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The Vietnam War And the Agent Orange Case

Introduction

If there is one thing to describe the Vietnam War, it is perfectly summed up by Sardar Khan’s quote from Gangs of Wasseypur- Keh Ke Lunga. This is what literally happened to the United States of America when they went on a war against a small country in order to “contain Communism” but instead it turned out to be a story of David and Goliath. The reason is Vietnam, particularly North Vietnam had brought down one of the two major superpowers down to its knees. However, this is not the only time where the superpower hasn’t been defeated. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and would have their own Vietnam War during the waning years of the Cold War.

When the 20th century roared with a bang (the 2 World Wars), it changed the world stage with a whimper. In the aftermath of the Second World War[1], most people thought that something like this should never happen again. However, the human nature is too rigid to accept the change and the reality and eventually it made people to go various wars again despite the fact that the world has suffered one huge war. Among such wars, one of the most popular and in fact the most controversial war is the Vietnam War[2].

The Vietnam War is a living proof of how the incompetent leadership of the military and political echelons in the US have costed the war gravely[3]. They clearly haven’t learned the lesson of the French when they lost the war against the Vietnamese when they lost the Battle of Diem Bien Phu[4] nor have they learned the lessons of Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasion to invade Russia. And the American leadership’s failure to realise that the war was a lost cause and the public, the troops, the Vietnamese for that matter and the entire international community was against the war. This failure has lead to the huge and tragic loss of lives and many souls were wounded in this costly war.

Vietnam wasn’t the only victim of this war. Cambodia and Laos also suffered because of America’s recklessness. The number of casualties are heavily debated but about 3 million Vietnamese (Civilian and military) and 58,000 US soldiers were killed in the war and it changed the course of human history[5]. However, this was Cold War and the adage of ‘Those who don’t learn the lesson from history are doomed to repeat it’ clearly fits well with the Soviets invading Afghanistan in 1979 (4 years after the end of Vietnam War) leading to the beginning of Soviet-Afghan War[6].

Brief History of Vietnam War

Prior to the war, Vietnam was a colony of the French Empire. Its people were struggling to gain independence due to their treatment as second-class citizens in their own country. This treatment has caused a huge distrust and hatred between the Vietnamese and the French. Independent leaders like Ho Chi Minh rose into prominence in order to fight against the French colonial masters. They get their opportunity when the Second World War broke out and the Imperial Japanese Army conquered Vietnam which gave the independent leader an opportunity to gain independence[7].

When the Japanese signed the documents of unconditional surrender on September 2nd, 1945, the French returned to Vietnam to assert their colonial dominance[8]. However, the end of the Second World War saw the downfall of the European Empires with the exception of the American and Soviet Empire which will soon play the dice of the Cold War and the rise of peaceful or violent transition of power in the European Colonies leading to the rise of decolonisation. So when the French came back, the rebellion turned into a full-scale war which came to be known as the First Indo-China War[9]. Long story short, the war ended in the humiliation of the French when they were neutered by the Vietnamese in the Battle of Diem Bien Phu[10]. This resulted in the peace treaty in 1954 in which the French ended their rule in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. However, just like the 34th Parallel division in Korea, Vietnam was also divided by the 17th Parallel where the North remains communist and the south remains anti-communist [11]. The US didn’t help the French in Vietnam and in Suez which was the main reason why France left NATO[12].

That’s when the 3 superpowers started butting in the 2 Vietnams. The Soviets and the Chinese aided the North as they wanted to spread their influence and their own ideology of Lebensraum known as communism. The US on the other hand wanted to stop that because they believed that if Vietnam goes red (colour of communism), the rest of Asia will follow suit[13]. This is why they started sending military advisors and attachés to South Vietnam to train their soldiers[14].

The Gulf of Tonkin, where two US ships of the 7th Fleet were attacked by the Vietnamese Torpedo boats led the US to bring its might to the Vietnamese mainland[15]. Long story short, they might fell flat by Viet Cong’s ruthless guerrilla tactics[16] and the faracity of the well trained NVA (North Vietnamese Army)[17]. Their boldest example of this was the Tet Offensive which was the literal meaning of “Modern Technology, Morale and Public Opinion go burrr”. In other words, the Tet Offensive may have been repelled but it demoralized the troops and it soured the public and world opinion against the war in Vietnam[18]. To add salt into injury, American GIs were committing atrocities against the local population, the most notable of which was the Mỹ Lai massacred where 500 South Vietnamese villagers were sexually abused, pillaged and murdered by the American troops[19].

In the light of the massacre, the South Vietnamese civilians started joining the ranks of the NVA and Viet Cong. The NVA and the Viet Cong started following the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a long, ardudous trial to literlly harass the American and South Vietnamese Troops[20]. Because of this, the Americans started bombing Laos and Cambodia because the Trail involves these 2 countries as well despite the fact these 2 countries were neutral[21][22]. Eventually, the North Vietnamese forced the already humiliated United States to sue for peace due to low morale and high casualties. They forced the Americans and South Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty in Paris in 1973[23]. The South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell in 1975 when the North Vietnamese stormed it[24][25]. However relations between Vietnam and China, Cambodia deteriorated thus leading to the Third Indo-China War[26].

