Fighting Nature in ‘Nam (1)

Very shortly it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Ia Drang between the United States army and the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese Army) in a war in which arguably the climate, terrain and environment were more life-threatening for the Americans than the enemy.

Political geographer, Derek Gregory, neatly refers to the relationship between Nature and combat as ‘The Natures of War’: ‘it is a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and para-military violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities’.

Four months after the battle of Ia Drang President Lyndon Johnson was urging that he metaphorically (?) wanted the ‘coonskins nailed to the wall’: the battle saw heavy casualties on both sides, being the first time they had met head-on in a major engagement, but it highlighted for both high commands that the war would be won by a ‘grinding’ process; this would also conform to what Gregory terms ‘the spoils of war’, which ‘include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’.

The obvious answer to save American infantry lives was intense aerial bombardment, but the impact on nature of this bombardment had unforeseen consequences, as Frederick Downs wrote in his memoir The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War: ‘the jungle had been torn to smithereens by the big bombs. Trees had been ripped from the ground forming an abatis of twisted, inter-attached splintered branches, vines, and roots that was more impenetrable than the worst the natural jungle had to offer.’

Another obvious answer to the problem of American casualties was to destroy the forest protection of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong; this was the rationale behind ‘Operation Hades’, quickly re-named by the less frightening code-name ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, as the plan to spray forests with herbicides, ‘Agent Orange’ being the best known.

Again there were unforeseen natural consequences for the infantry, as John Delezen observed the after-effects of Phantom jets delivering ‘snake and nape’ – slang for a bombing mix of 250 lb ‘Snakeye’ bombs and 500 lb napalm canisters – in his memoir Eye of the Tiger:
‘ the splintered, tortured tree trunks are black and charred from the napalm and the oily gel that did not ignite has mixed with the red mud, turning it into a texture similar to axle grease. My pack and ammo belt are waterlogged and have picked up extra weight from the greasy mud. The mud has clogged the lug-soles of our jungle boots and it is difficult not to slip; we know that if we lose our footing we will end up at the bottom of the mountain. I use my weapon to climb, digging the stock into the mud as a brace while I grab the next bomb-blasted tree trunk. The oily napalm has lubricated the entire mountain, it has soaked into the burned trees; we have to grasp each splintered trunk in a hug. The black M-16 no longer resembles a rifle; it is encased within a shapeless red blob of sticky mud’.                        Jasper Humphreys

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