Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 8. 19th April 1973
Ecocide in Indochina: America Wins War on Nature
Ecocide in Indochina: America Wins War on Nature
The war in Indochina will be best remembered for the failure of the world's greatest military power to defeat the people of a poor peasant country.
In their attempt to subdue the Vietnamese, the Americans launched an all out war against the environment. Technology was misused as in no previous conflict, upsetting man's traditional harmony with nature.
In this article, which is abridged from a feature in the Far Eastern Economic Review of March 5th, Thomas Brindley describes the ecological effects of the Indochina war.
The American bombing has left countless craters in the rice paddies and along canals, often rendering the land unfit for farming. Large areas such as Northern Quang Tri Province have been devastated. Farmers, once secure, have moved to cities, towns and refugee camps.
Nearly all the villages in Eastern Cambodia, eastern Laos and many parts of both North and South Vietnam have been destroyed. Large areas have been de-populated and, in many sections, "free-fire zones" where anybody can be shot on sight have precluded any normal activity by civilians.
While estimates of deaths run into millions, the corresponding environmental impact is a hastened process of urbanisation and the depletion of jungle and rural tracts. Saigon, for example exploded within ten years from a peaceful peasant city of 350,000 to a modern urban area (largely slums) of 3.5 million.
Indiscriminate bombings over large areas of forests, especially by B-52's were excused by the US military and the State Department as the land was considered uninhabited and therefore "expendable". But it had been considered a homeland by many.
Existing Eco-systems Destroyed
The major forms of devastation caused by military action, especially American airpower, are: the removal of the vegetation cover and the actual physical displacement and alteration of the land itself; pollution and poisoning; and the destruction of habitat and living communities. The combined effect has been to destroy the existing eco-systems in widespread and extensive areas of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Even regions that may not have been touched directly— and there are relatively few since Cambodia was included as a target — will undoubtedly show effects.
For instance, the extensive erosion of watersheds combined with the pollution, mining and poisoning of rivers may lead to serious inter-related consequences in future water use or in the very stability of the watersheds themselves.
The most war devastation in Indochina has been caused by the Americans. While the N.F.L. and the North Vietnamese have progressively been fighting with more sophisticated weapons, such as tanks and artillery, the general scope and level of their fighting has been "close to the ground". The liberation forces have not used herbicides, nor have they engaged in carpet bombing. The Americans have not only used airpower to the fullest extent in heavy bombing; they have even dropped enormous 15,000lb bombs, euphemistically called the "Daisy Cutters", which obliterate everything within an area the size of a football field and kill most animal forms within a radius of three-fifths of a mile by the concussive shock wave.
350,000 Acres of Forest stripped
It has been estimated that by last year the number of bomb craters in Indochina exceeded 26 million. In one relatively small area alone — south eastern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail — from 1968-71, 973,000 tons of bombs were dropped, a large number of them 500 or 750 pounders released from B-52's or F-4's. A 500 pound bomb will make a crater 30ft long, 6ft deep and will impact the soil as hard as concrete. Thus within an area about the size of the state of Maryland, American bombs have blasted nearly 4 million craters, turning the area into a moonscape.
Furthermore, the land in 1972 was being cleared of vegetation round-the-clock by huge bulldozers equipped with large Rome ploughs. These bulldozers knocked over trees, pushed out the scrub and scraped the topsoil down to the substratum. Large heavily forested areas — more than 350,000 acres in all — have been stripped.
One of the most insidious and pernicious weapons, the defoliant, has been used extensively. The effect of these herbicides has been to kill the tropical vegetation. The larger trees of both the upper and secondary layers of the jungle are often poisoned with one spraying. Even the third canopy and the topsoil have been affected in areas of heavy spraying.
From late 1961 to 1970 some 7,500 square miles of forested land in South Vietnam alone was sprayed once or more with herbicides. Areas in Laos and Cambodia have also been sprayed but the Defence Department will not release details.
The total effect of military action on the soils will not be determined for many years. But, judging by what is known about the kinds of soils and vegetation structure involved and discerning the extent of their destruction, soil geologists such as Dr Clyde Wahrhaftig of the University of California at Berkeley expect to see serious long term consequences that may be irreversible
Toxic Poisons will pollute water
The gross amounts of toxic pesticides and herbicides that have been released in Vietnam will eventually find their way as unbroken compounds into the water: Poisons — picloram, cacodylic acid, CS and 2:4:5T — may have raised the toxicity levels in streams and soils to the extent of setting the stage for the population's future sickness and ill health wherever people live. The poisonous substances will tend to accelerate the growth of algae and bacteria, depleting the oxygen.
The overriding effect of the war damage has been the destruction of mature, rich and highly diverse biological formations. These climax ecosystems, as they are called, have existed for many years in a state of balance. The bomb craters, the clearings, ploughing and hillside erosion have so significantly altered the land forms in many areas that quite different species of plants and animals will be permitted to grow.
Thus, nature must begin all over again and the early stages of regrowth will feature a very simple environment which will have animal and plant species that are reduced in variety, quality — and often — in number. As biologists have shown, the simpler an environment the more dangerous becomes the maintenance of such a fragile community
The extensive destruction caused by defoliation, bulldozing, and bombing will certainly leave far greater and longer lasting effects on the land than earlier primitive forms of clearing the jungles.
The evidence that has already come to light, despite many classified military documents that have been withheld from the scientific community, is unmistakable; the US, wittingly or errantly engaged in a policy to destroy the lands and waters of Indochina.