War Is in the Land
PAUL S. SUTTER
In November of 1986, a happy discovery was made on the northeastern edge of Denver, Colorado: a communal roost of bald eagles. The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States, and today it is thriving. In the 1980s, however, it was an endangered species whose population had been decimated by the spraying of DDT, which biomagnified through the food chain, making eagles’ eggs brittle and inhibiting their capacity to reproduce. The postwar age of chemical wonders had brought America’s national symbol to the brink of extinction. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned DDT for use in the United States in 1972, but bald eagles were still relatively rare in the 1980s. The discovery of these roosts in a stand of mature cottonwood trees was thus an important indicator of slow but steady bald eagle recovery. But there was something unusual, even deeply ironic, about where these eagles had landed. A US Army contractor discovered them within the bounds of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, long the chief manufacturing facility for chemical weapons and other military chemicals in the United States and, by the 1980s, one of the most desperately polluted places on earth.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was a central place in the global history of American military chemicals and their human and environmental impacts. Its existence dates to World War II, when, in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US Army sought out a site in the inland West to manufacture chemical weapons. In May of 1942, the army selected thirty square miles of land in Adams County, Colorado, just northeast of Denver, removed the farm families who had occupied the site, and rapidly built a facility that produced mustard gas, chlorine agent, lewisite, and napalm. Only the napalm was used during World War II, most notably in the fire-bombing of Japanese cities. At the end of the war, the arsenal was put on standby status, but Cold War realities soon brought it back into service, this time for the production of the powerful nerve agent sarin. During the immediate postwar years, the liquid wastes from chemical manufacturing processes were dumped into unlined holding ponds, where concentrated toxics leached into and spread through the soils and waters of the site. By the late 1950s, signs of contamination were already evident, but chemical production continued. In 1959, after the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik, the US Army added a rocket fuel blending facility, and with the lunar program of the 1960s, chemical rocket propellants became a major production priority. The Shell Chemical Company was also producing pesticides and herbicides on the arsenal grounds from 1952 to 1982. During the 1960s the army shifted to deep-well injection as a purportedly safer method of waste disposal. Then, in 1968, even as napalm and other military chemicals were being used in unprecedented quantities during the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the destruction of obsolete chemical stockpiles. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal became the place to “demilitarize” national supplies of mustard gas and sarin, a program—named, believe it or not, Project Eagle—that would come to define the arsenal’s 1970s career. By the end of the 1970s, the arsenal had constructed its first groundwater treatment system to contain and mitigate decades of toxic waste dumping. All chemical production and destruction ceased on the site by the early 1980s, and in 1987, a year after that army contractor discovered those roosting bald eagles, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal joined the EPA’s list of Superfund sites.
One can learn all about this history of chemical production and contamination by touring the sparkling new visitor center at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. That’s right: this place of extraordinary chemical contamination is now a federally protected refuge for wildlife. The 1986 discovery of roosting bald eagles prompted the involvement of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose scientists came to recognize that the restricted and contaminated site had allowed wildlife to flourish there. In 1992 President George H. W. Bush signed into law a bill protecting the site as a wildlife refuge, and by 2004, after the EPA certified its cleanup, the army transferred five thousand acres to the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally establish the refuge. In 2010, as a result of continuing cleanup activities, the refuge reached its current size of approximately fifteen thousand acres, complete with a small bison herd, mule deer, burrowing owls, and lots of eagles. The army still owns a core portion of the property to maintain its waste consolidation areas and operate its groundwater treatment facilities, but most of the refuge is now open to hiking and wildlife viewing.
Over the last several decades, as environmental historians have studied the historical impacts of warfare on the natural world, they have noted that many such sites of intense militarization, from US bases that protect large natural landscapes from development to places such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, have served unintended but important conservation functions. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is one of those sites, and it is tempting to render its story as a redemptive one, a tale of a once-toxic place reverting to its original pristine character. The moral of this particular interpretation is that humans and their bellicosity sinned against the land, but wild animals and other natural processes reclaimed the area in a show of nature’s resilience. That’s a happy story, but it’s not the whole story, for the legacies of war still haunt this place. Alternatively, we might see the arsenal’s current status as a wildlife refuge less as a wiping away of the landscape’s military legacy than as a reluctant acceptance of its long-term toxicity, for the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal remains too polluted to accommodate human habitation or other intensive forms of human land use. Because of its military past, it will remain a mostly empty space, even as the real estate value of the land around it skyrockets. In that sense, maintaining the site as a wildlife refuge is an inexpensive way of dealing with the ongoing toxic legacies of war. In this reading, the return of wild nature to the site does not erase the footprints of war; it becomes one of them.
Half a world away, in Vietnam, the environmental legacies of war and militarization also remain, sometimes in similarly empty or underdeveloped spaces. This is the story that David Biggs tells in Footprints of War, his innovative and visually arresting history of militarized landscapes in central Vietnam. Fans of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series will know Biggs from his first book, the award-winning Quagmire, an environmental history of the Mekong River Delta that made that landscape’s ecological and deep historical complexity central to the story of American failure in Vietnam. In Footprints of War, Biggs shifts his gaze to central Vietnam, the region around the city of Huế, which was home to several American airbases and other military installations—including Phú Bài and, yes, Camp Eagle—during the American War in Vietnam. As Biggs explains, one of the triggers for this book was a fascinating applied environmental history project that he undertook, using US archival records, to help Vietnamese government officials locate potential chemical hotspots that remain throughout central Vietnam. Chemical compounds such as napalm, Agent Orange, and tear gas were central to American military strategy during the Vietnam War, and they were concentrated on American air bases, where they were stored and then loaded onto American airplanes and helicopters for military use. In the search for buried caches of abandoned chemicals or potential toxic plumes in soil and groundwater, Biggs recognized the power of American records, including aerial photographs and satellite imagery, to reveal where such chemicals might be still lurking today. More than that, though, Biggs noticed curious patterns and began asking deeper questions about how war and militarization had repeatedly inscribed and overwritten the landscapes of central Vietnam.
