AFTER THE WAR ENDED IN 1975 THE PAVN MOVED IN TO THE OLD BASES while the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) commenced a new era of postwar governance. As in previous postwar moments, especially 1945 and 1954, this one in 1975–76 included its fair share of social and environmental ruins. Faced with international isolation, food shortages, and an economic depression in 1976, the unified socialist state had few resources to redevelop militarized areas. Nor was there a large-scale demobilization of military forces after 1975. The People’s Army sent troops to occupy Cambodia in 1978, and in 1979 it fought a border war with China. As a socialist planned economy, the SRV was not inclined to follow Western countries that had redeveloped old bases into industrial parks. Instead, the SRV embarked on new campaigns for agricultural collectivization and small-scale industrialization while local gleaners picked apart scrap metal and any usable materials from the hills.
Given the scale of construction around Huế, especially after 1968, processes of deconstruction, salvage, and recovery were extremely slow at first. In 1980–81, a documentary film team from WGBH in Boston visited Huế collecting footage for Vietnam: A Television History. Footage shot along Highway 1 from the airport into Huế shows the hills running up to the former Camp Eagle. In figure 6.1, a tank and armored vehicle stand frozen in time from 1975, yet to be rendered into scrap metal. In the distance, two squares of utility poles form the outline of a helicopter hangar now stripped of its siding. This graveyard-like image of abandoned war machines, standing in place for over six years, suggests that removal of this equipment was not slowed just by the physical challenges of cutting armor plating with hand tools but by social and political indecision about what vestiges of the war to keep.
Especially for many PAVN and PLAF veterans, these dead tanks did not just signify victories but also served to remind people of the scale of destruction in the war, something easier to forget now that most of the war’s remains have disappeared. While not discussed in official histories, these local debates over the preservation of war remains were common. I learned about them firsthand in 2001 while driving by motorbike on a stretch of highway north of Sài Gòn. I found a tank parked beside the highway, its large gun poking out of some trees. I stopped the bike and, without thinking, crawled up on the tank, curious as to why this war object had been left on the side of the road with no signs, no historical markers, no explanation. Moments later, an older man on motorbike drove by and then circled back, no doubt surprised to see a foreigner standing on the tank. He parked his bike next to mine and waited for me to climb down. When I addressed him in Vietnamese and answered his questions about where I came from and what I was doing in Vietnam (working toward my PhD), the conversation turned more than a little bit uncomfortable. I was an American on the upper edge of military-serving age with a shaved head, speaking Vietnamese. We talked about the tank. He’d served in a PLAF unit that fought along this highway, what American GIs referred to as Thunder Road (Highway 13). He explained that after the war, he and other veterans organized to keep the tank on the roadside as a memorial to the people who died there. In 2015 I drove the same stretch of highway again, but the tank was gone.
This decision about what vestiges to keep or let go is a complex one with many parallels around the world. Landscapes are often at the center of debates involving veterans and national history. Walls pockmarked by shrapnel or metal skeletons of tanks and downed planes often serve as focal points for state-guided reflection. Proponents of memorialization seek such ruined monuments so that people will never forget, while others seek to erase these old war vestiges to move on. Communities are often divided, too, in trying to balance the desires of veterans and the younger generation. Mr. Phương, a resident of Dạ Lê Village who fought with the 324th Regiment, described to me his shock after 1975 when the one-time cityscape of Camp Eagle “looking like New York, bright lights like crazy” turned into the empty wasteland in figure 6.1. A native of the village and a political officer with the 324th, he returned to the village in 1975 and hoped to preserve parts of Camp Eagle while also salvaging some of the metal siding to build his house. He went north to Hà Nội for training courses in the early 1980s (when the shot in figure 6.1 was captured); when he returned home the tanks were gone.
