Last Ghost: Scientific, Environmental, And Social Legacies Of Agent Orange In Vietnam



In August of 2016, I attended the International Scientific Seminar on Agent Orange/Dioxin, held in Hanoi, at the invitation of veteran activist Phung Tuu Boi, who contributed a paper on his efforts in landscape restoration in the remote A Luoi Valley over the past 50 years. Boi and a handful of colleagues were among the first scientists to do research on the environmental impacts of the toxic defoliant following the war, but such concerns were later eclipsed by more urgent questions about human health impacts and remediating hotspots where people were exposed to dioxin during the war and for many years after it. As a landscape designer looking for perspective on postwar landscapes more broadly, I was particularly struck by the seminar’s dual themes of “environment” and “public health,” an attempt to approach the very charged questions of causality and responsibility from their two opposed domains (the natural and the social) and find the always elusive point of contact between them.

The scientific conference seemed to be symbolic of a larger political shift — that after decades of stalemate, American, Vietnamese, and other international authorities had finally found some common ground for productive dialogue and cooperation. The event was organized by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), an advocacy group notorious for its attempt in 2004 to sue U.S. chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange including Monsanto and Dow Chemical. The official excuse for inaction, in that case and in all those preceding it, was a supposed absence of definitive proof of Agent Orange’s harmful effects on human health, a problem that is easily exacerbated by a lack of transparency or scientific rigor, as well as propaganda, corruption, and even cases of fraud. In response to this inaction from the U.S. government responsible, VAVA members found it necessary to build a forum for investigators and activists to construct and compare their own evidence. Unsurprisingly, some of the most visible advocates for the consequences of Agent Orange are not expert scientists, but political organizers — which is not to say that there is no factual basis for the claims or that those working on Agent Orange are motivated by political reasons alone. The reality of a messy rather than objective science does, however, illuminate the problematic role that science as a discipline has played in politics, from the development of Agent Orange as a means of control over nature itself to contemporary environmental policies designed for the control of people and society.

Vo Funambulist 5
An Agent Orange landscape in transition: Former A So Special Forces base and Agent Orange Museum. / Photographs by Ylan Vo (2016).

The war between the United States and Vietnam, fought primarily between 1961 and 1975, remains the archetypal example of war-related environmental abuses that continue to impact natural ecologies and economies long after the conflict itself has ceased. Agent Orange was deployed as part of a broader strategy by the U.S. military to damage the environment its enemy depended on for cover and sustenance, and between 1965 and 1971, up to 12.1 million gallons (41 million liters) of the chemical were sprayed over the forests and farmland of South Vietnam. Though Agent Orange has in recent years become a subject of intense focus by the media, national governments, and humanitarian efforts, the language surrounding its effects — from the ongoing “contaminations” in the environment to the “deformities” in the human figure it causes — cannot adequately capture the full scope of what we talk about when we talk about Agent Orange. Our reliance on science has limited us to looking for particular material evidence, without recognizing the embedded roles of representation and the social as well.

Considering the popular story of Agent Orange as a phenomenon, there is a simultaneous reduction and amplification that occurs that links local and global scales, while also moving between the material and the representational. Building knowledge or evidence requires a reduction — narrowing of vision to an otherwise complex and difficult reality. This brings it needed measurement and materiality, but is amplified through the ability to generalize so a phenomenon becomes legible at social and political scales. Rather than only seeking certainty through science, we should examine from the perspective of the landscape for an expanded understanding of impacts and evidence.

Wartime Impacts ///

A Luoi is a district in central Vietnam situated along the Chaine Annamitique mountain range and crossed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an elaborate network of roads, footpaths, supply dumps, and command posts used by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the war to launch supply and support operations from the interior, and stage attacks on the Hue area during the 1968 Tet offensive. On the two-dimensional plane of the map, the valley’s location — situated between the demilitarized zone to the north, the former capital of Hue to the west, Laos to the east — made it a bitterly contested hotspot during the war.

