The Country of the Apocalypse: On George Black’s “The Long Reckoning”

Elaine Elinson reviews George Black’s “The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam.”

The Country of the Apocalypse: On George Black’s “The Long Reckoning”

The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam by George Black. Knopf. 496 pages.

THE WALKWAY TO the Mine Action Visitor Center (MAVC) in Quảng Trị is lined with lush grasses, swaying palm trees, and blooming flowers in basins. As we drew closer, I noticed something unusual: the plants were growing in hollowed-out bomb casings and rusted artillery shells. Swords into plowshares.


There could be no more perfect place for such a memorial. Quảng Trị province, an area the size of Delaware, was the target of the most intensive aerial assault of the American War in Vietnam. In addition to carpet-bombing by B-52s, which dropped 750- and 500-pound bombs on villages, farmland, and forests, raging land battles left the earth littered with countless cluster bomblets, artillery shells, hand grenades, rockets, mortars, and land mines. This small rural province in the Central Highlands was subjected to more bombs than Germany in World War II, making it the most bombed place on Earth. One Vietnamese journalist called it “the country of the Apocalypse.”


Though the visitor center serves to memorialize the destruction that rained down on the people of Quảng Trị, it is much more than a memorial. Its primary goal is to educate local farmers, residents, and schoolchildren about the dangers that still lurk dangerously beneath the surface more than half a century later. The MAVC is one of the efforts of Project RENEW, an organization that also clears the myriad remnants of unexploded ordnance, which have injured or killed tens of thousands of people since the end of the war: farmers plowing their land; children mistaking the shiny remains of cluster bombs for toys; and residents, impoverished by the destruction of their farmland, seeking out abandoned weapons to sell for scrap metal.


Three people whose lives had been deeply touched by the war guided us through the visitor center. Chuck Searcy, who had been stationed in Saigon conducting military intelligence, moved to Vietnam in 1995 and helped found Project RENEW over the next few years. Manus Campbell is a former marine whose Delta Company was in Quảng Trị’s A Shau Valley during one of the most intense bombing raids in the war. Ngo Xuan Hien, a sweet-natured young man (his given name means “gentle”), grew up in the nearby village of Cam Lộ, where he remembers playing in bomb craters as a child; he is now part of the Project RENEW team that dismantles ordnance remaining in the ground.


The experiences of Searcy, Campbell, and Ngo are central to George Black’s penetrating new book, The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam. Black delves into their histories and reveals why each of them returned to the area to pursue the work of eradicating—or at least ameliorating—the deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange. Reading Black’s well-documented, vivid descriptions of the war and its aftermath stirred the same grim memories I had walking through Project RENEW’s Mine Action Visitor Center. It’s that powerfully written.


Black traveled widely in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and interviewed scores of veterans, scientists, doctors, and aid workers. He skillfully weaves together their insights with in-depth documentation of the war and its medical, social, and diplomatic aftermath.


I was in Vietnam with a delegation organized by the Vietnamese Veterans Association and Veterans for Peace Chapter 160, which is comprised of US veterans who now live and work in Vietnam. These men and women had fought on both sides of the conflict, and they were now coming together in peace to heal the wounds of war, literally and figuratively. We shuddered as we wandered through the MAVC’s well-executed multimedia displays documenting the tons of bombs, napalm, and toxic herbicides the US military dropped on Vietnam.


Black explains why the Central Highlands provinces, remote agricultural areas far from the major cities of Hanoi or Saigon, were subjected to the most ferocious attacks. The region, which lies just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), was a key hub of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the carefully constructed network of roads that allowed the People’s Army of North Vietnam to bring supplies and materiel to their forces throughout the country, all the way from the port of Haiphong to the outskirts of Saigon. Black describes in intriguing detail how this grassroots engineering marvel, which had to be constantly repaired because of the bombing, was crucial to the Vietnamese victory. It was a “vast spiderweb of all-weather roads” that included “tunnel complexes, repaired bridges, bridges that could be hidden underwater in the daytime, storage areas, truck depots, wireless relay stations, and […] a continuous telephone line.”


Manus Campbell arrived in the A Shau Valley as an FNG (Fucking New Guy) just as General William Westmoreland determined that this was the time and place for a new offensive. The recent New Jersey high school graduate witnessed the gruesome deaths of his fellow marines and survived many close calls himself.


When the aerial bombing started, Campbell’s unit set up a landing zone for the helicopters to evacuate the dead and wounded. He remembered the chaos that followed: “There were so many aircraft in the skies that they interfered with artillery strikes; helicopters flew into the line of fire without warning; bombs missed their targets; radios were knocked out; men were wounded by friendly fire.” It took him decades to recall the horror of it all: “It’s all locked away, the sights, the sounds, the feelings. My youth. The screams of the dying and the screams of my own dying.”


