DURING his landmark visit to Hanoi in November, US president Donald Trump spoke glowingly of Vietnam as ‘‘one of the great miracles of the world’’, citing the rapid economic growth America’s former adversary has enjoyed since the war ended in 1975. Yet more than four decades since the last American troops departed from Vietnamese soil, the earth remains littered with hundreds-of-thousands of bombs dropped from US warplanes which failed to explode on impact.
The fall of Saigon in April 1975 was supposed to signal an end to twenty years of intractable armed conflict and almost unimaginable human suffering in Vietnam. Yet these deadly remnants of war – referred to collectively as unexploded ordnance (UXO) – have killed and maimed more than 105,000 Vietnamese civilians in the four decades since, inflicting further misery on a scarred population.
Clearance activities funded by foreign governments and donors have been successful in reducing casualty numbers, but UXO still claims lives in Vietnam. Just a few weeks ago, a husband and wife were killed and their two young children were critically wounded while the family tried to dismantle a war-era bomb – to sell its parts for scrap metal – in the impoverished central province of Kon Tum.
Old bomb remaining from the Vietnam War, North Vietnam. Source: ShutterstockTragic incidents such as this are thankfully becoming more infrequent, in large part due to sustained international efforts to rid Vietnam of UXO. President Obama last year spoke of America’s ‘‘moral obligation’’ to help nations heal from the wounds of past conflicts involving the US in Indochina. But with President Trump now in the White House and having displayed no such sentiment on his recent visit to the region, long-term US funding for future clearance efforts has been thrown in to doubt.
Between 1965 and 1973, the US Air Force (USAF) dropped more than 400,000 tons of munitions striking almost every province in Vietnam. Cluster bombs – notorious for being particularly deadly due to their imprecise nature – were the primary weapon of choice for the US military, with each one dispersing hundreds of smaller bomblets over a wide area to inflict maximum damage.
Today, around 15 percent of Vietnam’s land area remains contaminated with unexploded bombs, which are hidden in dense forests, buried in farmland and concealed in towns and villages throughout the country. Six central provinces surrounding the former demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th Parallel – which once separated North and South Vietnam – are particularly heavily contaminated. Quang Tri province is the worst-affected, where up to 84 percent of land is plagued by the presence of UXO.
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The human toll inflicted by UXO is difficult to comprehend. Since the end of the war, more than 39,000 civilians have been killed and another 66,000 wounded by unexploded bombs. Tens-of-thousands of Vietnamese have become amputees, placing a huge burden on the country’s healthcare system. The economic impact is also stark: the widespread presence of UXO denies farmers access to fertile soil and hampers the provision of infrastructure, denying Vietnam the opportunity to increase agricultural productivity and develop its remote rural areas. The worst and most lasting legacy of UXO however, is its ability to leave a population living in a state of fear.
Despite the overwhelming scale of the problem, clearance efforts have made progress. A mixture of government-run bodies, the military and NGOs including Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have worked tirelessly to rid Vietnam of UXO. In the past twenty years more than 300,000 UXO items have been destroyed, thousands of square kilometres of land have been released for development and millions of Vietnamese have attended risk awareness sessions, reducing annual casualties to a fraction of the previous number. This effort has only been possible because of the funding provided by foreign donors, including the US State Department.
Since the election of President Trump, sustained future efforts to clear the remaining UXO – which even according to the lowest estimates could take many decades – have been thrown into doubt. The US Congressional Budget Justification for 2018, released earlier this year, appears to confirm these fears. The document calls for a reduction in total aid to Vietnam from US$110 million to US$82 million, whilst the separate allocation for ‘’non-proliferation, anti-terrorism and de-mining’’ activities is to be slashed from US$10 million to just US$7 million.
The cuts in international aid fall in line with President Trump’s more isolationist foreign policy, in which he has sought to pull-back the US from some of its commitments abroad and trim financial assistance for programs which are not viewed as being in the national interest.
When it comes to confronting the legacy of the Vietnam War, this sentiment indicates a marked shift from the more engaged approach taken in the final months of the previous administration. During a trip to Southeast Asia last year, President Obama spoke of the healing the wounds of war in Vietnam and pledged US$90 million in funding for the removal of UXO in neighbouring Laos.
On President Trump’s recent visit however, there was no mention of atoning for past mistakes in the region, and no new commitment to help clean-up UXO in countries still plagued by American bombs.
It is clear that Trump sees Vietnam first-and-foremost through a realist and strategic lens, rather than a moral one. In the Trump era, the national interests of the United States are the sole driver of bilateral relationships. Trump has shifted the dominant focus to trade, seeking to negotiate separate deals for the US with countries across the region, having adopted a protectionist stance and pulled-out of talks to join the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
President Trump’s visit did at least reinforce America’s view of Vietnam as an emerging partner and key ally in the region, as the US seeks to counter the dominance of China in the Asia-Pacific. The blossoming of bilateral ties between these two former enemies is all the more remarkable given that formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi were only restored in the mid-1990s.
As the two countries have fostered closer bonds, they have largely moved on from the shared horrors of the war. Yet more than four decades on, unexploded bombs continue to blight Vietnam’s landscape and maim its population. Whilst Trump’s discussions with Vietnam may seek to focus on the future, it may also prove beneficial to engage with the past.
A renewed long-term commitment from the US to fund UXO clearance would not just aid Vietnam’s healing and relieve the suffering of innocent civilians, but would help foster good-will and cement the deepening bilateral relationship between the two countries. Such a pledge however, appears unlikely in the Trump era, consigning future generations to live in fear from the threat of UXO.