By the next year, the beachfront and the air base alongside had become a vast, ugly sprawl of tents, trucks, half-tracks, spare parts, fuel drums, helicopters, and airplanes.
Old photographs depict a plain of expeditionary military engineering; the gravel-bedded, metal-roofed, fenced-in look anticipated eerily the American bases that today dot Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the Da Nangairport opened a new international terminal.
The building has soaring glass walls, digital clocks, a Burger King, and a Tommy Hilfiger store.
When I visited the area last week, hammers clanked and machines roared along the nearby ocean, at construction sites for luxury hotels and tile-roofed golf villas facing what American soldiers once knew as China Beach.
Hyatt is one of the recently arrived chains.
Each global power has its symbolic architecture—an aesthetic that expresses its ambition in other people’s lands.
Empire builders and artists imagined Rome’s far-flung baths, Britain’s New Delhi, and France’s beguiling ochre houses of colonial government in Hanoi.
(The beauty they created masked brutality, of course—the very grandeur of their public buildings signalled conquest.)
The aesthetic of America’s interventions abroad is not beautiful.
It often arises from a jumble of ephemeral commercial brands and military engineering projects.
It has the feel of an exported Super Bowl broadcast.
The Pentagon’s budget dwarfs the State Department’s, so when the American government gets involved in a particular country, military men often take the lead, even if they have no war to fight.
Their designs for bases, camps, and liaison headquarters are practical—cheap, portable, disposable.
Their purpose is to aid the logistics of technocratic war.
When the military does fight, as inVietnama generation ago and in Afghanistan today, those in charge of the designs try also to raise the morale of soldiers; they seek where possible to create a mirage of home.
“There were posh fat air-conditioned camps like comfortable middle-class scenes with the violence tacit, ‘far away’; camps named for commanders’ wives, LZ Thelma, LZ Betty Lou,” as Michael Herr put it in his 1968 volume of reportage from Vietnam, “Dispatches.”
Today, at the massive military air base at Kandahar, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran describes in his forthcoming book, “Little America,” which> is about the Obama Administration’s push into southern Afghanistan,
The principal distraction was a square-shaped wooden boardwalk….
Shops and eateries lined the outer perimeter.
Green Beans Coffee—it advertised “a Cup of Joe for a Joe”—served up quadruple-shot iced lattes.
Around the corner was a gyro stand—Gyros for Heroes—an ice cream shop, and a burger joint.
The most remarkable thing about the many dozens of Little Americas the United States constructed in Vietnam during the years of hard fighting after 1965 is how completely they have since vanished.
To the north of Da Nang, just southeast ofHue, stood Camp Eagle, where, on Christmas Day, in 1969, Bob Hope entertained sixteen thousand soldiers at the Eagle Entertainment Bowl, a stadium constructed by the 326th Engineers.
If a single plank or rod of the place remains, I could not find any sign of it.
Michael Kelly, a Vietnam veteran and the author of an encyclopedia entitled “Where We Were In Vietnam,” explains the vanishing:
When American troops left the battlefield in 1973, many of their bases “disappeared practically overnight, dismantled by nearby villagers intent on improving their homes or in marketing the material.”
After South Vietnam’s government fell to the North two years later, “Most military facilities were abandoned and soon evaporated” at the hands of entrepreneurial communist villagers.
The result today, Kelly notes, is “the almost total absence of our former presence.”
Almost, but not quite.
Not far from Da Nang’s new airport terminal is a cordoned area, one of the war’s “hot spots” of dioxin, a chemical that is toxic to humans and persistent when it contaminates soil.
Dioxin was an ingredient in Agent Orange, the defoliant the United States sprayed across Vietnam in the hope that by stripping bare the country’s jungle canopy, American troops could better detect enemy movements. The U.S. sprayed around twenty million gallons.
Da Nang was a major storage site, and there was extensive leakage into the ground.
During the Bush Administration’s second term, Congress allocated several million dollars to help fund a dioxin cleanup project at Da Nang.
Similar amounts have been allocated during the Obama Administration.
The work has unfolded slowly, however; before the toxic waste can be scrubbed out, the area must be cleared of unexploded ordnance—another invisible legacy of the war, one that continues to claim Vietnamese civilian lives randomly.
Apart from the Da Nang cleanup, the United States has declined to acknowledge liability for the illnesses and other health effects Agent Orange has inflicted on the Vietnamese since the war ended.
Proving that a particular person’s illness is caused by dioxin can be difficult.
But the United States has accepted that dioxin is toxic—American veterans who served in Vietnam during the Agent Orange period are entitled to medical treatment, without having to prove a specific link between an illness and exposure.
No such benefits extend to the Vietnamese civilians who live amidst Agent Orange’s pervasive residue.
Americais returning to Vietnam.
The Obama Administration has announced as a prominent strand of its foreign policy that it intends to “pivot” from the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a new era of investments in Asia.
The idea is to build fresh alliances and strengthen older ones; to join and profit from the region’s rising prosperity, while hedging against a more powerful China.
Vietnam—with the world’s thirteenth-largest population of about eighty-four million, a proud military, and a long history of conflict with China—is a part of the plan.
The United State sis today Vietnam’s largest trading partner.
Google owns four-fifths of the country’s Internet search market; there are more than three million Vietnamese Facebook users.
Military coöperation is on the rise.
Young men with regulation haircuts and military-issue fluorescent safety strips tied to their jogging shorts populated my hotel inHanoi—not-so-quiet Americans.
Yet before the next defense-and-commerce overseas design ofWashington’s imagination takes full hold here, restitution from the last one is due.
It is not practical to entertain individual health claims from Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange—the burdens of medical proof would be too complicated.
Yet something along the lines of an American-led generational fund to hasten the modernization of Vietnam’s health-care system, accelerate its slow demining work, and remediate its environment would be manageable—and just.
The Vietnam War marked a reckoning for the United States; a legacy of poison and denial remains.
By STEVE COLL
Source: The Newyorker