VIETNAM: 30 years later, war crimes go on and on

Allen Myers, Ho Chi Minh City
27 April 2005

The photographs on the walls of the War Museum in central Ho Chi Minh City are proof, if any more were needed, that the torturing of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers and the wholesale killing of civilians are not “aberrations”. Massive, overwhelming brutality and destruction are standard operating procedures for the US military.

On the walls of the War Museum are countless photographs depicting US war crimes. Many of them were published in major US magazines and newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s. If US citizens were surprised by Abu Ghraib, it is because they have been encouraged to forget what the US government did in Vietnam.

There is a photograph, presumably released by the US Air Force, of a B-52 dropping scores of bombs from tens of thousands of feet above Vietnam — US government officials of the time liked to claim “surgical precision” for their bombing raids. The tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam was greater than the total dropped by all combatants in all theatres of World War II.

There is a photograph of bodies lying in the rubble of a Haiphong hospital, destroyed by US bombing in April 1972.

Another shows a squad of four US soldiers posing with their “trophies”—the heads of two decapitated Vietnamese men.

There are pictures of exploding napalm, and the aftermath: charred bodies scarcely recognisable as human. In another photo, US soldiers stand waiting for fire to finish consuming a village before they enter.

Over and over and over: torture and brutality. A US soldier torturing a Vietnamese peasant with a knife. A Vietnamese man tied by his feet and dragged behind an armoured personnel carrier. A Vietnamese who refused to “cooperate” with interrogators being thrown to his death from a US helicopter.

There are the horrific photographs taken by US photographers at Son My (also called My Lai), where US troops slaughtered 504 unarmed civilians, not sparing even small babies. For this crime, only one soldier, Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted. Sentenced in 1971 to life imprisonment, he was paroled in 1974 by President Richard Nixon.

Agent Orange

Several photographs in the museum show US planes spraying defoliants. One of the purposes of the spraying was to destroy food crops — in itself a war crime against a population that the US pretended to be “defending”.

The most widely used defoliant was known as Agent Orange, a mixture of two herbicides whose chemical names are 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The manufacture of 2,4,5-T always creates small quantities of an impurity, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, “dioxin” for short.

Dioxin is toxic even in minute quantities. The 50 million litres of Agent Orange sprayed over southern Vietnam is estimated to have contained 170 kilograms of dioxin.

Dioxin is also very difficult to remove from the environment. It is almost completely insoluble in water, so it is not diluted by rain. It is soluble in oils, so it tends to concentrate in the fatty tissue of animals or people who ingest it.

In Vietnam, Agent Orange is considered to be the cause of the abnormal number of cancers, skin diseases, foetal deaths and congenital defects that have occurred since the war. Vietnamese statistical studies have found these problems to be far more numerous among people from areas that were sprayed with Agent Orange.

An international conference on dioxin held in Ho Chi Minh City in 1983, attended by scientists from 22 countries, found a frequent occurrence of five congenital malformations that are rare in other countries: nervous system malformation, including anencephaly (absence of part of all of the brain); deformed limbs; deformed eyes, ears and noses; conjoined twins; cleft lip and cleft palate.

Significant numbers of former soldiers in the US and Australia have reported a host of illnesses apparently caused by exposure to Agent Orange. US veterans sued seven companies that manufactured herbicides and eventually won an out-of-court settlement of US$180 million. The government also provided compensation to 1800 veterans harmed by Agent Orange.

But, from the US, there has been no assistance for the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. A few weeks ago, a US judge dismissed a lawsuit by Vietnamese victims against manufacturers of Agent Orange, ruling that the spraying of Agent Orange during the war was not a violation of either US or international law.


Dr Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong is the director of Tu Du Hospital, the major gynaecological and maternity hospital for Ho Chi Minh City and 32 provinces in the south.

Last year, the hospital performed 44,000 deliveries. About two babies a day are born malformed. Many of them do not survive very long after birth. Dr Phuong says the hospital staff usually do not tell the parents the real reason for the baby’s death; they simply say that the baby was “too weak”. They fear that if they tell the truth, husbands will abandon wives who they think are contaminated by dioxin.

Dr Phuong is careful to be balanced in her presentation. Since problem pregnancies are more likely to end up at the hospital, she says, Tu Du’s numbers should not be regarded as representative of the whole of southern Vietnam.

But try explaining statistics to the mother of one baby boy born the night before our visit, who was born with no eyes.

The war ended in 1975, but the effects continue, and no-one knows for how long. Ironically, this baby’s mother was born in that year. Her parents lived in an area sprayed with Agent Orange but seemed to suffer no ill effects. She herself has no known genetic problems, and her first child was normal.

Her eyeless child is thus a third-generation victim of dioxin, if dioxin is the cause.

That “if” is the only defence of the US government and the chemical corporations. After all, nobody can prove that the baby’s missing eyes were a by-product of Washington’s efforts to turn large areas of Vietnam into a desert.

Dr Phuong points out that a test to determine whether the baby’s blood contains dioxin costs US$1000, a huge sum in Vietnam. And if the test were done and confirmed the presence of dioxin, that would still not be regarded as proof. How many children would have to be tested? 1000? 10,000?