Agent Orange

The extensive use of the herbicide called Agent Orange was probably one of the main reasons why the war in Vietnam was considered controversial. Mixed with the chemical of dioxine, it was heavily used by the United States Military. According to the United States Military planners, the use of Agent Orange could destroy the forest and crops which served as the food supplies for the enemy[27]. Throughout the duration of the war from 1962-1970, about 45 million liters of Agent Orange has been spread all over Vietnam[28]. Agent Orange was one of the strategies utilized by the Americans close by Operation Rolling Thunder and Napalm strikes to sabotage North Vietnamese powers. All things considered, obviously, it didn’t end well for the Americans. All Agent Orange did was hurting everything. Furthermore, by hurting everything, it implies Bhopal Gas Tragedy however more regrettable.

As of now about 2.8 million US Troops and 3 million Vietnamese Civilians were affected by the terrible weapon, about which 150,000 of them were children. At least that’s what the Vietnamese Red Cross Predicts in the latter. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least 4.8 Vietnamese Civilians were affected by Agent Orange and 400,000 of them were killed by it. The effect of Agent Orange has led to severe cancer, birth defects, muscular dysfunction, neurological disorders, and so on[29]. The effects of Agent Orange still affect newborn babies even to this day[30].

Impact of Agent Orange on the Environment

Presently here comes the obvious issue at hand. The utilization of Agent Orange affects the climate also. As the measurements say that, around 5 million acres of forest zones and 500,000 acres of crops have been obliterated by Agent Orange[31]. The chemical has an immense effect on the forest if it is exposed by the sunlight. And if it mixes with the soil then it can badly affect the plants and crops which could stay for either decades or centuries. Its spread can also impact wetlands, marshes and lakes which it ended up being ingested by fishes and prawns. This could affect the food chain as well. Although fishing is prohibited in the contaminated, people are still getting affected by the chemicals and the law is very difficult to be enforced. There are two suggestion given by the researchers in order to stop the spread of agent orange:-

1. Landfill Storage- This process is done in a large scale however it was criticised for only delaying the inevitable rather than weeding out the inevitable because it is only a temporary solution.

2. Incineration- This is an expensive and long process but is one of the only way to remove the place affected by Agent Orange permanently.

Although the US stopped using Agent Orange in 1970, the damage was already done. Not only it affected the people of Vietnam but also its environment as well[32].

The Case

In 2014, a French-Vietnamese woman by the name of Tran To Nga who was involved in the war as a journalist filed a law suit against various companies which provided the US with the chemical during the war. This suit was filed in the French Court and it is the first time that a civilian who happens to be a victim of Agent Orange had one of their cases heard in the court. According to the law suit, the victim and her children were the unfortunate bearers of the Agent Orange, not to mention that one of her daughters died as a result. The victim herself suffered from diseases like cancer and diabetes and her deceased daughter suffered from the malformation of her heart. The US only compensated the veterans of the war who were exposed to Agent Orange but not the Vietnamese Civilians.

The defendants i.e. the companies in question insisted that the actual perpetrators were the US Military, which was responsible for the manufacture and design of Agent Orange and the companies should not be held accountable. However, the advocates of the victim countered that the companies manipulated the US government regarding the toxicity of the chemical which was why it affected a lot of men, women, children, plants, animals, and crops[33].

As of January 2021, the French court started hearing the lawsuit. The case could set a new precedent if it favours the victim. It will be the first time a law suit regarding the effects of health caused by Agent Orange has been won by a civilian. The victim said that she is not doing for herself but for her children and the millions of children who were affected by the terrible weapons.

The same thing happened back in the 1984 court case when several companies which were behind the manufacturing of Agent Orange came into a settlement which cost $180 million with the US Vietnam War Veterans who were the victims of the Agent Orange.

Conclusion

On a very serious note, the Vietnam War was the example of how wars can affect people as well as the environment. This isn’t like World War 2 where the American public supported the war to defeat the Axis Powers. The Vietnam War is different and controversial on all levels. The Agent Orange is one such level which has destroyed the lives of many and destroyed the vegetation and nature of their forests, lakes and agricultural fields. Of course when the war ended, people just swore in that they don’t want to face something like this. But the human nature cannot be changed so easily and now with the post 9/11 world where the same themes of Vietnam has been repeated, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is going to be obvious now that humanity will someday go guns blazing: electric boogalo. The differnce is that we now have physical checks i.e. nuclear warheads to stop a war now instead of a moral one which in time will fade away.

References

[1] Editors, History.com. “World War II.” History, A&E Television Networks, 11 Nov. 2018, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/world-war-ii-history.

