The US’ use of chemical warfare is far more insidious than what it executed conventionally militarily in Vietnam. Unlike napalm, which immediately scalded its victims, Agent Orange killed and maimed its victims slowly over time, its effects passed down through generations, wreaking untold horrors on a mostly civilian populace.
In the end, the military campaign was called Operation Ranch Hand, but it originally went by a more appropriately hellish appellation: Operation Hades. As part of this Vietnam War effort, from 1961 to 1971, the United States sprayed over 73 million liters of chemical agents on the country to strip away the vegetation that provided cover for Vietcong troops in “enemy territory.”
Using a variety of defoliants, the U.S. military also intentionally targeted cultivated land, destroying crops and disrupting rice production and distribution by the largely communist National Liberation Front, a party devoted to reunification of North and South Vietnam.
Some 45 million liters of the poisoned spray was Agent Orange, which contains the toxic compound dioxin. It has unleashed in Vietnam a slow-onset disaster whose devastating economic, health and ecological impacts that are still being felt today.
This is one of the greatest legacies of the country’s 20-year war, but is yet to be honestly confronted. Even Ken Burns and Lynn Novick seem to gloss over this contentious issue, both in their supposedly exhaustive “Vietnam War” documentary series and in subsequent interviews about the horrors of Vietnam.