And it is even possible that children who are deformed because of dioxin might have no trace of it in their blood. It is conceivable that the children’s conditions are caused by dioxin having damaged their parents’ chromosomes, not by the presence of dioxin in their own bodies. Nobody really knows.

So ignorance is the defence of the US war criminals. Never mind that the US has been forced to compensate its own victims, however inadequately. It can’t be “proved”, at least not yet, that dioxin is the cause. It’s the same pattern that the US displayed in regard to the use of depleted uranium weapons in two wars in Iraq: deny the obvious, say there must be other causes, compensate the US victims if you can’t avoid doing so, but insist “there is no scientific evidence”.

And as an English poet wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise”. On March 22, the English-language Vietnam News reported that the US had cancelled a US-Vietnamese cooperative program to study the effects of Agent Orange and dioxin.

Peace village

Tu Du Hospital is also home to Peace Village, established in 1996 by friends of Vietnam from the German city of Oberhausen. So far, another 12 of the villages have been established to look after the surviving child victims of Agent Orange.

The staff are attentive and affectionate with the children. A few of the children have been trained in ways of coping with their disabilities. One striking example of this was an 11-year-old girl, born with no arms, who was busy at her studies, writing with a pen gripped between her toes.

But many of the children appear to have nervous system or brain disorders accompanying their physical disabilities.

What future is there for the boy about 12, seated on the floor with several much smaller children around a table, eating lunch? His legs end at different lengths somewhere below the knee, not with a stump such as an amputee might have, but shrivelling down, thinner and thinner, until they simply vanish. His left arm similarly disappears around where the elbow should be. His right arm is of normal length, but the hand is like the claw of a crab.

This boy can grip a spoon and feed himself, and he shows an awareness of the visitors, but he is unable to speak real words and can only babble.

Smaller children sit on cots or on the floor, unable to walk on twisted or distorted legs. A boy of three or four standing in his cot has a grossly misshapen head and eyes that bulge from his skull.

Some victims of Agent Orange are no longer children. One of the residents of Peace Village is a man now in his early 20s. He and his brother were conjoined twins; they were surgically separated in 1988. Remarkably, the other brother now leads a normal life. But this brother has only one leg, which extends sideways from his body instead of downward. If he was ever able to interact with people around him, he no longer does so.

In one room four or five children aged about one and a half to three are playing by themselves — sometimes knocking into each other and causing tears as children of that age do, but mostly happy and inquisitive. They appear mentally and physically normal. One little girl, who reminds me of my granddaughter, returns my wave of the hand.

In reply to my question, Dr Phuong explains that these children were born with a variety of internal abnormalities that require continued medical attention.

Mangroves from deserts

Stretching to the south and east of Ho Chi Minh City for 70 or 80 kilometres is an intricate network of waterways, the delta of the Saigon River. The entire area, 70,000 hectares, is mainly mangrove forest, except for the road from Ho Chi Minh City to a beach on the coast.

Today this is the Lam Vien Can Gio Ecotourism Area. The monkeys have learned that here they are a protected species, and they take advantage of their status to steal whatever careless visitors don’t have a tight grip on. There are also crocodiles and pythons, which fortunately do not interact so frequently with tourists.

As well as ecotourism, there is a reconstruction of the encampment of Regiment 10, which existed here during the war. A veteran of Regiment 10, Nguyen Van Tam, describes the regiment’s activities and answers questions.

Regiment 10's assignment was to destroy as many as possible of the enemy boats taking supplies from the coast up the river to the capital. Sometimes aided by guerrillas from local villages, the commandos of Regiment 10 in the course of the war destroyed some 350 boats, mostly by swimming up to them at night and attaching limpet mines.

In 1968, in an effort to combat Regiment 10, the US forces sprayed the area with Agent Orange. There is a photograph in the War Museum: it appears to be a vast lifeless plain, almost a moonscape but dotted by blackened tree stumps.

But the defoliation was not a military success for the US. Tam explained that the mangroves killed by the Agent Orange collapsed upon each other, forming a thick layer above the waterways. Regiment 10's water commandos continued their activities. Previously hidden from view from the air by foliage, now they were hidden by the mass of fallen trees.

Today the 70,000 hectares are again thick with mangroves. In some cases, villagers replanted particular areas, but most is natural regeneration. Animal life is not yet back to previous levels, but that may still happen.

To walk and boat through jungle that had been laid waste such a short time before was reassuring. Just as the Vietnamese had defeated US imperialism, perhaps nature, in a different way, is doing so too.

But despite appearances, it is not at all certain that nature has won. Fortunately there was not a large human population in the area when it was sprayed, but most of the dioxin must still be there, in the alluvial mud of the delta. It is just as deadly and persistent — maybe more so — as the radioactivity the US has scattered around Iraq.

The same system that did its best to annihilate Vietnam and Iraq is still in place and busily engaged in developing even more destructive weapons — while trying to convince fools that this will protect them from “terrorism”. It will continue committing war crimes as long as it is allowed to do so.