They cleared [the hills] so that several years later there was nothing left; before when I looked from Chín Hầm out here it was like New York City, bright lights like crazy. But then they cleared out after several years and left it empty; they managed it so nobody could take anything…. I returned here and just farmed. My house then was an iron siding house, just built. At that time, I resolved to preserve one military tank here as a reminder, but then I went to Hà Nội to study and the people here took it [for scrap], removing everything…. I had intended to preserve the [American] base in Hamlet 5; because I lived near it I knew to preserve the base intact so that later our children and people could come and visit. But they’d taken and broken up everything already. The stuff the Americans had left was all destroyed…. I only took some iron siding, brought a motorcycle cart to carry them, but I didn’t take anything else.1
Half a world away in the United States, veterans and journalists also sparred over similar debates about these landscapes in Vietnam. Paul Scipione served in the 101st Airborne at Camp Eagle during the war, and he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times after reading journalist Craig Whitney’s account of a return visit to Phú Bài and Camp Eagle in 1983. Whitney worked in Huế in 1972 and 1973 as a reporter, writing for the Times on the communist offensive and the fallout after the American troop withdrawals. In his essay Whitney remarked on scenes of new construction along Highway 1 and the empty spaces where the American bases once stood. Scipione responded in a letter to the Times:
I found Craig R. Whitney’s retrospective, “A Bitter Peace: Life in Vietnam” (Oct. 30, 1983) provocative. However, I must respectfully disagree with his observation “that only stones were left where American bases had stood—Camp Eagle, home of the 101st Airborne Division; military airfield at Phu Bai.” … As a former NCO [noncommissioned officer] in the 101st who spent a short but incredibly intense part of my life at Phu Bai and Camp Eagle, I know with certainty that more is left there than a few stones—things like honor and comradeship, our former naïveté and the blood of ourselves and others, in the sand. For those of us who fought there, Phu Bai and Camp Eagle remain something indelible—a place in our minds and memories, not just places on a map.2
Both Scipione’s and Phương’s struggles concerned the meanings of past traumas inscribed not only in the physical landscape but also in their minds. That Camp Eagle and Dạ Lê Village were halfway around the world from Metuchen was irrelevant.
PROBLEMATIC RUINS AND FAMILY REUNIONS
Contrasted with postwar moments in 1945 and 1954, the postwar period followed one of the most concentrated, physically destructive wars in modern history. War’s footprints on the landscape—abandoned bases and millions of bomb craters—remained vivid, but there were countless internal scars too. Residents in Dạ Lê Village, for example, described major demographic shifts. First, many of the men did not come back; in the first years after the war, it was a village of women. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many pro-RVN families began to disappear, secretly escaping in the dark of night to fishing boats on the coast. Finally, new settlers from the north central province of Quảng Bình, a mix of PAVN veterans and refugees from zones north of the DMZ arrived. They attempted to reclaim the bare hills of Hamlet 5 inside the former Camp Eagle. One man recalled that until the mid-1980s not even eucalyptus trees would grow in these compacted, chemically sprayed soils.3
Vietnam’s embargo on media descriptions of postwar troubles eased a bit in the early 1990s after the historic Đổi Mới (Renovation) reforms of 1986. Vietnamese veterans began publishing short stories and novels that pointed to painful personal tragedies, shattered marriages, and crippling post-traumatic stress. First published as a newspaper serial in 1991 and translated into English in 1993, veteran Bảo Ninh’s The Sorrow of War has become a classic of this genre for foreign audiences, providing readers a glimpse of these seldom documented but widely acknowledged, stressful engagements with former war sites as well as struggles simply going home. While the following passage takes place near Hà Nội, it could have easily taken place in the villages around Huế. It describes the protagonist, Kiên, a veteran suffering from intense post-traumatic stress disorder who returns to Hà Nội only to find a city hollowed out by bombing where the love of his youth has forgotten him. The sorrow that Bảo Ninh conjures in a story that jumps back and forth in time and dissolves into dreamlike encounters with ghosts seamlessly joins individual suffering with dystopic landscapes. In describing Kiên’s visit to a fallen comrade’s family to return his personal items, Bảo Ninh writes:
The landscape was half marsh, half rubbish dump. The scrawny children wore rags…. The hamlet’s inhabitants were semibeggars, gathering garbage for their meager living, and there were small dumps of obviously stolen goods lining the paths where thieves had set up tiny stalls. Someone pointed Vinh’s family house to Kiên. It was like all the others, a shanty of tin and old timber, surrounded by garbage. Vinh’s little sister was barely fifteen then. Her eyes had swollen and sent tears down her cheeks as she recognized her brother’s knapsack and his personal belongings. There was no need to ask why Kiên had come to visit them. The sad news was there for them to touch. Vinh’s blind mother sat with the girl, feeling the items as she handed them over. A cloth hat. A folded knife. An iron bowl. A broken flute. A notebook. When Kiên rose to leave, the old lady had reached up and touched his cheek. “At least you came back,” she said quietly.4
Repeatedly in the novel, Bảo Ninh emphasizes the intense struggles that surround this soldier’s return home in landscape terms—coming back to ruined spaces. The novel captures in such personal exchanges what has remained for decades after 1975 one of the most difficult processes of postwar recovery for millions of Vietnamese.