U.S. military reports from campaigns in the densely forested valley refer to it as “the shroud that hid the enemy.” NVA and Viet Cong fighters consciously used the dense canopy of leaves, as well as relief changes in the terrain, to misdirect and evade surveillance from the air. Trails were covered over with local materials, and bomb craters were camouflaged and repurposed as storage pits. In this sense, A Luoi served as both a literal and figurative battleground, where a tactical arms race occurred between the NVA in its ability to adapt to the environment and the U.S. in its efforts to overcome the it with sophisticated modern technologies. These included, along with Agent Orange, remote sensing and aerial reconnaissance photography. U.S. forces heavily bombed the area and sprayed Agent Orange as many as eleven times across the main parts of the valley. Spraying was concentrated near U.S. bases and where there were NVA roads and communication routes, and where it was easier for herbicide spray airplanes to maneuver above the valley floor and lower hillsides.

The use of Agent Orange, the so-called “war against the environment,” and other military actions were effectively a war against the people, resulting in significant population shifts across Vietnam. As forests and crops were deliberately targeted, rural populations began flowing into the cities of South Vietnam, and caused rapid urbanization in the region between 1958 and 1971. In A Luoi, inhabitants fled the hills for the valley floor, where they could cultivate smaller plots of land in refuge areas. This brought various minority groups into regular contact with the ethnic majority Kinh population for the first time. As they were less able to depend on forest resources and a traditional shifting-cultivation agricultural technique for their livelihood, displaced A Luoi inhabitants adopted new practices such as fish and rice farming, taking advantage of the sloping landscape by digging with gravity-fed irrigation ponds. The destruction of the war likewise gave the Kinh majority access to the mountains, where a suite of government programs was implemented in the 1990s to encourage crop cultivation and resettlement. Such initiatives came with the added benefit of helping the Vietnamese government secure its border with Laos. But as the country’s growing population put pressure on the already damaged ecosystem, the poverty and deforestation in A Luoi were only exacerbated in the decades following the war.

Vo Funambulist 2
“Landscape as Evidence.” / Diagram/poem by Ylan Vo (2015) (sources: International Scientific Seminar on Agent Orange/Dioxin – Table of Contents; Bruno Latour).

Hotspots ///

The legacy of war and the reality of the altered landscape are at their most apparent in the Agent Orange hotspots of the A Luoi valley, where after 50 years the soil remains contaminated by the toxic residue left behind at the former Special Forces bases where the chemical was stored. Poor disposal efforts, spillage, and breaches of the barrels during the NVA invasion of the A So Special Forces base in 1966 have made the concentration of dioxin in the soil especially high. Though the chemical breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight, dioxin a few centimeters under the surface bind to soil and is transported in sediment, causing it to spread from contamination sites during rainfall and erosion events, eventually settling for decades in depressions like ponds and bomb craters. Today, the most common exposure pathway is through food contamination, as dioxin accumulates in the fat of fish and ducks feeding in sediment on bottom of contaminated ponds, and livestock who graze the land and ingest soil. 

Vo Funambulist 4
Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam by the U.S. Army between 1965 and 1971. / Map by Ylan Vo (2017).

In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government contracted Hatfield Consultants, a Canadian firm specializing in environmental monitoring and remediation, to do the country’s first ever comprehensive human, animal, and soil testing for dioxin contamination. The first location chosen was a hotspot in A Luoi located on the former A So airbase, which was settled in 1991 by 95 Pako households, establishing Dong Son Commune near the airfields and bomb crater ponds to take advantage of the flat site and water source. Hatfield discovered dioxin levels at more than 200 times the residential limit set by the EPA (5ppt), and the 26 households with the highest risk of exposure were relocated by the government, while a new water system was built for the commune that drew from unaffected upland streams.

The A So area today is an open savannah, bearing traces of both the firepower of the Vietnam War and the ill-fated community that tried to live there decades later, whose abandoned acacia plantations and rice fields slowly go to seed. The newest addition to the landscape is what Boi calls a “green fence” — a dense planting of thorny Gleditschia australis trees around the most contaminated site in the community, designed to keep livestock and people from being further exposed, as well as to call attention to the continued presence of dioxin and the need for remediation. Planted in 2007 by Boi and the Hanoi-based Center for Assistance in Nature Conservation and Community Development, the green fence is a modest response to a crisis that sets a precedent for landscape interventions to be participatory, locally-scaled, and economically productive. While effectively mediating the spread and exposure to dioxin surrounding the hotspot, the green fence is also a living material, whose fruits can be used to produce soaps, shampoo, and medicinal drugs.

