George Black has written a brilliant book about the war in Vietnam and the modest heroes who spent decades helping the Vietnamese in dealing with the lethal legacy of Agent Orange and unexploded bombs and mines from the longest war in the 20th century.
” Our Green Berets will nail the coonskins on the wall,”
Reportedly that’s how the US president Lyndon B. Johnson saw the war in Vietnam, when he inherited John F. Kennedy’s intervention in a country and a conflict that the U.S. decisionmakers did not know much about in the first place.
Instead of the coonskins that Johnson imagined, 58,220 names found their way to a huge black wall in Washington D.C., a memorial for the American soldiers who never came back. The wall would have to be extended for several miles, if you want to add the at least 2 million Vietnamese who perished in the longest war in the 20th century.
Thousands of books, documentaries and movies have analyzed the tragedy of America’s war. Author George Black has taken up the daunting challenge of writing another book, I assume to shed new light on the war and deepen our understanding of this monumental tragedy and the aftermath. With Black’s 500 page ‘The Long Reckoning’ he succeeds in doing just that. Brilliantly written as well. Serious work it is, and Black even throws in a select cast of heroes and a few villains to capture his readers. He succeeds indeed.
Dehumanizing the enemy
Black has more than a point in highlighting the (in)famous Johnson quote in his stunning account of the war in Vietnam and its equally lethal aftermath – the deadly long-term effects of the dioxin contaminated Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed in huge quantities on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia as well.
One point is Johnson’s obvious ignorance and its fatal consequences. Secondly, it’s about dehumanizing the enemy. You cannot afford to imagine the farmers down there in the paddy fields and villages with their kids and grannies, when you throw four times as many bombs on a small Asian country as all warring parties did during the entire VWII.
How can you get 19-year-old American kids (the average age of the GI’s) to burn down village after village, if they see people instead of commie coons?
Surely, Vietnam was a very scary experience for the GIs ‘humping the boonies’ in Vietnam’s countryside, under permanent threat from hidden snipers and booby traps with bamboo sticks smeared with buffalo feces to maximize infections in the body of the unfortunates, who fell into them.
Listening to the veterans
Once you sit down with Vietnam vets, they might tell you about their Vietnam – the days of boredom broken by hours of terror, whenever their elusive enemy chose to strike. If you listen long enough you might get to the point that you understand, why platoon leader William Calley ordered his men to move down some 500 unarmed villagers in My Lai. Not the same as condoning this unspeakable act of course.
You might even understand why the infamous unit ‘Tiger Force’ proceeded with dozens of other My Lai’s in Quang Ngai province, without ever being court martialed for their crimes. It was murder in the name of war.
You cannot help sympathizing, when you follow one of Black’s main characters, marine Manus Campbell through his ordeals in the jungles at the 17th parallel and its Demilitarized Zone (nick-named Dead Marine Zone by the GIs who fought there). And yes, readers are likely to continue sympathizing with Campbell, as the war time experience continues tormenting him for decades, as he slowly recovers from alcohol and drug abuse, returning to Vietnam to assist Vietnamese children in dire need.
Part one of Black’s book is devoted to the war itself, relying to a great extent on previous works by prominent wartime journalists and scholars like Bernard Fall, Stanley Karnow, Fredrik Logevall, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, and many others. They are all duly credited of course in extensive notes. Even though well-versed readers might argue that nothing is new there, Black’s account of the war is an incredible well written condensation of the American war in Vietnam, including disturbing observations which might keep you at the edge of your chair, as you read on.
Westmoreland’s nuclear attack plan.
You will encounter general Westmoreland secretly planning a nuclear attack under the codename ‘Operation Fracture Jaw’, fortunately to be stopped by the White House.
Cynicism and callousness are not left to the US military brass alone. Here is what happened on the other side, while thousands of young women struggled to keep the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail operational for the North Vietnamese army, in between the massive bombings of the network to stop the supplies of men and weapons to the war in the South:
“Abusive officers extracted sexual favors, and a small number of the young women sold their bodies….in exchange for food.”
This sad and outrageous example of all-too-common abuse during the war does indeed demands its place in historic accounts, if you ask the Vietnamese ‘volunteers’ who participated on the Northern side and came back alive from the war zones in the south.