Especially in the former border provinces of Thừa Thiên–Huế and Quảng Trị, of the first landscapes to attract private attention were the lands dotted with tombs and family shrines. With the economic reforms of the 1990s, the SRV permitted remittances from overseas Vietnamese to relatives who stayed. These remittances quickly ran into billions of dollars. Much of the money went to ancestral homelands (quê hương), not only money for personal needs, medicine, and so on, but also to rebuild the village and especially family tombs.5
As a frequently traveling in-law (rể) in an extended Vietnamese family, with ties to a paternal homeland in Trung Đơn, a tiny village in Quảng Trị Province, and maternal relatives in Huế, I had frequent opportunities to attend village and family ceremonies while negotiating my own roles as a son-in-law to a founding family. Through my father-in-law, Lý Tô, I was privy to one man’s experience of working with a cousin in Huế, Uncle Nghiên, to get money back to the village. Like many central Vietnamese families, the Lý family was split in its wartime affiliations mostly along gender lines. Tô’s father encouraged him and his elder brother to get advanced educations; they matriculated through Huế’s best schools and traveled to the United States on engineering scholarships. The same father, following traditional village custom, discouraged his four daughters from studying beyond the third grade. In the 1960s three of them joined the NLF, where they received a revolutionary education. They met their future husbands working with the PLAF and the party. At one family reunion in Huế, one of these “rebel aunties” half-joked with me saying she was in her youth just like the women in the black pajamas with the AK-47, “bang bang.” This split family situation, some siblings moving to the United States and others staying in Vietnam, was not uncommon during the war, especially on the central coast.
As Vietnam expanded its diplomatic and trade relations with the United States in the mid-1990s, these split families began to reconnect. Tô and his brother Đãi joined an association of overseas Trung Đơn villagers and focused on supporting family reunions and village projects with other family clans, the Hoàng, Ngô, Hồ, and Nguyễn. As did other family- and village-based networks, they raised tens of thousands of dollars over twenty years to bring electricity to the village, rebuild roads, build bridges, and carry out other constructive works. The Trung Đơn Network raised funds for college scholarships at Huế University. Mostly Buddhists, they also raised funds to build a new Buddhist pagoda and restore family tombs. Uncle Nghiên acted as a go-between with overseas relatives, making sure the funds reached their destination.
As an in-law and a Vietnamese-speaking foreigner on trips to Trung Đơn, I enjoyed lavish feasts and a front-seat view on one family’s effort to reconnect. We met the uncles who as war heroes helped manage government paperwork required to turn overseas remittances into roads and scholarships. A member of the village people’s committee joined one death anniversary (ngày đám giỗ) feast for my wife’s grandfather. After the meal several men from the family led me to the recently reconstructed Lý family shrine honoring the founding ancestor who had settled in the village in the mid-1500s.
In addition to overseas relatives, increasingly wealthy urban family descendants in Vietnam have joined in this family-centered form of history-making. Family members whose parents served in PAVN-PLAF forces and some whose parents served in the ARVN have joined these village networks, contributing to construction efforts, and have tapped in to family and village networks when they travel abroad. Provincial and communal public works departments have grown wealthier, too, and they have replaced remittance-funded projects with wider roads, more electric power, bridges, and other public services. Now more than forty years since the war’s end, the increasing number of village festivals and family reunions and the ever-more-opulent tomb and shrine constructions suggest hopeful signs for rebuilding village landscapes and healing the tangible and intangible wounds of war.