It is tempting to think, as the U.S. government does, that dioxin hotspots are simply the most reasonable place to focus a limited amount of time and money, while dismissing the human health impacts as too complex to address in terms of both attributing symptoms to exposure and apportioning blame. But unlike in other hotspots — like Phu Cat, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa, where USAID-funded remediation projects are underway — the remote and rural context of A Luoi does not lend itself to straightforward engineering solutions. Where people and animals live off the land, patterns of contact and exposure cannot be contained by engineered caps and ditches. Despite technical obstacles, remediation that responds to social context is especially necessary in A Luoi because of the stigma that accompanies agricultural products coming from the district. It does a further disservice to A Luoi’s inhabitants when the entire district is represented as a contaminated “hotspot” in the public realm. Even if the risk of exposure can be contained, the economic livelihood of A Luoi’s poor inhabitants remains critically at risk.

Vo Funambulist 1
“Wartime Ecology.” / Map by Ylan Vo (2017).

Landscape Dynamics ///

When Boi first came to A Luoi in 1978, he encountered a landscape with bare hillsides dominated by invasive species of grass the Vietnamese collectively refer to as “American grass.” Found mostly on lower slopes, these grasses were inhibiting the natural regrowth of the forest that had been damaged by Agent Orange. After working for nearly 40 years on the interrelated issues of chemical contamination, reforestation, and alleviating post-war poverty, Boi notes that things have made a turn for the better in recent years. The hills are greener than they have been since the war, a modern district center and a nascent ecotourism economy have brought new prosperity, and the continuing challenge of Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam has drawn significantly more international attention.

What I saw in 2016 was a patchwork across the landscape of A Luoi, from the older forests on the higher ridges, to the groups of saplings on the lower slopes, to the cleared plots, rice paddies, and cassava fields on the valley floor. Anything that looks like a forest is classified by the government as either “Protected” (to preserve watersheds and control erosion), “Special Use” (for the creation of national parks and reserves for endangered species), or “Production” (for highly profitable tree plantations). The most common plantation crop is Acacia mangium, an exotic hybrid species from Australia and New Guinea that is used primarily for paper pulp and commercial furniture. Along with their fast rate of growth, ability to grow in poor conditions, resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance to dry conditions, acacias are able to replenish the soil and rhizosphere over time. Although these plantations don’t support the native biodiversity of the region, ecologists support their implementation as a way to rehabilitate degraded lands and raise overall forest cover while generating income for the local people.

Vietnam is widely celebrated as a country that has made a successful “forest transition,” moving from net deforestation rates to overall net afforestation. Following the extreme devastation wrought by Agent Orange and the logging industry in the decades after the war, the Vietnamese government introduced a suite of new initiatives to replant its forests as part of the country’s Doi Moi economic reforms in 1986. With the help of the Five Million Hectare Reforestation Program and its predecessor Program 327 (“Greening the Barren Hills”), A Luoi has seen a proliferation of industrial tree crops, roughly half of which are managed by state-run forestry companies, with the rest being divided between individual households and smallholder plantations. The program also empowers the government with mechanisms of intervention including the power to move populations and tax economic activities, along with offering incentives to replant forests or protect species. While enabling interventions that would likely be unpopular on their own, policies aimed at improving the environment are less controversial because they supersede social issues with the supposed objectivity of science and data.

