Vietnam: Of Courage and Pain (Part 2)

(A JoP compilation)

The people of Vietnam waged a people’s war to defeat imperialists’ war in Vietnam (1954-1975). The Vietnam people’s principled stand, courage, sacrifice and suffering, tenacity and creativity, and organization, leadership, planning and far-sightedness stand as an example in the world anti-imperialist struggle.

Still the people of Vietnam have suffered the pain of that war. It is unimaginable pain. The people in the U.S. also had to suffer as cannon fodder to the imperialist war. They are still suffering also.

The people of Vietnam showed their courage, willingness and capacity to stand against imperialism, to defend their country and their way of life. They stood for national liberation, reunification of their country, non-interference in their society, and peace.

The people’s historic struggle stood as a lesson for all to learn. Their struggle stood as a struggle to defend the world people, humanity. With their heroic struggle against imperialism, the people of Vietnam contributed to world peace.

On April 30, 1975, imperialism had to accept a humiliating defeat, and had to run away from Vietnam. The way it ran away was like a joker. The following reports, in part 2, tell only a fragment of Vietnam’s struggle and suffering:

Report 4

The legacy of Agent Orange

A Reuters report said:

“As April 30 approaches, marking 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, the people in Vietnam with severe mental and physical disabilities still feel the lingering effects of Agent Orange.

“Respiratory cancer and birth defects amongst both Vietnamese and U.S. veterans have been linked to exposure to the defoliant. The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange onto Vietnam’s jungles during the conflict to expose northern communist troops.

Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj traveled through Vietnam to meet the people affected, four decades on.

1

“If you are on the plane taking off from Danang airport in Vietnam, look through the window on your right – between the departure building and the yellow wall separating the airport from densely populated neighborhoods – you will see an ugly scar on the already not very pretty face of the Vietnam War.

“This is where barrels of Agent Orange were kept in the airport U.S. military used to spray the defoliant across the country. Now, more than forty years later, the spot is finally being decontaminated.

2

“When covering an anniversary, it’s easy to fall into the trap of a “before and after” cliché or, even worse, to try to do something different but irrelevant.

“Even so, I wanted to do a story on the legacy of Agent Orange. There were several raised eyebrows around me, as colleagues asked: Couldn’t I find something new instead of retelling a story told over and over already?

3

“I can’t say where and when I heard it but I remember the advice well: no matter how many times the story has been done and how many people have done it, do it as if you are the first and only one to witness it. I listened to this advice so many times in the past and I listened to it now.

“Such assignments have rules, among the most important being the longer you spend in the unknown, the more chance you have of getting strong pictures.

“So a Vietnamese colleague and I set off to travel around Vietnam, a country stretching more than 1,500 kilometres from north to south, with a great many people still affected by Agent Orange.

4

“The Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) told Reuters that more than 4.8 million people in Vietnam have been exposed to the herbicide and over 3 million of them have been suffering from deadly diseases.

“But soon after I started taking pictures and talking to victims and their relatives, I realised I would need to think again about how to do this story. My immediate and natural reaction was to get closer, almost into the face of a victim, to show what has happened to human bodies.

5

“A forensic photography approach, almost. In a hospice outside Hanoi, after a few strong portraits of a kid born with no eyes and other victims whose bodies are horribly twisted, my original plan felt wrong. The faces and eyes in the pictures hurt; the focus is there but I may be missing things around, possibly even the story itself.

“I wanted to put it all in the context of today’s Vietnam, forty years on. To see victims of the second and third generations, where and how they live. To learn why children and grandchildren of people affected are still being born with disabilities, to find out if people know about the dangers, and if so when did they found out.

Former soldier Nguyen Hong Phuc, 63, sits on the bed with his son Nguyen Dinh Loc, 20
Former soldier Nguyen Hong Phuc, 63, sits on the bed with his son Nguyen Dinh Loc, 20

“And to take pictures of all that.

“As we got closer to the former front lines traveling from the north, the number of cases increased. We kept in touch with VAVA, the main association helping victims, and they gave us much needed information, including the number of victims and where they live.

“Throughout the assignment, VAVA and other local officials together with family members confirmed that the health conditions of people we met and photographed are linked to Agent Orange as their parents or grandparents were exposed to it.

7

In yet another village, Le Van Dan, an ex South Vietnamese soldier, wearing a worn-out military jacket of the communists, his former enemy force, told me how he was sprayed directly from the U.S. planes not far from his home today.

As the tough man spoke through broken teeth, two of his grandsons in a room behind the kitchen were given milk provided by a government aid agency. Both kids were born severely disabled, doctors say because of Agent Orange.

8

In a small village in Thai Binh Province, in a cold room empty of any furniture, Doan Thi Hong Gam shrank under a light blue blanket. The room’s dirty walls suggest anger and some sort of struggle. She’s been kept in isolation since the age of sixteen because of her aggressiveness and severe mental problems. She is 38 now.

