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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 Vietnam, 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 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: Vietnam, 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.

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 Vietnam, on March 8, 1965 | Photo Credit: AP

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 Vietnam. The first on-ground troops wouldn’t land there until March of 1965.

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 Vietnam, 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 Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail stretched hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia before terminating in South Vietnam | 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 Vietnam. 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 Vietnam 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 the “Killing 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 Vietnam. 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.

In 2004, the non-governmental organization Vietnamese Association of Agent Orange Victims filed a lawsuit in U.S. courts. Thirty-seven manufacturers of the chemical herbicides used in the war were named. But the case was dismissed. Both the U.S. and military-contracted manufacturers were granted immunity.

Agent Orange, the courts argued, was not a weapon of war against human populations, therefore only secondarily, not intentionally, harmful to humans—if at all.

The Precautionary Principle and War Legacies

Evidencing Agent Orange's devastating impact on human health has represented a key turning point for War Legacies Project. This work derives from decades of on-ground research, surveys, data-gathering, and providing direct support to those impacted in affected countries.

Our Board member, Jacquelyn Chagnon, seen here leading our surveying work with Lao villagers | Photo Credit: Susan Hammond

It is why we have aligned with the precautionary principle, as proposed by the Science & Environmental Health Network in 2013:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Much of our work at War Legacies Project, especially on Agent Orange, has drawn from the principle. It has allowed us to improve understanding of civilian harm allegations—with the full aim of calling for the unequivocal commitment of countries that wage wars to anticipate and address war’s impacts, even when “cause and effect relationships” have not been definitively established.

What are the costs of war?

In some ways, the cost of war is arguably easy to measure. The U.S. war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia totaled $843.63 billion (adjusted in recent dollars), the fourth most expensive war ever waged by the U.S.—after the Iraq War, at $1.01 trillion, and the War in Afghanistan, at $910.47 billion. But this is too cursory an assessment, even while it exposes the excesses of 20th and 21st century militarism.

War must also be measured in its destruction of earth and body; the gallons of toxic chemicals; tons of bombs per capita; the loss of combatant and civilian lives alike; and the costs to mend wounds across generations, in victims yet unborn.

We believe war is suffered by the living well beyond when the last weapons of combat are withdrawn at war’s end.

War must first become a past, before any futures are lived free of its legacies.


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