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Environment and History

Trees Versus Lives: Reckoning Military Success and the Ecological Effects of Chemical Defoliation During the Vietnam War

Neil S. Oatsvall

Environment and History 19 (2013): 427-458. doi: 10.3197/096734013X13769033133666

During the Vietnam War, the United States military declared war not just on Vietnamese peoples, but also on nature itself. Operation Ranch Hand served as the U.S. military's answer to the Vietnamese Communist appropriation of the natural world into their war plans, as U.S. planes dumped nearly twenty million gallons of chemical herbicides on Vietnamese fields and forests. Examining and comparing the military and ecological effects of Ranch Hand, this essay assesses the military success of chemical defoliation by looking at military appraisals and early U.S. scientific studies of defoliated areas. Planners expected defoliation to provide a distinct military advantage and frequently made claims that they were trading trees for lives - environmental destruction ostensibly saved the lives of U.S. servicemen. Instead, defoliation's military effects proved very ambiguous and the use of defoliants should be considered a failure in some ways. In trying to characterise defoliation as either a military success or failure, the essay also questions what it means for a piece of technology to succeed or fail and ultimately concludes that the answer to that question depends on the goals for its use, not the technology itself.

KEYWORDS: Agent Orange; Envirotech; Ranch Hand; Technology; United States; Vietnam


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