Don’t take Black’s or my word for it – read on in Bao Ninh’s ‘Sorrow of War’, and Dang Thuy Trâm’s ‘Last Night I Dreamed of Peace’, for a brutally honest close-up of the casualties of war. Add insult to the injury with the fact that the surviving female volunteers from the North were denied the meager military retirement benefits after the war, because they were considered civilians.
Thousands of these volunteers were buried along the Truong Son Trail, the Vietnamese name for the transport network, which also spread into neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Black has included a telling incident, which illustrates the enigmatic power struggles in the top echelon of the Communist party – the disagreements on how to wage war against the Southern regime and their American allies almost took the party leadership apart. Disagreements which are rooted in the arguments back in the 1950’ies when the Vietnamese leaders argued about the strategy in their liberation war against the French.
After years of arguing between party secretary Le Duan and commanding general Vo Nguyen Giàp and their respective followers, the general was forcibly retired into oblivion:
“The greatest insult of all came in 1984, when the party made a documentary to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Dien Bien Phủ, and not a word was said about Giàp, who had commanded the victorious Vietnamese forces.”
Giàp himself outlived all his enemies. When he died in 2013 at the age of 103, tens of thousands of Vietnamese lined up in the streets to pray for their hero.
Coping with the legacy
Black has devoted Part 2 and 3 to the legacy of the war, building his story around three Americans, who are very well known in Vietnam for their admirable efforts in the past three decades to address the legacies of war: Lady Borton, Chuck Searcy, and Charles Bailey.
They are known to be very modest about their personal role. However, the fact is that they more than anyone deserve credit for the change of US policy from denial of responsibility to very large assistance to the ongoing efforts of addressing the legacy of Agent Orange and unexploded bombs, mines and grenades in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Lady Borton has been closely involved in Vietnam, since she was a young relief worker during the war. Over decades, she has worked on countless humanitarian projects all over Vietnam, a strong and at times a very lonely advocate for continued assistance to Vietnam during the US led embargo that followed soon after the war ended.
At one point a Canadian environmental consulting firm, Hatfield, arrives in Vietnam to assess the extent of dioxin contamination in the sprayed areas. Team leader Tom Boivin remembers well his first encounters with Lady Borton:
“She covered our asses, never took any credit, never asked to be paid…She was our technical assistant, our bodyguard, our translator, and interpreter. She could do anything from taking liver samples from a tilapia to getting the ear of a prime minister, and everything in between. I think of her as a kind of Mother Teresa, who also happened to like knocking back tequila shots in the evening.”
The funding that made Hatfield’s survey possible – this is where George Bailey comes into the picture. As the country director of Ford Foundation Vietnam, Bailey was funding the very first credible Agent Orange related investigations and many other subsequent assistance projects for the Agent Orange Victims in Vietnam.
In the words of Tom Boivin according to Black: “If it wasn’t for Charles Bailey, none of this good shit would ever have happened.”
As evident in Black’s record of events, none of ‘Bailey’s good shit’ would have happened, if it wasn’t for Chuck Searcy.
Searcy joined the war as an intelligence analyst for the US army in Saigon. Like other disillusioned returnees he joined other veterans against the war and devoted all his energy to protest the war, antagonizing his own parents in the process:
“His parents, who by this time had moved to South Carolina, couldn’t face their neighbors. We don’t want to see you anymore; we want you out of the house.”
Searcy returns to Vietnam in the 1990s and gets involved in the clean-up of Vietnam’s most devastated province, co-founding Project Renew (check this link for my report from a project visit in 2022).
Upon his arrival in Vietnam in 1998, Bailey invites Searcy for lunch.
“Searcy did most of the talking, while Bailey listened, sphinxlike…. He told Bailey that while they had been able to make some progress on disabilities, the impasse over Agent Orange was their greatest frustration: no one in the American government would even talk about it…. An institution like Ford could make a real difference; the foundation’s size and reputation would make it hard for the government to ignore them.”
Searcy and Bailey were up against formidable resistance.
