Ethics and Ecology in the second Indo China War

The largest, most devastating military use of herbicides ever undertaken was by the US in pursuing the Second Indochina, which began on a small scale in 1961 and finally ended during 1971.

Herbicide spraying was largely confined to South Vietnam, however, lesser spraying took place in other areas and the Vietnam war is noted for widespread, severe and lasting environmental damage. Major effect was directed toward forests, but crop destruction and food denial were also heavily targeted.

Vietnam, once rich in diversity, was all but stripped of a major part of its natural environment by the US strategy, which involved massive rural area bombing, extensive chemical and mechanical destruction to forests and large-scale herbicide use. Approximately 91 million kilograms of anti-plant agents were used in the attack, which not only resulted in direct casualties, but also in wide-spread, long lasting and severe disruption of the millions of hectares of the natural resource base essential to an agrarian society.

Before herbicide attack, forests were used by wandering tribes for agriculture, logging and fuel gathering in a patchwork of woodlands interspersed by bamboo thickets, young regrowth, plots under cultivation and swampy areas – wide swathes of mangrove forest – once considered the largest and most productive habitat in the world. Once herbicidal spraying had taken place, the ecosystem began to crumble and 54% of mangroves were exterminated.

Woody vegetation covered over 10 million hectares of South Vietnam, the largest single category being dense inland forest, which extended to over 5 million hectares and was composed of a complex and variable floristic conglomeration. Approximately 14% of South Vietnam’s woody vegetation was sprayed one or more times, and of this, over 1 million hectares were situate in the dense inland forest.

There is no doubt that the chemicals used had immediate deleterious effects on living organisms and the over storey of the forest areas. Following herbicidal attack approximately 10% of trees were killed outright. Long term effects on the indigenous mammalian fauna resulted from the indirect influence of disturbed vegetation and habitat destruction, as well as the direct toxic action of the applied chemicals. Aquatic ecosystems were also contaminated from chemicals, concentrated throughout the food chain, from the spray program-me named ‘Operation Ranch Hand’.

The most widely sprayed defoliant was Agent Orange, which between 1965 and 1970, made up over 60% of all herbicide utilized. Agent Orange is composed of two active chemicals: 2,4- dichlorophenoxy acetic acid [2,4-D], and 2,4,5- Trichlorophenoxy acetic acid [2,4,5-T]. The Dioxin that contaminated 2,4,5-T in Agent Orange was TCDD [2,3,7,8- Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin]. Dioxin has the highest persistence of any of the xenobiotics applied and it is thought that the half-life of TCDD in soil is 15 years or longer, while its half-life in human body time is estimated between 5 and 8 years.

As a nation at war, the US compelled a number of companies to produce Agent Orange under the Defense Production Act. The US military had sole control and responsibility for the transportation of Agent Orange to Vietnam, and for its storage once the defoliant reached its destination. The US military controlled how, where and when Agent Orange was used.

Today three million Vietnamese suffer the effects of chemical defoliants used during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese scientists have conducted research into the long-lasting effects of chemicals on human health. The studies suggested that in people exposed to herbicides there is an increased rate of cancer, abnormalities of pregnancy, high rates of birth defects – especially anencephalia, microcephalia, hydrocephalia, spina bifida and cerebral palsy – among many other conditions. Similar conditions can be found in all animal populations effected by herbicides. Agent Orange has also produced deadly consequences for Vietnam’s natural environment with long-term poisoning of soil and crops.

The US has undertaken some research yet there are many discrepancies in it’s findings. Interviews with military scientists, transcripts of meetings, government reports and internal memos reveal flaws in an Airforce study, which began in 1979 and concludes in 2006. Inconsistencies include the US government ignoring National Academy of Sciences recommendations that studies be done by scientists outside the military. It was also found that high-ranking Officers interfered with the studies data analysis, undermining its scientific integrity. The US manipulated results to fit and again came up with excuses for behavior that was both morally and lawfully erroneous and contravened the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In a letter to Secratary Rumsfield, Human Rights Watch said recent disclosures by former Senator Bob Kerrey, a junior officer in the Navy SEAL team in 1969, suggested that certain military units operated under standing orders or employed methods that directly violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, resulting in ‘grave breaches’ of that Convention or war crimes. Questions have arisen on whether the US have committed war crimes, a singularly political and legal aspect dealt with by way of war laws.

The Vietnam war happened because there were no really effective restraints on the use of military power and those that were in appliance were abused or ignored. There is no single document that embodies a war law and guidelines are taken from a variety of sources, such as treaties, legal principles and military court rulings. The body of law that has emerged is based on the theory of ‘just war’, which holds that ‘warfare is only permissible under certain limited conditions; it must be conducted in such a way as to minimize suffering and destruction, and innocent victims must be compensated to the fullest extent possible’.

Ironically, the US has clearly missed this target since it did not apply to conditions at the time of attack, and furthermore, continues to shrug off moral responsibilities in preference of excuses for its continued inappropriate and avaricious behavior.

Vietnam was subjected to continuous warfare from intrusion of the US and the superpower left behind a legacy of environmental destruction, severe economic hardship and widespread health problems.

Continued historical and political pretext have given the US the excuses it needs to justify its ever growing need for wealth and power. Trade relations between the US and Vietnam have strengthened over the years but the superpowers motives questionable. Vietnam’s potential is considerable. Its strong agricultural base is complemented by an abundance of natural resources, including oil, gas and coal, resources valuable to the US. Furthermore, over half of Vietnam’s population of 80 million are literate, hard-working and young. The demand for consumer goods in the West is rising rapidly, further sources of exploitation by the US for economic growth.

The historical reality is that the US drive for economic, political and military domination has led to horrific war crimes and repeated violations of International Law. Since 1945 the US has initiated dozens of military attacks on foreign nations resulting in a gruesome toll with at least 8 million deaths, tens of millions wounded, millions more made homeless, and ecological devastation impossible to measure.

In recent years, as the Agent Orange controversy has faded from the publics consciousness, support for victims has diminished. While US veterans have received some measure of compensation, after years of struggle Vietnamese victims have not received a single cent of compensation or humanitarian aid from the US government, which has continued to shy away from funding research in Vietnam.

The US government has continued to defer responsibility for its part in the destruction of Vietnam, not least with the denial of the effects of Dioxin contamination. Washington states there is no direct evidence linking Dioxin with any illness yet years of research has been undertaken since the Vietnam war ended, the results of which are available to the public and the US government. Dr Samuel Epstein, leading authority on the causes and prevention of cancer was quoted ‘We’re failing to deal with Dioxin not because of any lack of information about its dangers to human health, but because of political and economic considerations’, a sentiment that still seems prevalent today concerning the US responsibility for the use of herbicides in war.

Lawful responsibility seems to be loosely termed in law but one treaty which may apply to the use of herbicides is the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which chapters the ‘Prohibition of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases’. The US has argued that herbicides were not covered by the protocol, but in 1969 the UN General Assembly clarified the issue by adopting Resolution 2603 A [XXXIV], which ‘Declares as contrary to the generally recognizable rules of international law, as embodied in the Geneva Protocol, the use in international armed conflicts of any chemical agents of warfare; chemical substances, whether gaseous, liquid or solid, which might be employed because of their toxic effects on man, animal or plants’.

The UN Charter clearly prohibits military force as an instrument of statecraft except in clear-cut examples of self-defense.

Sadly, from an ethical viewpoint both international and moral law seem invalid to the US as it carries out its relentless pursuit for global domination in support of its economic and geopolitical interests.