Three maps remind us of the horror of the Vietnam War


Wars transform nations. Then they end, and as their veterans die, they fade from living memory into history. That is now happening to the Vietnam War, the conflict that dominated both America’s foreign policy and its domestic politics for much of the 1960s and 70s.

Half a million Vietnam vets left

By one estimate, around 610,000 Vietnam veterans were still alive in 2019, out of a total of 2.7 million who served. With an average historical attrition rate of about 44,000 per year, that would put the number of U.S. vets of the war in Southeast Asia currently alive around half a million — fewer than one in five of the original total.

For most other Americans, “Vietnam” is ancient history. Heck, even Rambo is 40 years old. The nearest intimation anybody under 50 has of what the war must have felt like, came last year, with the chaotic U.S. evacuation of Kabul. As some with long memories said, it was so eerily reminiscent of the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

But mostly, the Vietnam War has fallen off the radar. Perhaps, this is not so surprising. The martial appetite of those vast legions of armchair generals is sated by an endless stream of content about World War II. As for Vietnam: Communism, which Americans went there to stop from spreading, is no longer a geopolitical threat. Vietnam itself is now an exotic holiday destination for Americans, even a potential ally against China.

Yet there are still doors in time that open directly from here and now into the horror of what the Vietnamese call “the American War.” Pictures, mainly — of that Buddhist monk, self-immolating in anti-war protest, or of that girl, naked and crying because of the napalm that flattened her village and burned her skin.

A carpet bombing map of Vietnam

But there are also maps. At a single glance, the following map brings home one of the most horrific aspects of the war: the carpet bombing of Vietnam by the U.S.

War’s heavy payload: ordnance pinpricks turn into blanket bombing zones. (Credit: Journal of Alpine Research, based on Hatfield Consultants / Federal Resources Corporation, e.a.)

Each pinprick symbolizes the dropping of ordnance between 1965 and 1975. A few things strike the unprepared observer.

First, the map does more than merely point out where those bombs fell. By the sheer mass of dots swarming across the map, in many places congealing into broad swathes of sheer black, the effect is almost as if we’re observing some kind of medical malignancy, perhaps an X-ray of a limb being destroyed by cancer.

Second, the carpet of bombs doesn’t quite cover the entire country. Large parts of North Vietnam are relatively bomb-free, possibly because of limited bomber range, effective anti-aircraft deterrent, or both. In those lightly-bombed areas, it is easier to recognize the roads and paths that were the target of much of the raids, also further south. Smaller sections of the South are also relatively bomb-free.

Third, the bombing didn’t stop at the borders of Vietnam. America’s enemies found alternative routes and hideouts outside the country, and America’s bombs went to find them there. Large parts of Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam’s neighbors to the west, were also bombed to smithereens.

Bombing Vietnam — and its neighbors

Then, if you look closely, you see some bombs were dropped well outside the main theater of operations: quite a few on Thailand, a single drop on Myanmar and more than a handful on China. Really? That seems rather unlikely, because it would have been rather dangerous. China was an ally of North Vietnam, but it was not in direct military conflict with the U.S. American bombs on China would have risked drawing in the Chinese, resulting in a much wider, much bloodier war.

And finally, it seems the Americans also made an enemy of the ocean, because they dropped quite a bit of ordnance in the sea, including in two curiously triangular-shaped areas just off the coast of Thừa Thiên Huế province (whose borders are marked in yellow on the map). In the North, it may be assumed that the target was enemy shipping. Elsewhere, and considering the geometrical patterns of the areas of disposal, it may simply be that dropping non-delivered payloads in the sea was somehow easier (or less dangerous) than carrying the explosives back to base.

The map above is taken from At the Heart of the Vietnam War, a monograph about Herbicides, Napalm and Bulldozers Against the A Lưới Mountains, published in 2016 in the Journal of Alpine Research.

As the title suggests, the article’s main topic is the environmental degradation of this area, now in central Vietnam. The aim of the aerial sprayings of herbicide and bombings with napalm by the U.S. and South Vietnamese was not just to hit the enemy but to degrade their environment — to such an extent that they would find it harder to survive and would be easier to spot. The Viet Cong, for their part, used bulldozers to construct roads, in the process also seriously degrading the environment.

As such, the article offers no further context to the map of bombings across Vietnam and its neighboring countries. It does offer a few other maps that, although more regional, illuminate certain aspects of the Vietnam War.

Rain down the “rainbow herbicides”

For example, this map shows the dispersal of herbicides across the A Lưới Mountains. Codenamed “Operation Ranch Hand” (1962-1971), the U.S. used herbicides sprayed from the air to destroy both forest canopy and crops, thus denying the enemy cover and food.

Defoliation central: This area of Vietnam was one of the hardest hit by Agent Orange and other “rainbow herbicides.” (Credit: Journal of Alpine Research; based on a map provided by Vietnam’s Forest Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI) and ultimately on C. Smith and D. Watkins: The Vietnam Map Book: A Self-Help Guide to Herbicide Exposure)

Various agents were used, named after colors — hence collectively known as the “rainbow herbicides.” The most infamous was Agent Orange, but as this map shows, there were also Agent Blue and Agent White. Others included Agents Green, Pink, and Purple. In all, nearly 80 million liters were sprayed. The map indicates that the main valley of the A Lưới Mountains was particularly affected. The herbicides are cited as contributors to the untimely death of many Vietnam veterans as well.

Another map of the same area examines U.S. military bases.

  • Squares and names in green denote Special Forces bases — just three of them, all with Vietnamese names.
  • Circles and names in red mark the exact locations of artillery bases.
  • Names in orange are for artillery bases, the exact locations of which are unknown. Names are placed at their approximate location.
It’s only a short hop from Bertesgaden to Hamburger Hill. (Credit: Journal of Alpine Research, based on Defense Mapping Agency maps)

The naming conventions for these bases are quite interesting. Some names refer back to WWII locations in Europe: the Dutch town of Veghel (sic) was an important drop zone during Operation Market Garden. Berchtesgaden (sic) is a town in southern Germany, virtually synonymous with Hitler’s summer residence, which was called Eagle’s Nest — the name of a third base in this area.

From Pork Chop Hill to Hamburger Hill

Other base names seem to refer either to wives or girlfriends (especially first names like Kathryn, etc.), officers relevant to the base (surnames like Goodman), military terms (e.g., Rendezvous), places back home (Tennessee), or just short, aggressive-sounding names like Whip, Spear, or Thor.

One name stands out: Hamburger Hill, ostensibly named after the battle that took place in 1969 at Hill 937. It got its nickname because the soldiers who fought there were supposedly “ground up like hamburger meat.” The 1987 movie of the same name follows fictional members of the 101st Airborne as they prepare for and participate in the battle. The nickname possibly references a similarly-named battle in the Korean War, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill (1953), which (inevitably) also was turned into a movie a few years later.

Year on year, as the legion of America’s Vietnam veterans continues to shrink, the war that once spellbound America and the world will fade further in the collective memory. As these maps prove, the growing distance of time will allow those of us who weren’t around the first time to experience the fresh horror of the uninitiated.

Strange Maps #1131

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