When Chuck Searcy arrived in Vietnam in June 1967 as a US Army intelligence analyst, little might he have expected that nearly 30 years later he would return to live and work in the country he once swore was his enemy. But doubts about the war set in during his years of service – doubts that only grew after his return to home soil. Propelled by a niggling sense of guilt, Searcy returned in 1995 with a new job and a new mission – working to atone for his own country’s actions.
Searcy now works with several organisations in Vietnam, including Project Renew, one of a handful of groups dealing with the thousands of bombs and mines – known as unexploded ordnance or UXO – that still litter the Vietnamese countryside around the former Demilitarised Zone.
Decades since the war ended in 1975, Searcy’s new line of work remains in desperate demand. During the war, 14 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Vietnam – nearly three times the amount dropped by the Allies throughout the second world war. An estimated 10-30 per cent of it failed to detonate.
That has proved a lethal legacy – more than 100,000 civilians have been killed by buried bombs and mines since 1975. Even today, the Vietnamese government believes around 15 per cent of the country’s total surface area is contaminated by UXO, a rate that rises to 84 per cent in areas such as Quang Tri Province, located on what was the division between North and South.
Yet despite such figures, Searcy’s efforts to help atone for the US military’s bloody campaign in Vietnam could be scrapped under the administration of US President Donald Trump. “At this time, the pressure is increasing for us at Project Renew and the US State Department to get the job done, soon,” Searcy said. “That’s because of funding uncertainties, with the Trump administration, and because us vets are getting older – plus attention continues to shift to active conflict areas – which never seem to end – such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and others.”
The FY 2018 Congressional Budget Justification released by the Trump administration calls for a 26 per cent reduction in total aid to Vietnam next year, from US$111.5 million in 2016 to US$82 million, with the budget for “non-proliferation, antiterrorism, de-mining and related programmes” cut by a third, from US$10.5 million to US$7 million.
Searcy said Project Renew had made remarkable progress in Quang Tri Province. In 2001, when the organisation started its work, there were 70-80 accidents. In 2016, there was one. “This year, so far, through mid-July, there have been zero accidents. That’s our goal.”
Searcy said efforts to remove UXO were far from over and more funding was needed, as Vietnam remains heavily contaminated with remnants of the war. “That [success] does not mean that the work won’t continue, because it will, it has to,” he said. “And it will go on many years into the future.”
The Mines Advisory Group (Mag) has been removing UXO in Vietnam since 1999. It has operations in Quang Tri and Quang Binh, another heavily bombed province, and also runs similar programmes in Cambodia, Sierra Leone and a dozen or so other countries.
Since it began operations in Vietnam – not only removing UXO but also educating those living in the countryside on how to spot and report the bombs – the organisation has cleared more than 46 million square metres of land and removed 290,000 pieces of UXO, said Le Anh Thu, a programme officer at Mag Vietnam.
Its efforts are contingent on one major factor: outside funding. “[Our work] is so much driven by the funding,” said Thu. “This is the challenge that, not only Mag, but other mine action operators in Vietnam are facing. As long as we have funding we will still carry on this work.”
While funding from the United States has steadily increased over the past 13 years, Trump’s trimming of the UXO removal budget could make it harder for Mag Vietnam to do its job. Given the US Department of State has been one of Mag Vietnam’s main donors since 2004, the operation felt under pressure, Thu said.
For Thu, and many others helping Vietnam recover from the bloody legacies of the war, it is hard to fathom why Washington would renege on its pledges to remove UXO from Vietnam. In the eyes of most Vietnamese, the US bears the brunt of the responsibility for a war that was reckless, poorly planned and unnecessary. “I think most of the contamination in Vietnam was a consequence of the American war,” said Thu. “I think as a Vietnamese citizen, the US government should be responsible for all these consequences of the war in Vietnam.”
Asked what impact aid cuts would have on Vietnam’s development and whether the US had a moral obligation to clean up, a US State Department official said the move would support “the president’s commitments to make the US government more efficient by streamlining efforts to ensure effectiveness of US taxpayer dollars.
“The president’s [budget request] includes up to US$15 million for Agent Orange/dioxin clean-up and US$7 million for clearance of US-origin unexploded ordnance in Vietnam. Addressing these legacies from the Vietnam war will advance cooperation between our countries.”
Not everyone in the US government is complacent in regard to the budget cuts. The office of Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who is one of several politicians to have advocated for post-war aid to Vietnam, said the senator planned to fight the cuts. Even politicians on Trump’s side of the aisle have signalled discontent, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling the budget “dead on arrival”.
Still, with the Trump administration making it clear it intends to maintain an isolationist approach to foreign policy, and with many US citizens disillusioned with the idea of handing out more foreign aid, there is an anxiety felt by those in Vietnam who seem to be racing against the clock to finish their war clean-up efforts.
“That commitment from the State Department [to aid UXO removal] has been in place for several years, and it seemed to be locked in as a pledge for the future,” said Searcy, of Project Renew. “However, it’s clear from embassy people and agency people who are here that there is quite a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know what might happen. It’s possible that President Trump may wake up one morning and say, ‘We’re not going to spend another dime on this stuff, too bad, that’s the end of it’.”
Searcy said it was the unpredictable nature of the US administration that was perhaps most unnerving. “The pressure, I think, is in the uncertainty,” he said. ■