The Things They Left Behind: How the U.S. Laid Waste to Southeast Asia

THE LONG RECKONING: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam, by George Black

The lore of American military logistics celebrates triumphs of sustainment. Take the Civil War “Cracker Line,” a network of wagon roads and pontoon bridges opened in October 1863, which supplied the besieged federal forces at Chattanooga, Tenn.; the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy system established in France in 1944, which moved approximately 12,000 tons of matériel a day for 82 days to supply the Allied advance during World War II; or the monumental staging of the 1991 gulf war, which the general in charge deemed “the largest logistical move in history.”

Such stories typically end with the heroic relief of a starving garrison or the just-in-time resupply of fuel and munitions to keep an army rolling along. But what of the tragic coda: the hazardous mess an army leaves behind to be incinerated — in the toxic burn pits of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example — exploded or salvaged by the local population?

This is one of the questions addressed in George Black’s new book about the legacy of American involvement in Southeast Asia. In “The Long Reckoning,” Black, a British journalist living in New York and the author of several books on foreign policy, unites his areas of expertise in international affairs and the environment to explore a landscape littered with the detritus of war: scrap metal, unexploded ordnance, soil and water contaminated by herbicides Americans sprayed, spilled and dumped over swaths of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Black focuses his attention largely on Vietnam’s Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces along the Laotian border, home to a vital stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail — from the DMZ south into the A Shau Valley. “All the worst legacies of the war were concentrated here,” he writes, “an area smaller than the state of Connecticut.” The United States sprayed 750,000 gallons of chemicals (so-called rainbow herbicides, of which Agent Orange is the most notorious) on Quang Tri and more than 500,000 on the A Shau, in Thua Thien. The nation also unleashed more bombs on Quang Tri alone than had been dropped on Germany during World War II.

A massive defoliation campaign to reduce cover for Vietnamese ambushes, known as Operation Ranch Hand, began in 1961. Soon, the U.S. government began to authorize crop destruction as well. Black describes Ranch Hand as “without precedent in history, using all the tools of science, technology and air power to lay waste to a country’s natural environment.” By contrast, when the destruction of Japan’s rice crop had been proposed in 1944, Adm. William Leahy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chief of staff, “vetoed the idea, saying it ‘would violate every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all known laws of war.’”

Black offers various measures of the resulting devastation to the Vietnam-Laos borderlands. Perhaps none is more suggestive of the magnitude than this statistic: “Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. aircraft flew 580,344 sorties over Laos, which averaged out to one every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.” It was a contest of technological wizardry against grim guerrilla determination and the intractability of weather and topography.

“The Long Reckoning” comprises three parts: “War,” “Peace” and “Redemption.” In the first section Black presents an efficient military and political history. Readers well versed in the ample scholarship on the war years might find much of this material familiar, but Black’s immersion in a particular human geography — his attunement to aspects of terrain, climate, flora and fauna, as well as to the people’s intimate relationship to the land — brings home the enormity of the destruction anew.

This section sets the stage for postwar stories involving individual and communal suffering, diplomatic maneuvering and geopolitical complexity. At the core of the narrative is a small group of figures working to repair their countries and sometimes themselves: veterans like Chuck Searcy and Manus Campbell, both of whom find redemption in humanitarian projects in Vietnam; Adelaide (known as Lady) Borton, Jacqui Chagnon and Roger Rumpf, peace activists with the Quaker American Friends Service Committee; Vietnamese, Canadian and American doctors and scientists; and Charles Bailey of the Ford Foundation. All of them reckon with the challenges of unexploded ordnance, dioxin contamination and rural poverty and dislocation.

Black periodically shifts the scene to the United States to explore “two of the most bitter legacies of the war”: the fate of P.O.W./M.I.A.s and Agent Orange, each “a surrogate for emotions about the war itself.” Regarding the contentious politics of the latter, Black reminds us that for years American officials were prohibited from even speaking “the words ‘Agent Orange’in public, with their insinuation of war crimes, reparations and corporate liability.” Efforts to secure compensation for Americans were also complicated by the scientific challenge of proving causation. The Agent Orange Act, which made ailing veterans eligible to apply for benefits by presuming the link between chemical exposure in theater and subsequent illnesses, was passed in 1991.

It took longer for the United States to acknowledge potential damage done to the health of the Vietnamese, who were “expected to meet an impossible burden of proof that had not been asked of American veterans.” Among the most riveting of the book’s interconnected narratives is a forensic detective story in which scientists, with the help of activists — especially the fearless Lady Borton, equally effective at softening political intransigence behind the scenes and facilitating research in the field — try to figure out how and where the contamination of soil and water occurred in Vietnam and Laos and assess the likelihood of its causing large clusters of birth defects.

Spurred by the findings of researchers, the consciences of politicians such as Senator Patrick Leahy and Vietnam’s emergence as a valuable strategic partner, the United States has undertaken the cleanup of some former bases. Yet, as Black acidly observes, the ribbon-cutting ceremony that launched the remediation project at Bien Hoa in 2019 “made for a simple, stripped-down moral parable. America had done wrong; America had made it right; the story had a happy ending.” Black resists neat endings. Even as he chronicles the meaningful, if unfinished, progress made over the last half-century, he never palliates the horrors of the war.

In his fascinating description of life on the perilous Ho Chi Minh Trail, Black includes a vignette about a North Vietnamese porter. The unnamed man fortified his spirit against hunger, brutal labor, poison clouds of defoliant sprayed from C-123s, napalm and bombs by reciting poems from a volume of Walt Whitman he carried in his rucksack. When his unit captured an American soldier, the porter eagerly sought out the prisoner’s thoughts on “Song of Myself.”

The episode is reminiscent of an ancient story about the survivors of Athens’ catastrophic expedition to Sicily (415-13 B.C.). Starving and dying in stone quarries, the invaders were in some cases offered their freedom in exchange for reciting the verses of Euripides for their Sicilian captors, who were great admirers of the Athenian tragedian. But there’s a twist to Black’s story. The Vietnamese porter seeks the G.I.’s opinion in vain: “The man had never heard of Whitman.” It seems an apt emblem for a war that alienated Americans from their country and themselves.

Elizabeth D. Samet’s most recent book is “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness.”

THE LONG RECKONING: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam |By George Black | Illustrated | 478 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $35

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