What Are War Legacies?

“The past is never dead. It's not even past,” novelist William Faulkner once observed. War, and the destruction it leaves in its wake, likewise is never past.

The tangible, violent aftermath of war follow war’s atrocities, as the “jackal follows the wounded beast.” These are what we call war legacies, legacies which persist among the living even after war has ended.

War Legacies Project

War Legacies Project began in 2008 with a vision of mitigating and ultimately eliminating legacies of war—such as environmental degradation and compromised human health. Our focus on the legacies of U.S. wars waged in Viet Nam, and secretly in Laos and Cambodia, has often meant more than this because the memory of those conflicts is still enshrouded in a dark fog of uneasy denialism.

Together, these countries suffered greatly from the modern ravages of war: cluster munitions, napalm, other incendiaries, and Agent Orange. But the wounds of these weapons are still felt today, even after 45 years.

And so we bring these legacies born from violent conflicts to light, through developing a greater understanding of their true costs and long-term consequences—so that we may end them.

Legacies of World War II

The decisive battles fought by all the armies in WWII, Allied and Axis, set the world stage for years to come. Large-scale reconstruction efforts began. War crime trials were held by the former Allied forces. New alliances among the superpowers were forming, as erstwhile allies fell into hostilities, and by 1947, the West entered upon a frantic, anti-communist Cold War.

In just three years, the first Cold War military action was fought on the Korean peninsula, which resulted in the death of 5 million Koreans and a Korea frozen in conflict and split into two states, known since as North and South Korea.

The Cold War Contaminates: Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia

War also raged on the Indochinese peninsula, beginning in 1946, between U.S.-backed French forces and the Vietnamese. The conflict settled into a short quiescent phase in 1954 after an anti-colonial insurgency at Dien Bien Phu had purged the last vestiges of French rule.

This Vietnamese victory led to the creation of the 17th parallel, which in turn prompted the U.S., under the Cold-War “Domino Theory,” to harden military alliances with the south against the north. By 1955—the Cold War inevitably being the lens through which U.S. foreign policy was interpreted—a U.S.-led war broke out in Viet Nam. The first on-ground troops wouldn’t land there until March of 1965.

Members of the 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force go ashore at Danang, South Vietnam, on March 8, 1965. Assigned to beef up defense of an air base, they were the first U.S. combat troops deployed in the Vietnam War | Photo Credit: AP
Members of the 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force go ashore at Da Nang, South Viet Nam, on March 8, 1965 | Photo Credit: AP

Meanwhile primarily airpower-dominated wars were underway in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Both countries found themselves the targets of an aerial war, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Operation Ranch Hand

Between 1962 and 1971, thousands of C-123 planes marred the skies over the countryside of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. They carried out about 20,000 spraying missions dousing the landscape with Agent Orange, a Dioxin-contaminated defoliant, and other tactical herbicides.

A U.S. Air Force aircraft spraying herbicides as part of a mission of Operation Ranch Hand during the U.S. war in Vietnam | Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force
A U.S. Air Force aircraft on a defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand | Photo Credit: Bert Pfeiffer

The official intended purpose of the herbicides, Agent Orange being the most widely used, was to denude the tropical-agricultural landscape and “clear enemy infiltration routes.” Operation Ranch Hand has been dubbed the first large-scale "ecocidal warfare" conducted ever, a precedent "established by the British during the emergency in Malaya." A key target of the spraying missions was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route of the Vietnamese Independence Movement which twisted through mountains and under the cover of the dense jungle canopy, along the borders of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail stretched hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia before terminating in South Viet Nam | Image Credit: Zaur Eylanbekov

All three countries suffered under the 7 million tons of bombs and 8 million gallons of herbicides, over and above the 12 million of Agent Orange—an average of 5,200 gallons sprayed a day for 3,735 days.

The full extent of Operation Ranch Hand was not known until a 1982 Freedom of Information Act request, and Air Force historian William Buckingham's public report.

The Aftermath

In 1973, the U.S. officially withdrew troops from Viet Nam. Within two years, the country reunified; and the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge likewise established their political rule in Laos and Cambodia in 1975, respectively.

At its close, the U.S. war in Viet Nam had claimed the lives of over 3 million Vietnamese; 200,000 Laotians; and by some estimates, 300,000 Cambodians. Many more likely went uncounted.

And as inhumanity slunk alongside Pol Pot’s rise in post-war Cambodia, roughly 3 million people were murdered by 1979 in theKilling Fields.

Agent Orange and the Myopia of U.S. Denialism

It was not until the 90s that the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations first with Laos, then Cambodia and later Viet Nam. Full diplomatic ties at last allowed for international cooperation in post-war recovery efforts in each country.

A housing structure in a remote village is raised by remnants of bombs used by the U.S. during the Secret War in Laos | Photo Credit: War Legacies Project staff.
A housing structure in a remote village is raised by remnants of bombs used by the U.S. during the Secret War in Laos | Photo Credit: Susan Hammond

Soon thereafter, the U.S. began declassifying official records on Agent Orange spraying and bombing missions that left behind unexploded ordnance, also known as UXO. The process of assessing what has been, and yet to be, gleaned from these vast records is ongoing.

But among the war’s many enduring legacies, the human health implications of Agent Orange exposure has remained the most controversial. For decades, the U.S. has equivocated, denying that rates of congenital medical maladies now into the 4th generation are related to Agent Orange.