In the United States we often talk about Vietnam as a war rather than as a place. We pay little attention to what came before the American War and even less to what came after. When American forces entered Vietnam, they tended to conceptualize the country as a blank slate and to regard its environment as hostile and impenetrable. The whole place needed to be opened up to the American gaze. That, after all, was what most of those chemicals were for. But what Biggs came to realize was that the American military presence had followed particular historical cues in how it occupied the region, often placing its bases atop formerly militarized spaces or spaces left undeveloped for other historical and cultural reasons. He also observed in his travels that the American withdrawal and abandonment of its occupied spaces left lasting patterns of redevelopment across the landscape, particularly as the creative destruction of modern capitalism has claimed the region in recent decades. Finally, it dawned on him that the very tools he was using to locate sites of potential chemical contamination were also evidence of novel ways of seeing that had been central to the American conduct of war in Vietnam. The ruins and toxic legacies of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam constituted only one layer in a complex historical stratigraphy that had shaped the American War in consequential ways and that still shapes the landscape and Vietnamese perceptions of it today.
Footprints of War is not what you might expect from an environmental history of war and militarization, and that is what makes it such an important book. While the environmental impacts of war are always central to Biggs’s analysis, this is not at its core a book about the war’s impact upon Vietnamese nature. Nor is it a simple history of how the nature of Vietnam—the jungles, the rain, the mud—shaped the American War, at least of the sort we are used to reading. This is a story, or really a series of layered stories, about landscapes, geographies, and terrains, spatial categories in which the natural or non-human environment is ever present but never exists or acts alone. It is a book in which the environment itself is a historical archive that Biggs, a historian of Vietnam first and foremost, sifts through and interprets masterfully. It is a history without fixed baselines for measuring environmental impacts, a history that contextualizes the American War as but one chapter in a long saga of construction, destruction, and ruination. It is, in short, a primer on historical landscape literacy in central Vietnam.
In Biggs’s telling, the footprints of war create paths that others follow. They figuratively compact the soil in ways that affect what grows where after war gives way to peace. Sometimes these footprints become fossilized, disappearing below ground as new layers of history cover their presence without quite erasing them. For Biggs, war is not merely a momentary paroxysm; it is also a haunting. When American marines landed in central Vietnam in 1965, they were yet another in a long line of invading forces. They followed in the martial footsteps not only of the French colonialists through their several occupations but also the Japanese occupation during World War II and the Việt Minh occupation in the wake of the French defeat in 1954. Those previous occupations were in turn shaped by a conflict zone that had been held and contested by Việt, Cham, and Chinese peoples for millenia. As American forces moved into the lowlands of central Vietnam, they sought to build homogenous and placeless military enclaves, but the particularities of previous occupations kept intruding. In the conduct of war, the Americans also had to contend with a gradient that linked the coastal plains to the midlands and highlands to the west and with a traditional elevational logic that had long shaped occupation and resistance in the region. Fighting the war on all sides of the conflict became a process of creating networked spaces linked together by various infrastructures—roads, trails, air bases, landing zones—and technologies of viewing and communicating across space. The American War became one of trying to see and not be seen.
Unlike the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, the legacy landscapes of war and militarization in central Vietnam have not become wildlife refuges. The Vietnamese cannot afford to remediate them as Americans have, and they do not have the luxury of leaving these strategic sites to entirely noneconomic uses. These landscapes have mostly morphed into industrial parks or ecologically sterile timber plantations, though in some cases they have remained military properties. But the important point is that these legacy landscapes have shaped Vietnam’s rapidly industrializing present both by providing open spaces for development and limiting the kinds of development that can occur there. An important lesson of Footprints of War, then, is that the historical and environmental legacies of militarization check capitalism’s creative destruction in the present. Landscapes, like people, hold memories of war that persist even as the obvious physical markers fade from view.
Military historians are fond of talking about certain regions as “graveyards” of empire, places where successive invading forces become repeat casualties of a common historical, cultural, geographical, and environmental myopia. A similar lesson might be drawn for central Vietnam, with its abandoned bases and ruins of war. But that is not the main point of Footprints of War. Instead, David Biggs is intent on drawing our attention to the literal and metaphorical graveyards of the Vietnamese people themselves and how they sit in layers and landscape mosaics with these graveyards of empire. Camp Eagle, like other US military bases in central Vietnam, was built amid a traditional Vietnamese burial ground, and today the local people who remain must be actively discouraged from burying their deceased family members there for fear that they will encounter subterranean toxicity. Here is the central metaphor of the book: the American War, like those invasions and occupations that came before it, has left lasting landscape legacies, some of them poisonous, and yet the Vietnamese people insist on reclaiming these grounds the best that they can, rooting themselves in places of deep historical and cultural significance to them. Such are the footprints of war.