Monday, February 23, 2015

Wages of War: Vietnam and Iraq
One of the frequent acts of hubris by war makers is to ignore the consequences of war that will last a generation or more. Political leaders rarely point to any outcome of a war unfolding apart from the war's aims -- glorious victory, horrid enemy vanquished, few casualties, peace and prosperity for all.
But war has a mind of its own, as nearly every conflict of the past 70 years has taught us. The Second World War deluded Americans into believing that we could manage enormous conflicts and win them unequivocally. It was, however, a consequence of the bloody First World War and exacted a colossal scale of carnage -- 50 million dead and an equal number displaced. And that was "the good war."
Since then, we have had four major conflicts, and we see every day the lasting consequences of carnage. In Korea, there is the contemptible north. In Afghanistan, we are in effect waiting to turn the keys over to the Taliban, as a longtime observer of the country, Anna Badkhen, recently remarked to me. The toll of 100,000 or so Afghans and the millions displaced and immiserated hardly registers even on America's short-term memory.
Consider, then, two other sizable wars: the U.S. wars in Vietnam and in Iraq. The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago on April 30 as the Viet Cong overran Saigon. Vietnam went through years of extreme hardship after the war, emerging to be a dynamic country. But the war took an enormous toll. Not only were there some three million killed and five million displaced, and the 10-20 years of deprivation following, but residual chemical warfare and unexploded bombs that bedevil the country four decades after the war's abrupt end.
"From 1961-1971, the U.S. military sprayed 18 million liters of chemicals, including 366 kilograms of dioxin," Pham Troung of the Center for International Studies and Cooperation explained to me recently in Hanoi. Dioxin, the lethal component of the defoliant Agent Orange used by American forces, is one of the world's most toxic substances. "It got into water supply and land sediment. Humans, animals, and plants were contaminated. The local ecosystems were totally destroyed."

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