I took pictures of the poor woman for about 15 minutes. They were possibly the strongest frames I have taken in a long time. Her father, a former soldier lying in the bed in a room next to hers, also very sick, was exposed to Agent Orange during the war.

9

Then another village and another picture. On a hill above his home, former soldier Do Duc Diu showed me the cemetery he built for his twelve children, who all died soon after being born disabled. There are a few extra plots next to the existing graves for where his daughters, who are still alive but very sick, will be buried.

The man was also a North Vietnamese soldier exposed to the toxic defoliant. For more than twenty years he and his wife were trying to have a healthy child. One by one their babies were dying and they thought it was a curse or bad luck, so they prayed and visited spiritual leaders but that didn’t help.

They found out about Agent Orange only after their fifteenth child was born, also sick. I took a picture of the youngest daughter. It was not an easy thing to do.

Lai Van Manh, who has physical and mental disabilities, rests in bed.
Lai Van Manh, who has physical and mental disabilities, rests in bed.

Village after village, strong pictures and even stronger stories emerge. My camera stayed at a distance. I shot through mosquito nets and against the light, I shot details and reflections. We took many notes trying not to miss any important details needed to build an accurate picture. Then we drove further south.

Back in Danang, next to its international airport, we visited a young couple who have lived and worked there since late 1990s. When they first moved there the man used to go fishing, collecting snails and vegetables to bring home to eat.

The family was poor and all food was welcomed. What he didn’t know was that Agent Orange, which used to be stored nearby, had contaminated the waters and everything around the lake situated next to the airstrip.

11

His daughter was born sick in 2000 and died aged seven. Their son was born in 2008, also sick with the same symptoms as his late sister. I took pictures and then we drove the family to the hospital for the boy’s blood transfusion. The blind and very sick boy held my finger and later blew a kiss into the emptiness. I saw it from afar as I walked away.

The United States stopped spraying Agent Orange in 1971 and the war ended in 1975.

Twenty years later, some people from villages and cities didn’t know all about it. Forty years later, today, children and their parents still suffer and a large part of the story remains untold. Agent Orange is one big tragedy made of many small tragedies, all man made.

There is not much I can do about it with my pictures except to retell the story, despite all the raised eyebrows. The pictures I took are not about the before and after, they are all about now. As for how poorly we read history and stories from the past, I’m afraid that is about our future, too.

The report was published in Thanh Nien News, and Thanh Nien is the tribune of Vietnam’s Youth Association.

Report 5

Agent Orange endangered U.S. Air Force workers after Vietnam

Suspected Agent Orange victim Nguyen Thi Hong Van and her mother Nguyen Thi Luu at their home. Photo: AFP
Suspected Agent Orange victim Nguyen Thi Hong Van and her mother Nguyen Thi Luu at their home. Photo: AFP

Another Reuters report said:

“U.S. Air Force reservists who did maintenance on C-123 aircraft used during the Vietnam war to spray the defoliant Agent Orange could have been exposed to harmful levels of dioxin even long after the conflict, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences said [recently].

“A panel from the Institute of Medicine acknowledged the poor quality of sampling data available from the planes used in Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam, but concluded that Air Force reservists who maintained the contaminated planes long after the conflict could have increased risk of health problems.

“The study, requested by the Department of Veterans Affairs, could influence how health compensation claims from the maintenance workers are handled under the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Previously, claims had been rejected for those who worked on the aircraft after the war and had no experience in Vietnam.

“Between 1972 and 1982, as many as 2,100 Air Force reserve personnel trained and worked on C-123 aircraft that had been used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the panel said. “After the Agent Orange Act was passed, some reservists lodged health claims with the VA.

“Data on contamination of C-123s used in Vietnam was skimpy, the panel found. Officials have been unable to determine exactly how many C-123s the military used in Vietnam and how many of those were used to spray the defoliant.

“Sampling for contamination on several planes was not conducted until well after the war, it said.

“But the panel noted that previous assessments from those in the military or the VA minimized the health risk of exposure, often saying any Agent Orange residues on the interior surfaces could not have moved from their location and endangered humans.

“The panel flatly rejected that idea, saying it is well accepted now that semi-volatile organic compounds like those in Agent Orange remain in ‘dynamic flux’ in enclosed spaces.

Victims of Agent Orange marched to a court in New York in June 2007
Victims of Agent Orange marched to a court in New York in June 2007

“‘Accordingly, the committee states with confidence that the AF (Air Force) Reservists were exposed when working in the ORH (Operation Ranch Hand) C-123s and so experienced some increase in their risk of a variety of adverse responses,’ it said.

“The panel said that while there were few samples from the interior of C-123s used to spray Agent Orange, those that did so fell in a range ‘meriting cautionary consideration’ under international guidelines for exposure.

“Agent Orange was produced for the U.S. military by a number of companies, including Dow Chemical, Monsanto and others. Seven companies settled a class action lawsuit in 1984 by paying $180 million into a victims compensation fund. The fund closed in 1997, but legal battles against the companies have continued.”

