed to have cleared 100,000 mines in recent years, but United Nations estimates are closer to 59,000. According to UN officials, landmines in Vietnam are a primary obstacle to its social and economic development. In addition to killing or mutilating thousands of people each year, many of whom are children, their very presence in the countryside impedes the healthy development of millions of others.
In March 1964, five months before the first American bombing raid on North Vietnam, the United States organized a secret bombing campaign in Laos. Using unmarked planes, pilots initially attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the increasingly important Communist supply route from North to South Vietnam. However, as the months passed, the air war intensified, and targets included Laotian villages, which drove a million peasants from their homes. For nine years, Laos was the most bombed country in the world. In 2004, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D Minnesota’s 4th District) testified on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos one every nine minutes for ten years. More than two million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos, double the amount dropped in the European theater during the entirety of World War II. As many as 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode, leaving up to 20 million unexploded submunitions, also known as ‘bombies’ littered throughout the country.
"These American ‘bombies’ may be thirty years old, but they continue to kill and maim children as well as farmers clearing land for planting. In the first five months of 2004, 39 people died and 74 have been maimed by unexploded ordnance. In the thirty years since the end of the Vietnam War, an estimated 10,000 Lao people, including thousands of children, have died. And while Lao families struggle for food and survival, tens of thousands of acres of land cannot be put into agricultural production because the earth has been contaminated with this deadly cluster ordnance."
The negative effects of the American invasion of Southeast Asia ripple across the generations, and similar damage may already be done in Iraq. Researchers have yet to calculate the long term effects of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. Consider this testimony from Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, director of the Oncology Center at the largest hospital in Basra, Iraq at a 2003 conference in Japan: "Two strange phenomena have come about in Basra, which I have never seen before. The first is double and triple cancers in one patient. For example, leukemia and cancer of the stomach. We had one patient with two cancers – one in his stomach and kidney. Months later, primary cancer developed in his other kidney. He had three different cancer types. The second is the clustering of cancer in families. We have 58 families here with more than one person affected by cancer. Dr Yasin, a general Surgeon here, has two uncles, a sister and cousin affected with cancer. Dr Mazen, another specialist, has six family members suffering from cancer. My wife has nine members of her family with cancer.
"Children in particular are susceptible to DU poisoning. They have a much higher absorption rate as their blood is being used to build and nourish their bones, and they have a lot of soft tissues. Bone cancer and leukemia used to be diseases affecting them the most, however, cancer of the lymph system which can develop anywhere on the body, and has rarely been seen before the age of 12, is now also common."
Sadly, thirty years from now, another generation of researchers will examine the aftermath of America’s misadventure in Iraq. We can only hope the politicians of that era will not ignore the facts when making policy.
WILLIAM SCHRODER is a Vietnam veteran and with Dr. Ron Dawe, co-author of Soldier’s Heart: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans.