Undoing a legacy: The Vietnam War's 'barrier minefield'

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Huts being bombed during Vietnam War (Image via mannhai / Flickr)

Joe Patterson reports on the lengths taken by organisations such as the Mines Advisory Group to clear the explosives left behind in Vietnam.

THE USE OF LANDMINES during the Vietnam War by Australians has been a topic of contentious debate.

Many deemed the construction of the 11-kilometre "barrier minefield" in South Vietnam a colossal military disaster; others label it a defensive necessity.

The use of these devices cost many Vietnamese, Australian and allied lives and despite the war being over for 40 years, there are still groups working hard to combat the legacy of landmines.

Outside the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Wei sells books to the dozens of tourists flooding through the gates every day. Wei is a victim of one of the most damning remnants of the Vietnam War still affecting people today — Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). He lost his arms up to his elbows when he stepped on a landmine at just eight years old and sustained a permanent leg injury. Wei’s experience is the result of 16 million tonnes of ordnance used throughout the country over the course of the conflict. These landmines, artillery and other explosive are still encountered regularly by farmers in Quang Binh and Quang Tri provinces.

The narrative of the Vietnam War is brutal. The decade-long conflict cost millions of lives on all sides, with casualty estimates reaching as high as over 3 million. Estimates also show that the Australian-implemented barrier minefield accounted for 97 Australian and Allied deaths and was responsible for wounding 420 soldiers in one province alone.

Just one of the 20,000 M16 "jumping jack" mines that were laid out could injure dozens when detonated. The Australians cleared the barrier minefield and yet, at the end of the war in 1975, thousands of explosives still could be found across the country.

The ordnance used during the war continue to contaminate one-fifth of the country’s land. According to statistics from the Vietnam Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Socials Affairs released in 2007, over 104,000 people were killed or injured by UXO between 1975 and 2007. Despite efforts and aid from various organisations and governments, accidental detonations are continuing to occur throughout Vietnam year by year.

This is primarily due to the systematic use of landmines as a precaution during the war. In 1967, the First Australian Task Force constructed the barrier minefield to the south of their Nui Dat location. The jumping jack mines – which sprung out of the ground, detonating at waist height – had an explosion radius of about 25 meters but could cause damage for much greater distances. Local villages containing contingents of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) lifted these mines from the area, using them to stage attacks on allied forces.

The detonation of jumping jack mines was so familiar to Australian soldiers that John Schumann of Australian band Redgum recounted a real encounter with landmines in 1969 in the song 'I was only 19'. This was the cost of the oversight by Brigadier Stuart Graham, commander of the First Australian Task Force. Many of the other explosives used throughout Vietnam during the war were never cleared, and continue to be hidden in farmland and villages throughout central Vietnam.

Thankfully, select groups such as Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are working continuously in Vietnam to ensure the local villagers stay safe. MAG’s work in Vietnam started in the Quang Tri Province in 1999. Along with the Quang Binh province, these areas are the most contaminated in Vietnam.

There is no official figure for how much of Vietnam still needs to be cleared today, but reports of UXO are made to MAG every 15 minutes. Not all applications of explosive were closely documented and planned like the barrier minefield, making it impossible to know just where to look for these devices.

In Vietnam, there are often reports of suspicious items or, even worse, explosions killing groups of locals. Vietnam is often recognised as one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. The sheer range of weapons that were used by the Allies extended much further than the jumping jacks the Australians implemented, with a vast amount of different explosive weapons being used.

As locals continuously find these mines, often to fatal consequences, MAG’s entire focus is on their safe removal. The explosives, which are commonly located in contaminated areas, include cluster munitions (which account for 41% of items MAG removes), landmines, projectiles, grenades, rockets and larger air-dropped bombs.

To many, MAG’s task seems futile, but undertaking educational activities is MAG’s way of avoiding as many causalities as possible. MAG’s community liaison teams organise village meetings where suspicious items can be reported. The teams then collect the data regarding the location of the item before passing it on to Mine Action Teams to remove it safely.

There is also a hotline where locals can call MAG to report suspected UXO. The items, which pose direct and immediate threats to the communities, will be dealt with within 24 to 72 hours. At the same time, MAG also clears large areas in response to local authorities and communities to ensure the safe development of schools, roads, health services and sporting fields.

While MAG has safely destroyed over 300,000 ordnance items in Vietnam, their task isn’t without continuing adversity. Throughout Vietnam, the collection of scrap metal from these items is one of the main causes of sustaining casualty figures in the contaminated areas. MAG has implemented risk education to inform the locals of the dangers of suspicious items.

MAG is also stifled by a lack of funding, making it difficult for their operation to retain and expand. With additional financial backing, the current task force in Vietnam could broaden operations significantly and clear greater areas of risk.

MAG’s work has been funded by some institutional and individual donors. These include the U.S. Department of State, the Department for International Development, The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, the Japanese Government, the Canadian Government and Irish Aid.

Author Greg Lockhart, who published the novel The Minefield: An Australian Tragedy in Vietnam in 2007, deemed the construction of the barrier minefield a ‘no-win situation’. During their time in Vietnam, the Australian Forces eventually removed it. However, the same cannot be said for thousands of volatile explosives across Vietnam.

The UXO issue isn’t exclusive to Vietnam. The heavy shelling the surrounding countries of Cambodia and Laos saw during this period also continues to affect the local communities. Over 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped over Laos according to organisation Legacies of War, with 80 million cluster munitions failing to detonate.

Since 1974, some estimates suggest that over 20,000 people in Laos have been killed or injured by UXO accidents. Consequently, MAG and other explosive-clearing NGOs have also operated extensively in other countries in South East Asia and another 60 countries around the world.

Asking locals in Vietnam about UXO, they often respond with a sad tale of a school or a village that has recently come in contact with one of the items. With ordnance items washing up on populated beaches and vast areas of the country remaining unsearched for UXO, Vietnam has a long way to go until this issue is resolved. Nevertheless, MAG pours all of their available resources into combatting this tragic fragment of the war. While mine-warfare continues to be a tactic used by nations around the world, lessons have been learned and questions asked of their Allied use in Vietnam.

As time goes on, Vietnam will be marginally cleared of UXO day by day and fewer children will have to endure the adversity Wei continues to deal with. While the use of minefields by the Australians was strictly a military decision during the war, the legacy that tactics like this left behind remains. MAG will continue to do everything they can to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again.

MAG officials provided information for this piece about MAG’s history, operations and process in Vietnam.

You can follow Joe on Twitter @JGPatterson and Instagram @JoeGPatterson.

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Undoing a legacy: The Vietnam War's 'barrier minefield'

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