While Campbell was on one side of the barricades in Quảng Trị, Ngo’s mother, Phan Thi Hanh, was on the other. As a teenager, she had been imprisoned and tortured—including being waterboarded and having snakes put inside her clothes—for protesting the Ngô Đình Diệm regime. On release, she joined the People’s Liberation Armed Forces and was assigned to clandestinely carry weapons to the front line. Her son Hien, born after the war, played with bullets he found in the hedgerows after a rain and witnessed villagers blinded or severely wounded when they stumbled upon unexploded ordnance.


Black calls the US military’s use of a rainbow of toxic chemicals—Agent Blue, Agent Purple, Agent Orange—a campaign “without precedent in history, using all the tools of science, technology, and airpower to lay waste to a country’s natural environment.” From 1961 to 1971, the United States dropped 20 million gallons of herbicides on Vietnam, covering 3,000 villages in one-sixth of the country, affecting between two to four million people. Agent Orange, containing dioxin, one of the deadliest chemicals known to man, was the most widely used. The defoliants were geared both to clear forests and jungles around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, destroying cover for Vietnamese troops, and to poison rice paddies and other crops, forcing farmers from their villages and into government-run “strategic hamlets.”


Vietnamese scientists began studying these toxins’ effects on the land and people as early as 1965. Hepatologist Le Cao Dai, whom one American scientist dubbed “the Albert Einstein of Agent Orange and dioxin research,” set up a field hospital in the heavily sprayed Central Highlands. Using scalpels fashioned from salvaged American aircraft parts and stethoscopes made out of remnants of flare tubes, he treated local residents and became alarmed at the high rates of liver cancer and birth defects. Several Saigon newspapers defied government censors and published his reports on the impact of spraying toxic defoliants, including “pictures of hideously deformed fetuses: one […] that had three legs wrapped around its head and half its face missing. Four of the papers were promptly shut down, but the word was out.”


In time, American scientists joined Le’s efforts. Matthew Meselson, a leading molecular geneticist from Harvard Medical School, analyzed samples of fish and crustaceans, breast milk, human hair, and jars of fish sauce bottled in different years from the areas that were most heavily sprayed. Meselson concluded that the dioxin in Agent Orange was “100 times more poisonous than the most powerful nerve gas […] An evil genius could not devise a toxin with more evil properties.”


The only way dioxin can be excreted from the body is through breast milk, which meant that mothers were passing the poison to their babies when they breastfed. Scientists determined that babies in this area had a daily intake of dioxin 20 times higher than the maximum safe level set by the World Health Organization. The most life-giving substance had become the most poisonous.


In Saigon’s Tu Du Hospital, dedicated doctors care for severely disabled children—now three and four generations removed from the war—whose families cannot cope. The hospital also houses a room with rows and rows of shelves with jars containing fetuses that could not survive because they were born without brains or other vital organs.


Black juxtaposes his description of the children of Tu Du, many of whom are missing limbs, eyes, and other facial features and are unable to speak or walk, with the refusal of the US government to address—or even speak about—the impact of Agent Orange until decades after the war. And only after the Veterans Administration acknowledged that cancers and birth defects in the children of US veterans were connected to their exposure to Agent Orange. “Agent Orange proved to be a scientific, political, cultural, emotional, and ethical minefield of unique complexity,” Black writes, “a kind of symbolic surrogate for people’s feelings about the war in general.”


Black, a British journalist based in New York, was formerly a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and foreign editor of The Nation and is the author of seven previous books on India, China, Iraq, US foreign policy, and the environment. His meticulously researched book would have been improved by the inclusion of a glossary to allow readers to decode the arcane terminology of war: the military—both the brass and those on the ground—are infamous for their use of jargon and acronyms, and it’s easy to get lost among the UXO, FNG, TCDD, DEROS, and other alphabetic verbiage.


The deadly history of the US war still lies beneath the earth in Vietnam. Organizations like Project RENEW, veterans like Searcy and Campbell, liberation fighters’ descendants like Ngo, and others continue to do everything they can to make sure this history is unearthed, exposed, and not forgotten. Black’s The Long Reckoning is an excellent addition to that crucial effort.


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Elaine Elinson is co-author of the award-winning Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Liberties in California (2009). During the Vietnam War, she toured with the anti-war FTA Show in Southeast Asia.

LARB Contributor

Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Liberties in California (2009), winner of a gold medal in the California Book Awards.

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