Like the ghosts that haunt Kiên in Bảo Ninh’s novel, the chemical remains of war on the central coast present a different political and environmental challenge. One of the most troubling remains from the war are the many toxic chemicals left not only from the herbicide program but also from industrial chemicals disposed at landfills around former bases. Lacking expensive, high-tech methods for genetic testing or mass spectroscopy in soils, many people living in former spray zones or near former bases are left to wonder whether clusters of birth defects or cancers are associated with invisible toxins. One resident of Dạ Lê Village born in 1925, Mr. Minh, described a familiar pattern of ailments that he believed were associated to his exposure to Agent Orange. He explained how he regrouped to the north in 1954 and then returned south along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail in Laos, where he worked during the war in the 1960s managing a fifty-person transport team in charge of five boats at a ferry crossing called Tà Khống. He and his team were repeatedly sprayed with herbicides. He suspected that his son’s severely deformed legs may have been related to his exposure to these “poisons” but he had no way to prove it.6 Minh’s story is common in Vietnam, and over the decades newspapers, books, and films have popularized these fears with calls for justice and reparations from the United States.
My initial interest in using historical records to track these chemical footprints pushed my interest in the larger historical project, and it also raised my awareness of the more general problem posed by so many different chemical traces in the land. My research in Huế began around the research of historical maps and records identifying possible chemical hotspots near former US bases. I conveyed scans of the Tenth Chemical Platoon’s daily records at Camp Eagle to the Director of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province’s Department of Science and Technology, and we discussed using historical records to more accurately pinpoint suspected chemical dumps.7 While Agent Orange remains a highly restricted topic for foreign research in Vietnam, this more general problem of toxic waste cleanups at former US base sites is of equal if not greater importance to local economic and development policies.
Using military text records and imagery, I worked with a handful of geographers and a remote sensing specialist in Huế to generate land cover maps of both Camp Eagle and the Phú Bài Combat Base. We digitized historic air photos of the base areas in 1972 as a starting point and then digitized land cover areas using the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s standard land cover categories. We digitized land cover layers from satellite imagery produced in 2001 and 2009, and we analyzed the 1972 air photos using text records and visual inference to locate suspected storage depots. In 2012 we presented the maps with suspect chemical hotspot candidate sites to officials from the province and the district. As is common with foreigners involved in such matters, the group politely accepted my data then said goodbye. I readily understood that local debates and follow-up strategies would not be open for the comment of historians, especially foreigners. Nevertheless, I believe that this method of researching public American and South Vietnamese records may support continuing environmental research, and this book is in some small ways tied to that more activist interest.
Of all the places we visited, one hotspot candidate in particular has remained a touchstone for me as I wrote this book. The helipad for the 160th Helicopter Group at Camp Eagle is still partially visible as a large asphalt rectangle on a hilltop separated by a ravine from the tomb-covered hills of Hamlet 5 in Dạ Lê (plate 8). This site, unlike most, is easily accessed by a new highway running through the center of the former Camp Eagle. Since 2012 I have returned to this spot on every visit to Huế as it gives me a link to the site’s wartime past and an opportunity to study new constructions, from the tombs in the background to new construction across the road and, since 2016, a grid of acacia saplings planted in evenly spaced holes dug into the old, cracking pavement.
Comparing satellite photographs and air photos taken in 1972 with a map of base cantonments from the 101st Airborne Museum allowed me to reconstruct this site’s association with this aviation group (figure 6.2). A composite image of these layered sources shows the helipad’s location in the past compared with more recent satellite imagery of the site. This helped pinpoint the approximate locations of the Tenth Chemical Platoon, too, as its headquarters and depot for drummed chemicals was close to the helipad. This helipad was of interest to the province as it supported the sniffer missions, flame drops, and defoliation runs of the 101st Airborne. A closer view of this hotspot candidate site shows the asphalt helicopter pad as well as stacks of containerized materials. At the time these aerial photographs were taken, the US Army had already moved most of its troops and aircraft from the facility. The aviation depot area with a storage pad for drummed chemicals was one of the hotspot candidates (figure 6.3). Air photos from 1972 show the hangars used for aircraft repairs as well as the rows of metal clad buildings that served as quarters for the crews. They also show the perimeter with guard towers and a creek that drained runoff from the helipad area to Dạ Lê’s fields below.
