Vietnam: Post-War Problems That Still Need Fixing; An Interview with George Black

On March 8, 1965, the first combat troops landed in Vietnam. The war ended 35 years ago, but not before about one million people died. Parts of the country still bear traces of Agent Orange, the chemical used to burn away parts of the jungle. Agent Orange still poisons the environment in Vietnam. In addition to that problem, the people of Vietnam have had to cope with unexploded ordinance, which has killed about 40,000 people and maimed 65,000 since the end of the war. Reporter George Black discusses the problems in this commentary and his 9,000 word report in The Nation magazine, "The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War."

George Black

George Black

Black explains that Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran, guided him through the country as he was researching his report. Searcy was one of a few veterans, initially, who went back to Vietnam after the war. He wants, as Black puts it, to make us worthy of the extraordinary forgiveness offered by the Vietnamese.

Black says that the Agent Orange has lingered in Vietnam, and several generations of children have been born with birth defects. No one, however, has spent the money to do an epidemiological study to discover conclusively whether the birth defects were in fact the result of Agent Orange. Searcy approaches both sides of the war with sympathy, both for the Americans—close to three million of them—who served in Vietnam and for the millions of Vietnamese people who suffered through the war, including many who died.

Black found that the people of Vietnam have largely forgiven Americans for their part in the war, which happened a long time ago, especially for young people. Chuck Searcy believes that the U.S. government should make an effort to bring Vietnam veterans back to that country, as such visits could have “an extraordinary healing effect.” Meeting the people can be a good way to deal with PTSD. Black wonders whether, in the long run, the people of Iraq will be as gracious and forgiving towards Americans as are the people of Vietnam.

During the war, the U.S. sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange on parts of Vietnam. The U.S. has spent money on clean-up, but probably not enough. The Da Nang airport was the central point of spraying operations, and $84 million has already been spent cleaning up dioxin contamination at that one base. Black says there are dozens of these “hot spots” where Agent Orange was loaded onto planes and where some of it spilled, and other hot spots where the civilian population lives. There were 4.8 million civilians who were in the path of the spraying, and there has been no restitution to them.

Unexploded ordinance is still a very big problem in a small area, particularly the Quang Tri province. The estimate is that 10% of the ordinance that dropped is unexploded and that 84% of the area is still contaminated by the munitions. It is a daily problem. Searcy’s Project Renew operation has a hotline that citizens can call when they encounter munitions that need to be removed.

George Black, a writer in New York, is editor-at-large for the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), an independent nonprofit news organization. In his 30 years in journalism, including stints as foreign editor of The Nation and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, George Black has written about everything from the civil wars in Central America and the democracy movement in China to climate change in South Asia and energy conflicts in the American West. He is working on a book about the history and culture of the Ganges. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.