Beginning immediately after the war’s end in 1975, ethnic minorities who were living in upland regions such as A Luoi were resettled by the national government through the enforcement of strict new policies that outlawed their shifting-cultivation agriculture, forcefully changing the source of the population’s livelihood to harvesting wet rice in permanent settlements with irrigation infrastructure built by the government. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, once just a makeshift route passing through a rugged terrain, has in turn become a powerful economic pathway connecting the western highlands to Vietnam’s urban centers, and from there to the rest of the world. This is undoubtedly a kind of urbanization; agriculture and forest management have changed dramatically over the last few decades, transforming into a practice of targeting nature and the landscape as a means of shaping people and society. The success of its afforestation efforts and the apparent “re-naturalization” of the landscape is what connects Vietnam to the new global networks of conservation and development in the open-market era. The landscape is not a neutral background upon which events take place, but the very means by which conflicts and ideologies unfold.

Vo Funambulist 3 1
Postwar Ecology. / Map by Ylan Vo (2017).

Landscape as Evidence ///

Just feet away from the green fence at the abandoned A So airfield is a small museum, which opened to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the defeat of American forces in A So. A former security building now holds items from a collection of over one hundred military artifacts, memorabilia, and photographs donated by community members for the project. Though few seem satisfied with the results — the project was rushed to be completed in time — there is also hope that the exhibition will be the first step in a kind of landscape-based collection of evidence, which testifies to the reality of Agent Orange as both a “remnant” of a war gone by and a continually evolving crisis. The A So area is one of three zones proposed for a living-museum in A Luoi. The central zone near the district center will feature a visitor’s center, an exhibition room, and educational spaces for the general public to learn about the history of Agent Orange and its present-day impacts. The lower valley will host an environmental research center that will monitor both natural forest regeneration on contaminated lands and sample plots for various remediation and afforestation techniques to be tested. The upper valley location will contain a medical facility that will research the effects of Agent Orange exposure and treat those who are affected by it.

The human victims of Agent Orange will always be the most tragic and pressing manifestation of the crisis as a whole. Many of the photographs of birth defects and physical deformities shown at the A So museum are the same ones that were presented in Hanoi at the International Scientific Seminar, but in A Luoi they are recognized as neighbors and family members, rather than abstract casualties. More than memorializing history in situ, the modest exhibition positions the entire district of A Luoi as a museum of living testimonies. Viewing the landscape as evidence doesn’t present the simple cause-effect links that are the purview of science, but it does offer an opportunity for a kind of healing, without framing people as victims.

Vo Funambulist 4
Land Use Transformations 1965-Present. / Diagram by Ylan Vo (2017).

Conclusion ///

So what does a landscape perspective offer where science falls short? What can we learn about the legacy of war when we consider the landscape itself as evidence? Seeing the landscape of A Luoi as evidence is only the latest of many mechanisms that have leveraged the environment as tool for designing this rural territory from an abstract frame of reference. Through its use of Agent Orange, the Vietnam War served for the U.S. Military as an operational testing ground for an environmental security doctrine preoccupied with identifying insurgents in an incomprehensible territory. The kind of transformation I saw in A Luoi seems to be a natural outgrowth of this militaristic approach — the creation of access and the building of infrastructure for security (visibility, monitoring), the displacement of populations, and the integration with a global means of resource extraction and industrial production. How do we intervene in these systems to challenge how the landscape is made legible to agents of power? We must do more than punish a few culpable individuals or corporations. Rather, we must fundamentally redefine the basis for social-natural landscapes by identifying the distributed sources and impacts of environmental trauma.

Beyond the technical challenges of remediating A Luoi’s persistent dioxin hotspots, it is also important to empower the Pa Ko, Katu, and Ta Oi peoples whose livelihoods and cultures continue to be transformed alongside the environment. It seems plausible that the very landscape of A Luoi, with its enchanting waterfalls and natural hot springs that are quickly attracting the attention of the tourism industry, might be the political forum though which to reclaim the territories of the dispossessed, render justice to the victims of Agent Orange exposure, and provide sustainable livelihoods. The U.S. now recognizes an increasingly important strategic ally in Vietnam, as marked by President Obama’s visit last year and his direct remarks concerning the need to address the ongoing effects of Agent Orange. Activists and victims’ advocates have so far been unable to effectively leverage scientific and legal tools against the producers of the chemical, yet even in the wake of a failed lawsuit, VAVA and domestic and foreign media have been able to shape a moral narrative, gain tremendous humanitarian support, and bring Agent Orange out of the shadows of history.