This report was published in Thanh Nien News.

Report 6

My Lai massacre

Source: BBC
Source: BBC

A BBC report (“Murder in the name of war – My Lai”, July 20, 1998) said:

“The My Lai massacre, which took place on the morning of March 16, 1968, was a watershed in the history of modern American combat, and a turning point in the public perception of the Vietnam War.

“In the course of three hours more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed in cold blood at the hands of US troops. The soldiers had been on a ‘search and destroy’ mission to root out communist fighters in what was fertile Viet Cong territory.

“Yet there had been no firefight with the enemy – not a single shot was fired at the soldiers of Charlie Company, a unit of the American Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade.

“The 48th Viet Cong Battalion – the intended target of the mission – was nowhere to be seen.

“When the story of My Lai was exposed, more than a year later, it tarnished the name of the US army. Most Americans did not want to believe that their revered GI Joe could be a wanton murderer.

“My Lai was the sort of atrocity American patriots preferred to associate with the Nazis.”

As a background the report said:

“Charlie Company had arrived in Vietnam three months before the My Lai massacre.

“By then the US – fighting alongside the South Vietnamese army – was deeply entrenched in war against North Vietnam’s communist forces. The United States had deployed nearly 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, a commitment which cost it $2 bn every month.

“In January 1968 the Viet Cong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese Army launched a joint attack on US positions, known as the Tet Offensive. Washington maintained it could win the war, but on the ground morale among its troops was low.

“Charlie Company was down to 105 men by mid-March of that year. It had suffered 28 casualties, including five dead. Some of its soldiers had already begun to drift towards brutal tactics for which they appeared to enjoy impunity.

“The brief for its March 16 mission was to prise out the Viet Cong, whose elusive troops were thought to be hiding in My Lai – a hamlet of the Son My village.

“Two platoons moved in shortly after 8pm in the morning, while a third held back for ‘mopping up’ duties. Both platoons soon splintered and once the shooting started it seemed to spark a chain reaction.

“Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered.

Some lucky villagers, like these two children, survived the massacre. Source: BBC
Some lucky villagers, like these two children, survived the massacre. Source: BBC

Describing the massacre, the BBC report said:

“Some of the 120 or so soldiers opted out of the killing spree, but troop commander Lt William Calley was not one of them. In one incident, Lt Calley ordered two of his men to fire on a group of 60 civilians they had rounded up. When one refused, Calley took over and, standing 10 feet from the crowd, blazed his gun at them.

“Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature ‘C Company’ carved into the chest.

“By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village. The death toll totalled 504.

“Only one American was injured – a GI who had shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol.”

However, the number of dead was estimated by Henry Kamm, the New York Times‘ correspondent, at 567.

Kent A Russell’s essay “My Lai Massacre: The Need for an International Investigation” in California Law Review (May 1970, volume 58, issue 3) said:

“The horrifying story of the My Lai massacre broke in November, 1969, a year and a half after it had ostensibly occurred. According to the reports of reliable news sources, a United States Army unit had completely destroyed a defenseless village in Songmy province and coldly exterminated hundreds of women, children, and old men. Although all the victims were apparently unarmed civilians, the Army news services originally reported a ‘bloody day long battle with Communists,’ and the American commander in Vietnam officially congratulated the American soldiers for outstanding action. It was not until many months later, when an ex-G.I. called the matter to the attention of some vocal members of Congress, that the true facts began to emerge. (Kent A. Russell, My Lai Massacre: The Need for an International Investigation, 58 Cal. L. Rev. 703 (1970).)

The essay cited Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymor Hersh’s report on the massacre that gives, as the essay’s note told, “some idea of the magnitude of the massacre”. Hersh’s report exposed the massacre:

“[I] saw some old women and some little children – fifteen or twenty of them – in a group around a temple where some incense was burning. They were kneeling and crying and praying and various soldiers … walked by and executed these women and children by shooting them in the head with their rifles. The soldiers killed all fifteen or twenty of them.

….

“Brooks and his men in the second platoon to the north had begun to ransack the hamlet systematically and slaughter people, kill the livestock, and destroy the crops. Men poured rifle and machine-gun fire into the huts without knowing – or seemingly caring – who was inside.” (Hersh, My Lai 4, Harper’s, May 1970, at 53, 65-66, to appear in S. HERSH, My Lai 4: A REPORT ON THE MASSACRE AND ITS AFTERMATH. Mr. Hersh’s story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize).

At the conclusion of the above mentioned essay Russell said:

“According to all applicable treaties and international precepts, members of the United States armed forces appear to have committed war crimes against the civilian population of My Lai. Although the United States acknowledges, in general, the applicability of international humanitarian rules to its conduct in Vietnam, the present Administration has eschewed the international war crimes issue in its response to the My Lai massacre.”

He mentioned it as “failure to bring the question of American mistreatment of civilians squarely before an impartial international body …”

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