For years during the Vietnam War, the US Army used a toxic defoliant to expose enemy troops hiding in the country’s jungles. Nicknamed “Agent Orange,” the chemical has proved incredibly resilient; even after forty years it survives in Vietnam’s water, soil and food chain. Several diseases have been linked to the exposure to Agent Orange—from deformities in children to increased cancer rates in adults. Mitch Moxley spent several weeks volunteering in the Friendship Village, a community founded by war veterans designed to provide comfort and treatment to victims of Agent Orange. He delves into the many facets of this issue in his feature “The Fog of War,” published in Maisonneuve’s Issue 20. In this interview, he describes his experience of being in Vietnam and discusses why the world is still haunted by a war that tore that country apart.
You volunteered at the Friendship Village in 2005. Why did you go and how did you hear about this initiative?
I was working as a business reporter for the National Post before going to Vietnam. My one-year contract was coming to an end in September and, although working at the Post was a valuable experience, I desperately wanted to do more travelling, some volunteer work and more independent writing. Vietnam was a country I have always been interested in. I was one of those kids growing up that was addicted to Vietnam War movies—I rented Full Metal Jacket for one of my birthday parties growing up—and in university I read a lot of Vietnam War books. Michael Herr’s Dispatches was the best, and was certainly influential in my decision to become a journalist.
With the opportunity to travel on the horizon, I decided I would go to Vietnam. I wanted more than just a backpacking experience so I googled “volunteer Vietnam” and sifted through the opportunities until I found one I thought was interesting. I also thought it was an amazing story so I did a little research and, luckily, Maisonneuve agreed to it.
What role did you play in the village? What was it like?
The entire experience was amazing. There were eighteen Vietnamese volunteers, two Canadians and three Japanese. We stayed on the outskirts of Hanoi near a university. We were up at six-thirty for breakfast and at work in the village by eight. We worked on an organic garden—hoeing, tilling and planting vegetables. We also cleared a swamp of weeds, built a bamboo fence and did a few other small jobs around the village. Free time was spent hanging out with the 160 children in the village, which was a lot of fun but sometimes exhausting after long days working in the sun.
Of all your experiences in Vietnam, what was the most significant in relation to the issue of Agent Orange? What affected you the most, on a personal level?
Definitely hanging out with the kids and veterans at the Friendship Village. Many of the children have severe deformities and mental and physical disabilities. They are suffering from something that happened thirty years ago, that they had no control over.
I did an interview with a group of ten or so [Vietnamese] veterans for this article. We gathered in a small room and talked through a translator. They were very open, telling war stories in graphic detail. We are a generation removed from this war and have only seen it through TV and movies. These guys lived it. And unlike the American soldiers, who mostly came to Vietnam for one or two years, these guys sometimes served for ten years. The things they’ve seen are hard to imagine and listening to them talk was chilling. What was most amazing is that they don’t seem angry about it. American veterans are frequently coming in and out of the village and they all treat each other as brothers. It’s amazing.
The Canadian military allowed the US Army to test dioxin-laden sprays over CFB Gagetown, in New Brunswick. What has Canada done since to help the victims of Agent Orange, both at home and in Vietnam?
The issue of Agent Orange use in Canada is still unresolved, but from what I understand the new government has pledged to compensate victims. In Vietnam, I’m not sure that Canada has done much. We fund the Vietnam Friendship Village Project through CIDA. Independent Canadians seem to do much more than our government.
Such as who?
A Canadian named Michelle Mason made a documentary called The Friendship Village, which won several independent awards. It’s excellent. The Hatfield Group, a Vancouver-based consultancy, has also done extensive tests in Vietnam and has experts on the issue of dioxin contamination in Vietnam.
Despite wide media interest in the topic of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, it seems that very little has been done through governmental channels. Do you believe the victims have exhausted their legal options? And, if so, what do you think the most effective tactic would be now?
Trying to win money or an apology through the US courts is futile. The first case was thrown out last year and there is little hope the second one will win. But that’s not to say legal action is without a purpose. The lawsuits raise international awareness which, at this point, is the only way the situation in Vietnam is going to improve. International awareness brings donations to projects like the Friendship Village, better scientific testing to produce conclusive results and volunteers from places like Canada.
What were your impressions of modern Vietnam?
Vietnam is the most fascinating country I’ve ever visited. Like I said, I was obsessed with the war growing up. I had images of what Vietnam would be like and in many ways they were true. It is still a largely rural country and the scenes from the countryside—water buffalo in rice patties, woman in conical hats—still exist. But that is a somewhat idealized version of the country. In many ways, it is far more modern than I expected. The streets are total chaos with motorcycles and scooters narrowly avoiding disaster. Cell phones are everywhere. The same trendy clothing stores exist in downtown Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as in the West.
What’s the one thing you remember most?
One thing I’ll never forget about Vietnam is the energy. John Berlow, an American man who volunteers at the Friendship Village, once told me: “I miss the energy of Vietnam even before I leave.” I understood exactly what he meant. People seem to do everything outside—cook, clean, hang out—and it’s such a communal environment. I spent regular weekday nights in a giant parking lot outside Hanoi’s soccer stadium with Vietnamese friends, surrounded by hundreds of locals who were eating, drinking and kicking around a ball. It’s just what they do.
Do you intend to return to the country?
There’s no doubt in my mind I’ll go back.
The Vietnam War has been given a heavy literary treatment in recent years, particularly by soldiers still struggling with their experiences in the 1960s—a good example is David Bergen’s Giller Prize–winning novel The Time in Between. Could you describe the “revisiting” movement underway amongst American vets, such as those mentioned in your feature?
I actually read The Time in Betweenduring my first week in Vietnam, the same week I met Suel Jones, a US veteran who spends half of the year in Hanoi, as well as other veterans, both Vietnamese and American. When Jones returned home from the war, he, like many other veterans, felt betrayed by his government and rejected by his countrymen. He turned to drugs and alcohol and then escaped to Alaska. Eventually, he realized that he needed to go back to Vietnam since so much of his character was formed here. We talked over a few beers in Hanoi and he told me that veterans have two mothers: their birth mother and Vietnam. When he came back he found peace and that’s what other veterans have found as well.
I met an Australian who fought in Vietnam and he was back on the recommendation of his therapist. He told me he had about ten mental breakdowns and felt he needed to come back to face his fears. We were on a tour of the DMZ [demilitarized zone] near the city of Hue and he was shaking the entire time.
It can’t be that significant for every vet, though.
It’s not always a spiritual or healing experience for [them]. In Ho Chi Minh City I came across a lot of veterans. I also saw them in Thailand and the Philippines. You could tell them apart by their age and by their tattoos that said things like, “Third Airborne, Da Nang,” “Fourth Marines,” etc. Mostly you saw them in bars, drunk and with young local women. To be honest, it seemed like most of them came back here to die, like Charles in Bergen’s book. Maybe they just have too many demons.
Matthew Fox is an associate editor at Maisonneuve and the author of a collection of short stories, Cities of Weather.