The Consequences of the Vietnam War on the Environment


The Vietnam War devastated that nation in many ways, but the horrendous death toll often overshadows its other effects. One long-term effect that is seen now and will persist is the ecological damage. Many point to Vietnam, where dense jungles were another enemy to subdue, as one of the clearest examples of environmental damage during warfare.


The Vietnam War introduced many new technologies, some of which contributed to Vietnam's ecological change from a once-pristine habitat to an almost apocalyptic state following the war. These technologies included chemical deforestation techniques, Rome plows and new, more destructive bombs.


One of the biggest advantages that Viet Cong soldiers had over the United States in the struggle for South Vietnam was knowledge of the landscape. They used this in their guerrilla warfare tactics to stay undetected. The United States found they could combat this military tactic with a new style of warfare that used chemicals to clear large areas of land. This tactic was also useful in the age-old war tradition of destroying the enemy's crops in the hope of encouraging surrender. Two of the numerous chemicals that were widely used in Vietnam were Agent Orange and Napalm.


Agent Orange was a dangerous mix of two herbicides dispersed by the Air Force in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand. Ranch Hand members became infamous for the massive amounts of damage they inflicted, which is evident in their unofficial motto "Only You Can Prevent Forests". The project used cargo planes to spray the chemical 150 feet above the treetops. It killed off vegetation that had provided the enemy with cover, and their food crops. The chemical was very dangerous to people who came into contact with it and its use was stopped in 1971, but the damage was already great after almost a decade of use.


Another chemical used in deforestation was Napalm. This sticky substance was dispersed onto vegetation and then ignited. It burned similarly to gasoline, and quickly destroyed all surrounding vegetation. Napalm was responsible for the destruction of much of the landscape. Chemical defoliation damaged the ecosystem in unimaginable ways, but American government considered it necessary to defeat the enemy. The United States also used other methods to further wipe out the forests.


In addition to the chemicals used in deforestation, the United States brought in heavy machinery to further alter the landscape to their advantage. One of the most commonly used, and most destructive, was the Rome Plow. This was simple in design but caused immense damage. It was an eleven-foot wide, two and a half-ton blade attached to a 20-ton tractor. The machines are estimated to have cleared approximately 1,000 acres of land daily at a rate of about one acre of land per hour, and every day they operated a fleet of 150 tractors. Not only did the Rome Plows kill massive numbers of animals and tons of vegetation, they also caused erosion, a problem that is still a concern of ecologists today.


As a result of deforestation, the area around Vietnam is also feeling the effects of the war. This is due to one of the basic principles of ecology: the environment is interconnected. If you negatively impact one area, the results will spread. All the forms of deforestation were just the beginning of Vietnam's damaged ecology, because they were tactics to set up weaponry, which also was extremely harmful to the ecology of Vietnam.


Studies have revealed that close to 16 million tons of munitions were used in Southeast Asia. These are responsible for the creation of more than 30 million craters averaging 30 feet in diameter that are infertile due to the lack of topsoil. The craters also damage the drainage patterns of the area because they fill with water. These basins become home to disease-bearing organisms, further impacting the ecosystem. The craters are not the only impact bombing had on Vietnam's ecology - the bombs released sharp metal scraps, known as shrapnel that killed not only enemy forces but large numbers of wildlife.


Many effects of the Vietnam War on the environment have proved irreversible. Many species of animals and vegetation were greatly reduced and, in some cases, became extinct. In these situations, little can be done to amend the problems that the war created for the ecology of Vietnam. But it is important that we understand how harmful the destruction really was beyond the human cost. We must take this knowledge into consideration when entering future wars. As wartime technology advances, more and more destruction can be done.


We must limit the use of technologies that turn a nation's environment into another victim of war.



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