Even though scavengers had cleared off most of the buildings here by the late 1990s, the footprints of the old buildings and helipad were still visible in satellite images with little vegetation evident. Using an infrared layer from a 2001 satellite frame, we located the outlines of the old helipad by lines of weeds growing around its old rectangular form (plate 9).
While as a historian I appreciate the accessibility of this site and its relatively open state, which permit easy mental reconstructions, the lack of remediation here points to troubling problems of economic, local, and even international politics. A modern environmental cleanup of such a site in an industrialized country might run in the tens of millions of dollars for testing, soil remediation, and disposal. Limited resources and tight profit margins in Vietnam means that local governments must do what they can to generate new uses from these lands without incurring these costs and simultaneously without exposing people to hazardous materials. They do the best they can; they keep most of these sites reserved for industrial uses, capping them in asphalt or covering them in trees. Like militaries globally, the PAVN has also opted to retain many polluted properties as another way of mitigating liability. The helipad has been left alone, but the property just south of it across the highway, the former headquarters for the helicopter squadron, has become Ministry of Defense Vocational College 23 (figure 6.4). The PAVN has repurposed it for a relatively safe new use to minimize exposures, an asphalt driving course. A sign shows the largely paved, impermeable footprint of the new college destined to cover the hilltop. With so many potentially troublesome properties, states, communities, and militaries have opted to literally pave over past problems, capping damaged soils while they wait for new technologies or funds to do something about potential hazards in the ground.
This local political debate over approaches to toxic sites also stems in part from difficult experiences in the 1990s with discoveries of Agent Orange / dioxin-contaminated sites and the negotiation of postwar relations with the United States. Foreign researchers and military teams identified major air bases of the American spray program as well as more remote hotspots where defoliants left concentrated plumes of dioxin in the ground. Publications about these sites have drawn extensive international attention, but locally these Agent Orange stories have brought problems too. Without tens of millions of dollars to clean soil, relatively poor rural governments in mountainous areas have few options but to mark off such sites as toxic and keep people out.
The former American A Shau Special Forces Base that was overrun in 1966 is one of the more famous of these upland sites with an unusually concentrated dioxin hotspot. A collaborative research venture between Canadian and Vietnamese researchers in the A Sầu Valley resulted in a comprehensive analysis of soils, animal tissue, human blood samples, and human breast-milk.8 Soil tests conducted across the valley confirmed that dioxin sprayed from the airplanes had dissipated along the mountain slopes to “background levels” comparable with other sprayed lands such as golf courses in industrialized countries. They found levels from nondetectable to five parts per trillion. The only sites with highly elevated concentrations were the former American special forces bases in the valley where chemicals were likely stored in drums. At the former A Shau Special Forces Base, now known as Đông Sơn Commune, the team found that sediment in aquaculture ponds filling old bomb craters showed dioxin at a highly toxic concentration of 300–400 parts per trillion. The joint study recommended focusing attention to these “dioxin reservoirs” where the contaminant was moving through duck and fish fats into the bodies of people, especially babies in the womb.9
While the research helped to prevent new exposures at the site or via pathways of absorption via fish and ducks, this widely known history of A Shau as a hotspot has left a problematic legacy. I visited the former airfield and nearby Đông Sơn Commune with a group of American students and a Vietnamese ecologist in 2015. The visit, coordinated by an office in A Lưới District, featured stops at the former runway (figure 6.5), the hotspot site, and the commune’s meeting hall.10 Guides pointed our attention to a small infirmary funded by foreign and government contributions, and the chairman of the commune presented me with a gift of textiles made by the Ta Oi indigenous people who were the historic occupants in this part of the valley. He was a member of this group, as were roughly half of the people in the commune.