[2] Spector, Ronald H. “Vietnam War | Facts, Summary, Casualties, & Combatants.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War.

[3] Chan, Amy. “Strategy for Failure: America’s War in Vietnam.” HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 14 Apr. 2017, www.historynet.com/strategy-failure-americas-war-vietnam.htm.

[4] History.com Editors. “Battle of Dien Bien Phu.” HISTORY, 21 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/topics/france/battle-of-dien-bien-phu.

[5] Spector, Ronald H. “Vietnam War | Facts, Summary, Casualties, & Combatants.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War.

[6] “Soviet-Afghan War – New World Encyclopedia.” Www.newworldencyclopedia.org, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Soviet-Afghan_War. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

[7] History.com Editors. (2020, August 31). Vietnam declares its independence from France. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vietnam-independence-proclaimed

[8] Vietnam – World War II and independence. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Vietnam/World-War-II-and-independence

[9] The First Indochina War (1946-1954). (n.d.). Historyguy.Com. https://www.historyguy.com/indochina_war_first.htm

[10] Hickman, K. (2019, October 3). First Indochina War: Battle of Dien Bien Phu. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-dien-bien-phu-2361343

[11] Vietnam War – French rule ended, Vietnam divided. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War/French-rule-ended-Vietnam-divided

[12] Blakemore, E. (2018, September 1). When France Pulled the Plug on a Crucial Part of NATO. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/france-nato-withdrawal-charles-de-gaulle

[13] A. (2020, September 29). The Domino Theory. The Cold War. https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/domino-theory/

[14] US Advisors in Vietnam 1955-1965. (n.d.). Olive-Drab. https://olive-drab.com/od_history_vietnam_advisors.php

[15] Bauer, P. (n.d.). Gulf of Tonkin incident | Definition, Date, Summary, Significance, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Gulf-of-Tonkin-incident

[16] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Viet Cong | Definition, Tactics, & History. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Viet-Cong

[17] The Loop (Games). (n.d.). Battlefield Wiki. https://battlefield.fandom.com/wiki/North_Vietnamese_Army

[18] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2021, January 24). Tet Offensive | Facts, Casualties, Videos, & Significance. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tet-Offensive

[19] Ray, M. (n.d.). My Lai Massacre | Facts, Map, & Photos. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/My-Lai-Massacre

[20] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.-a). Ho Chi Minh Trail | History, Route, & Map. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail

[21] History.com Editors. (2019, July 29). U.S. bombs Cambodia for the first time. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-bombs-cambodia-for-the-first-time

[22] Larson », V. A. P. B. P. (2010, December 16). US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973. Freewheel Burning. https://peterslarson.com/2010/12/15/us-bombings-in-laos-1965-1973/

[23] History.com Editors. (2020a, May 12). Paris Peace Accords signed. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/paris-peace-accords-signed

[24] Fotre, N. (2020, May 30). Remembering the Historic Evacuation and Fall of Saigon. Coffee or Die Magazine. https://coffeeordie.com/fall-of-saigon/

[25] Elderfield, J. (2020, April 27). The Fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975: The end of the Vietnam War. AP Images Spotlight. https://apimagesblog.com/historical/2020/4/24/the-fall-of-saigon-april-30-1975-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war

[26] Dan, M. (2020, February 6). February 17, 1979: War Breaks Out Between China and Vietnam (Third Indo-China War). History and Headlines. https://www.historyandheadlines.com/february-17-1979-war-breaks-china-vietnam-third-indo-china-war/

[27] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.-a). Agent Orange | Definition, Effects, & Victims. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/Agent-Orange

[28] What is Agent Orange? (2018, December 18). The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/agent-orange-in-vietnam-program/what-is-agent-orange/

[29] Jenkins, J. (2020, October 15). A Toxic Legacy: The Generational Effects of Agent Orange. Know A Vet. https://www.knowavet.org/a-toxic-legacy-the-generational-effects-of-agent-orange/#:%7E:text=According%20to%20the%20US%20Department%20of%20Veterans%20Affairs%2C,cancer.%20You%20Can%20Do%20Something%20for%20your%20family%21

[30] Newton, J. (2014, April 29). Babies in Vietnam born with horrific defects 40 years since Agent Orange. Mail Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2613038/40-years-Agent-Orange-heartbreaking-pictures-babies-Vietnam-born-horrific-defects.html

[31] What is Agent Orange? (n.d.). The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/agent-orange-in-vietnam-program/what-is-agent-orange/

[32] Andrei, M. (2019, March 1). Agent Orange continues to pollute Vietnam environment, study finds. ZME Science. https://www.zmescience.com/ecology/agent-orange-continues-to-pollute-vietnam-environment-study-finds/

[33] BBC News. (2021, January 25). Vietnam War: French court to hear landmark Agent Orange case. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55795651

This article has been written by Anish Bachchan, a law student currently studying at Amity Law School, Noida.

Also Read – History And Development Of International Humanitarian Law

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