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Vietnam Defoliation: A Fable for Our Times

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Once upon a time there was a small, beautiful, green and graceful country called Vietnam. It needed to be saved. (In later years no one could remember exactly what it needed to be saved from, but that is another story.) For many years Vietnam was in the process of being saved by France, but the French eventually tired of their labors and left. Then America took on the JOD- America was well equipped for country- saving. It was the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It had, for example, nuclear explosives on hand and ready to use equal to six tons of TNT for every man, woman, and child in the world. It had huge and very efficient factories, brilliant and dedicated scientists, and most (but not everybody) would agree, it had good intentions.

Sadly, America had one fatal flaw — its inhabitants were in love with technology and thought it could do no wrong. A visitor to America during the time of this story would probably have guessed its outcome after seeing how its inhabitants were treating their own country. The air was mostly foul, the water putrid, and most of the land was either covered with concrete or garbage. But Americans were never much on introspection and they didn't foresee the result of their loving embrace on the small country. They set out to save Vietnam with the same enthusiasm and determination their forefathers had displayed in conquering the frontier. They bombed. More than 3 million tons of explosives were dropped — 50 per cent more than the total bomb tonnage dropped in both theatres of World War II.

Technologists looked on in awe and spoke of a ditch 30 feet deep, 45 feet wide, and 30 thousand miles long if all the bomb craters were placed in a row. What the Vietnam peasant spoke of was never recorded. Entire villages were destroyed by bombing, napalm fires and artillery. After one such mission an American officer made the prophetic explanation that it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. Unquestioned, the logic of such a statement became sanctified.

They bombed with chemicals as well as explosives, and trees, bushes, plants died by the millions of acres in a program with the Orwellian name of "Operation Ranch Hand" whose macabre motto was "only we can prevent forests." The consequences of such a deliberate and massive ecological attack were unknown and unknowable but that was no deterrent. Thousands of herbicide and defoliant missions were flown before anyone seriously questioned their long-range effect on humans and animals as well as on plants. By the time deformed fetuses began appearing and signs of lasting ecological damage were becoming increasingly apparent success had been achieved. Vietnam had been saved. But the country was dead.

Editor's note: Fact and fiction have become one in Southeast Asia, or so it would seem. How can one give aid to a country and its people by destroying both? Because of the wartime conditions there has been little opportunity to study first hand either short term or long term effects of the massive bombing, defoliation and herbicide pro-grams. It is becoming abundantly clear, however, that these programs represent the deliberate destruction of the environment on a scale without precedent in the history of man. And as we are learning almost daily at home to our great sorrow, our use of technology has far outstripped our ability to understand and predict its consequences.

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