In the chairman’s short welcome speech, he quickly got to the point about the Agent Orange and war legacy narrative and more specifically the hotspot story that had drawn our group there. Pointing to the infirmary, he said that what the commune did not need were more scientists and experts coming to draw people’s blood and take it away to write their studies. They had a clear enough knowledge, he said, about hotspot locations and how dioxin moved through the food chain. The problem he identified as most vital to the commune’s future development concerned affordable or free tests to confirm whether people’s land, animals, or perhaps their DNA was now clean. He implored me, the ecologist, and the students to develop technologies to effectively map dioxin’s presences and also its absences so that people could work, live, and build livelihoods in these areas. Farmers in the commune, he stated, despite general assurances from researchers, continued to encounter discrimination at urban markets when buyers asked their village of origin. The chairman’s speech illustrated a particular struggle for those generally not affected by encounters with dioxin but nevertheless suffering under the weight of association with the war’s chemical history.
REGREENING THE MILITARIZED LANDSCAPE
While comprehensive cleanups at bases and sites like A Shau remain limited, the economic reforms of the 1990s did set into motion new programs for land privatization in the hills that have, especially since 2000, resulted in a widespread return of vegetation in the form of plantation forests. State documents and newspapers long derided the problem of “đất trống, đồi trọc” (bare lands, eroded slopes), repeatedly using this term as a shorthand for damages blamed on US bombings, defoliation, and the war in general. Vietnam first recognized private leases in such lands in 1993 after land clearing during postwar decimated forests even further. Vietnam’s total forest cover bottomed out at about 25 percent of total area and has since rebounded to over 44 percent, albeit almost wholly via plantations. Private investors have reforested an incredible area, over 5 million hectares of bare hills and other public lands.11
While this recent expansion in tree plantations is widely lauded in Vietnamese newspapers and television newscasts, it stems not just from recent approaches but also continues a legacy of colonial-era schemes to recolonize the hills with exotic species. Personalities such as Henri Guibier and Vietnamese foresters who followed him in the 1950s and 1960s continued to advance this type of green modernization. Huế’s first postcolonial chief forester, Nguyễn Hữu Đính, continued Guibier’s enthusiasm to reforest with exotics and worked with new foreign experts from the United States and Australia in the 1960s. Đính was responsible for developing new nurseries and plantations in secure areas. Later, he supported the National Liberation Front. He retired from government service in 1960, survived the Tết Offensive and post-Tết reprisals, and stayed in Huế after 1975 to develop a forestry school at Huế University. While the fighting in the hills west of Huế reached unprecedented levels of destruction by 1973, Đính and many forestry colleagues in both Vietnamese governments envisioned a postwar future with new regreening schemes. After the RVN and the communist PRG agreed to a cease-fire in January 1973, Đính sent a public report to RVN and PRG officials in Paris suggesting that they work quickly to develop a viable forest policy with fast-growing species that might support industries such as pulp and paper. He took advantage of his retirement status to offer advice to all sides, stating that the cease-fire presented an opportunity to “plant trees, make flowers” (make peace) and “cease forest destruction” (playing on the term “cease-fire”).12
In some senses, regreening as an industrial enterprise is little different from the base-to-industrial-park conversions near Highway 1. Local governments may enthusiastically embrace development of plantation forests, but often when entrepreneurs attempt to stake off “cleared” or “waste” lands to regreen, debates arise. The PAVN victory resulted in postwar transfers of large parcels of land (the former American bases), producing what anthropologist James Scott calls an “abstract, theoretical kind of place.”13 However, military actors have remained active in this postwar enterprise too. Unlike in industrialized nations, where national militaries help support a domestic high-tech sector producing aircraft, surveillance technologies, and guns, armies such as the PAVN raise much of their funds through resource extraction and public businesses. For example, the largest telecommunications company in Vietnam, Viettel, is a military enterprise, building off of the military’s radio and telecommunications networks. Like old military salary fields, many industrial forest plots, too, are managed by investments from military companies or provide jobs to military veterans.