Ambassador Burghardt’s propaganda campaign
Black has dug out a leaked memo from the US ambassador to Hanoi at the time, Raymond Burghardt, who was well known for his arrogance towards the Vietnamese in general:
The Ambassador intended to give priority “to counter the Vietnamese propaganda campaign that hinges on non-scientific but visually effective and emotionally charged methodology…. Allegations of adverse impact of Agent Orange/dioxin are grossly exaggerated and unsupported by any objective measure,” according to ambassador Burghardt.
He was not the only senior US diplomat involved in this kind of slander. As a young journalist, I was subject myself to harassment from unnamed diplomats of the US Embassy in Copenhagen, calling my editors with accusations of Vietnamese communist propaganda.
The decades of US denial of the devastating effects of Agent Orange becomes even more outrageous when you look at the early history. Black takes note that back in 1965 the prominent Harvard molecular geneticist Matthew Meselson stated that the dioxin contaminated herbicides ‘was 100 times more poisonous than the most powerful nerve gas.”
The chief toxicologist of the manufacturer, Dow Chemicals, stated according to Black that dioxin was ‘exceptionally toxic’ to humans.
Many other scientists raised voices of serious concern – they were all ignored by the US government and the Pentagon.
Despite the formidable obstacles Borton, Searcy and Bailey just kept working the ropes whenever their saw an option to lobby for their cause in the Administration, in Congress and in the media. At the same time, they kept launching relief projects on the ground.
‘Confrontation won’t get us anywhere, dialogue might work´, Bailey once told me, as he gradually managed to put Agent Orange on the agenda, where it mattered in his own Ford Foundation and in Congress.
A breakthrough was when Borton/Searcy/Bailey captured the interest of Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior member of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. In time this led to massive funding to deal with the legacies of war in Vietnam.
Next came step-by-step changes in the official policy of the US Government. A new generation of US diplomats in Hanoi pushed for US assistance to clean-up of dioxin hotspots, like the former US air force base in Da Nang to be followed by an even more severe contamination in Bien Hoa, running into hundreds of millions of USD.
Ambassador Ted Osius, serving in Hanoi 2014-2017, gained much respect among the Vietnamese for his tenacious efforts ‘to do what’s right’. A watershed event, which Osius probably had a hand in, came when President Obama addressed the Agent Orange issue as the first US president ever, in his ‘Remarks to the Vietnamese People’ – a de facto official statement during his visit to Vietnam in 2016. Check this link for more on Ted Osius and his own fascinating story and his involvement in the amazing development of US-Vietnamese relations in the recent decade: Nothing is Impossible.
Dealing with the lethal legacy of the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia will be an ongoing project for decades to come. George Black deserves the greatest praise for telling us, how this came about and the crucial role of the modest heroes, who spent most of their adult years to make it happen – this certainly also includes the final chapters on Agent Orange in Laos and the groundbreaking efforts by Susan Hammond of the War Legacies Project, carried out under immense difficulties.
When I share this review in a mail to Lady, Chuck, and Charles, I anticipate the reply from them: “Great book, indeed – but really, there are so many others involved in this. Don’t exaggerate our part, please.”
True enough, and Black is mentioning some of the most important Vietnamese counterparts and partners on the ground, like doctor Le Ke Son, who co-wrote the book From Enemies to Partners with Bailey, and Hien Ngo working with Searcy in Quang Tri on OXU-removal.
Missing Dr. Phuong
Curiously, one very important Vietnamese Agent Orange activist is missing from the cast: Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong from the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. She traveled around the world in a desperate call for help, I witnessed this on her European speaking tour in 1982.
Later, she testified twice in the US Congress, bringing along her stepdaughter Hoan, born without lower legs and with one arm only. Together they wrote a personal letter to President Obama to ask him for assistance to the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam.
In her late seventies, now dr. Phuong still steps out from retirement to perform complicated surgeries on pregnant patients and continues her advocacy.
Check this link for a brief update on her tireless struggles going back 5-6 decades to make the world aware of all those countryside girls coming in from the sprayed areas, dying in her ward.
George Black: The Long Reckoning – A story of war, peace, and redemption in Vietnam. 478 pages. Alfred A. Knopf.