The Jungle

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run Three soldiers on patrol in dense Vietnam jungle

Vietnam is comprised of very dense jungle, especially in areas that contained a bulk of the fighting.  This was because the jungle was proven to have rich lands for farming and the North Vietnamese wanted to control those areas out of strategic importance.  Because the jungle acted as a natural barrier to troop movements it also supplied cover for the enemy.  The only way to combat against the jungle was to remove it.  Setting fire to the jungle remained very unpredictable and the rainforest was heavily saturated and canceled out a precise burn.  The best plan the army dreamed up was to spray a herbicide much like today’s traditional Round-Up, this herbicide was designed to kill all forms of jungle or plant vegetation.  The army used a vast variety of different herbicides in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand but the most prevalent one was known as Agent Orange nicknamed for the orange barrels that contained the chemical and for the color it produced when it was sprayed.  From the beginning of the 1960’s on into the early 1970’s the U.S. military sprayed a variety of herbicides across the Vietnam’s expansive countryside, an area of roughly 4.5 million acres.  These herbicides targeted the natural forest and food supplies that the North Vietnamese relied upon in the south to wage war against the U.S. and South Vietnam.  They were able to cover so much ground with these herbicides by spraying them via large aircraft.  The chemicals douse roads, rivers, and areas known to harbor enemy movements and farmlands that provided aid to the enemy.  Unfortunately, during this process corps and water supplies that were used by civilians and South Vietnam residents, and Indigenous tribes were also laced with these harmful chemicals.  In total American forces sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicides by aircraft, trucks, and hand sprayers across the Indochinese peninsula though Operation Ranch Hand.  During the war military personnel often joked about the spraying of the herbicide and it’s effect on the environment “Some military personnel during the Vietnam War era joked that, “Only you can prevent a forest,” a twist on the U.S. Forest Service’s popular fire-fighting ad campaign that featured Smokey the Bear.”  Agent Orange was a very effective agent to remove the forest when sprayed as it prevented vegetation from growing for the next several years, but what the U.S faired to know that Agent Orange also contained dioxin.  The dioxin in the compound went unnoticed as it was not intentionally put into the herbicide, rather it was a by product of several ingredients that were used not just in Agent Orange but in most herbicides that were being produced during the war.  Studies done on animals during the war and after proved that dioxin, even in small doses, was highly toxic and became a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent.  In very limited doses it caused skin discoloration, skin disease, and liver problems.  Dioxin was also known to also be linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption, and heart disease.  When soldiers returned home from the war families began reporting on a range of symptoms that included skin rashes, miscarriages, and psychological symptoms which families attributed to the use of Agent Orange.  Some families even reported more serious case of type 2 diabetes, birth defects in children, and other forms of cancer like leukemia and prostate cancer.  As more and more families attributed these medical problems to Agent Orange by 1979 a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 2.4 million U.S. veterans who were exposed to it.  Five years of out court settlements with several large companies that produced herbicide led to an agreement to pay $180 million in compensation.  As a result of the spraying the U.S defoliation program reported that nearly 400,000 people had died or were maimed as a result to being exposed to herbicides.  Vietnam reported that near 2 million people suffered from different forms of cancer or Agent Orange related illnesses.  Vietnam also reported that nearly half a million children were born with birth defects because of their parents’ exposure to these chemicals.

Guerrilla forces from North Vietnam's Vietcong movement cross a river in 1966 during the Vietnam War

The geography of Vietnam not only led to problems for the Americans, but it also promoted a certain type of military strategy, guerilla warfare.  Unlike traditional forms of tactics, guerilla warfare refers to small conflicts where combatants use their environment to their advantage by using stealth and the element of surprise to strike at their opponent.  This tactic was adopted by the North Vietnamese because it gave them the advantage in combat.  In the beginning of the war the main force North Vietnamese were full-time soldiers and were used as a traditional force launching conventional large-scale offensives.  Regional forces were also employed by the North, typically they operated inside of their specific regional but on occasion might join a main attack.  Anytime the U.S. or South Vietnamese forces countered an attack the enemy forces quickly scattered which made it difficult for the U.S. to track their enemy’s movements.  Unlike main and regional forces, local forces where not full-time soldiers they were mostly teenagers, while some might have been motivated by idealism, most were forced into joining.  Since most of them were teenagers they also lacked the confidence and feared getting into combat with trained American soldiers.  By the beginning of America’s formal involvement in Vietnam many local forces were being fully armed and trained for the upcoming conflict.  In December of 1965, Ho Chi Minh order a change their in tactics as to how they were going to combat their enemy.  Ho Chi Minh wanted to avoid open field engagements against the enemy because he knew his forces would most likely lose, since all of the American forces were far more trained than some of the teenagers that fought for the North Vietnamese.  Ho Chi Minh switched tactics to a traditional guerilla warfare that included more hit and run attacks as well as ambushes. The North Vietnamese increased their recruitment efforts in the South in order to combat the escalation of U.S. troops.  The problem this created for the North Vietnamese was now these local forces were becoming larger and larger making them much easier to be spotted from air, so to counter act this some large operation, and operations near enemy bases were moved underground.  These underground tunnel networks were not treated as shelters to escape the enemy’s patrols but as a defensible base position in which they were able to provide support to their troops.

The Jungle