Just as it’s hard to erase such ghosts of old wars as tanks or trauma sites, leaving behind the military-social ties embedded in these landscapes is difficult. This is especially so around the former firebases. I learned this firsthand on a trip with forestry and conservation officials to the former Firebase Birmingham on old Highway 547 (now Highway 49). Responding to criticism from conservation organizations about monocropping in industrial forests, the local forest service office in collaboration with several nongovernmental organizations set aside this old military parcel as an experiment in natural forest regeneration. Even there, where government ownership is undisputed, foresters, villagers, and entrepreneurs appeared deadlocked on the economics and politics of natural reforestation and public ownership. Riding in a forest service jeep, we traveled from Huế on the same old road that once connected Camp Eagle with Bastogne. The driver turned the jeep off at a bend in the road, and we walked out onto a level bank about two hundred meters wide and five hundred meters long, the former runway of Firebase Birmingham. The old runway was barely recognizable except for some pieces of broken tarmac in the red dirt, buried for the most part under a dense thicket of tree saplings and scrub. We hiked down from the runway toward a creek crossing the plot. Saplings grew from seeds dropped by birds, they explained, and there was no regular plan to thin or selectively cut them. Despite the novelty of the “natural” plot and its historic location, the foresters held little hope that the plot would survive a coming round of budget cuts. Their bosses in Hà Nội saw the plot as a failure. It wasn’t generating a profit, and located so close to a highway and a city, it wasn’t ideally suited as a preserve. Area residents passed by carrying bundles of wood for fuel, and the NGO representative added that save for the honey harvested from the plot, the locals held a similar opinion of natural reforestation to that of the bosses in Hà Nội. Then they pointed my gaze to lush stands of acacia growing in industrial plots on nearby ridges and suggested that this green industrial fate awaited Firebase Birmingham. That model, they wryly noted, worked, while the experiment in natural regeneration lacked an easily defended economic or political logic.
DEMILITARIZING LANDSCAPE PASTS AND FUTURES
The arc of this history of the central coast’s militarized layers, from the Ô Châu Terrible Lands to these postwar zones of industrial development and green capitalism, shows how legacies of militarization from one era often become entangled in the next. A core value for an environmental history in such a conflict zone rests in its power to challenge the stories that people, local or not, tell with respect to the ways land in the past was connected to national and international events as well as to the struggles of families, settlers, and farmers. Even in the present, these local and state histories of certain lands regularly conflict with one another. Individuals and families, for example, must often still negotiate with the state, especially the military, when they attempt to visit old tombs or create new ones nearby. As figure 6.6 suggests, this tension between military and nonmilitary uses shows few signs of abating, as locals simply ignore new claims to land that traditionally was part of the village commons. At the top of a hill overlooking the former 101st Airborne’s headquarters at Camp Eagle, a broken sign next to a dirt road warns local inhabitants against the old practice of digging graves and burying ancestors. A thick screen of acacias screens off the old cemetery, barely visible behind the trees.
A quick ride down the road reveals a few dozen recently renovated tombs. Alone at this cemetery and mindful of my appearance as an American on a motorbike in a militaty zone, I am reminded of two things. First, the presence of broken concrete foundations from old Camp Eagle suggests how military claims often outlive the original militaries that established them. At this site, the American military lease of the hilltop was transferred in 1972 to the ARVN and in 1975 to the PAVN. Each army brought its own real estate agents to manage these transfers. Second, the site of new village tombs amid the young acacia trees and concrete ruins signals that despite these military claims, area residents continue to challenge them just as their ancestors had for centuries. They choose when and where to ignore the signs, and they build new graves, their own ancestral beachheads marking genealogical histories in this place. At least to me, this local choice of when to respect or violate state boundaries, carrying on an older and essential ancestral tradition, offers some hope. While graveyards are not normally the places people go for hope, the increasingly opulent shrines here signify one way that local communities and individual families continue to reclaim these lands from a violent past. Tree plantations and vocational colleges offer prominent signs of state-centered recovery, but these tombs reflect a more personal history. As commercial enterprises expand in the hills, highly contentious tomb-moving campaigns ensue as gravediggers attempt to clear certain hills. This visual push and pull in the hills between cemeteries and industrial spaces is, in my view, a sign of hope and also of complex challenges that face people in their attempts to reclaim these militarized landscapes from the layers of a troubled past.