The Vietnam War's Environmental Legacy

The Vietnam War's Environmental Legacy

Land has a memory. And I think a lot of
times when we think about war we think about it as a battle, as combatants on
the battlefield. But in fact the places where these battles take place, that war
becomes embedded in the landscape. Those memories of war can last for generations.
One of the areas that I'm most interested in is to look at the legacies,
the environmental legacies of conflict and in this case the Vietnam War.
Environmental historians, generally we study the relationships between human
history and the environment. Ways that those environments have changed,
also the entanglements, the ways that our societies are in many ways constrained
by damage to the environment, and a lot of that damage happened in the last
hundred years. I started this research many years ago. I've been traveling back
and forth to Vietnam since 1993, I was an English teacher working in Saigon. And I
remember from the early days, traveling along on the highways, old painted over
South Vietnamese flags or giant empty spaces. So there were these large scars
in a sense left in the landscape. I just became interested in the
environmental legacy and how people in Vietnam are dealing with that. Different
specialists who are doing research or engineers doing environmental cleanups,
they rely on historians to give them a picture of what the place looked like,
where materials might have been, how much why they were being used. This is an
opening for historians in particular to try to characterize those places. What I
try to do is to show that the chemical history in Vietnam was much much more
broad. This was an era in the 1960s where chemicals were being opened up and
experimented with. We're dropping barrels of napalm to try to push people out of
these underground bunkers. That was an important chemical as well as tear gas. Tear gas was used extensively throughout the war. This
is the workhorse of the American war. This is the UH-1B or Huey. And this
one in particular was a gunship, but these helicopters did all kinds of
aerial missions. They were spraying missions, spraying Agent Orange. They were
used for medevac to bring wounded soldiers out of combat areas. A lot of
the landscape was torn up from the war. More bombs were dropped in Vietnam than
all of Europe and World War Two about five times over. What I soon discovered
however is that really one of the most impressive features in Vietnam are the
people, and the the culture, the life on the sidewalks. In Vietnam, one of the things
that's really amazing is that if you take an interest in the culture, in the
history, and you're willing to listen to people, I've never met more hospitable
people. I love taking students to Vietnam. I love to see students transformed. For
many of these students it changes their trajectory in a sense about how they
view college, what they think about in their career, it's a really immersive
educational experience. UC Riverside and the UC system in general has been a
fantastic base for doing this project and UCR is incredibly supportive with
allowing to arrange schedule for teaching, for service. A lot of the
research that I would have had to travel thousands of miles to do ten years ago,
I'm now able to do working in Riverside. I think my work is unique just in that I
take an environmental approach to history in Vietnam.
Very few people look at the environment in this area. How does the world's
largest military with all of these incredible machines and technology, fight
people that are fighting from their past, that is linked to these invisible
landscapes around them. Maybe there are nonviolent approaches that might
actually achieve more. The stories that I tell I hope will complicate a sense of
what is Vietnam it shows them a different view on Vietnam, a country with a much
deeper history than just the American War

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2 thoughts on “The Vietnam War's Environmental Legacy

  1. Thank you Prof. Biggs for your sustained efforts in public history and environmental activism! It was a privilege having you as my first history professor at UCR and I'm delighted to have pursued the same scholastic path as you!

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