As the motorbike taxi I’m aboard zigzags through the traffic in Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city, a bus pulls out of nowhere, causing my driver to brake, swerve and slam us into a sidewalk stack of bamboo cages packed with soft plump ducklings.
It’s as gentle an impact as anyone involved in a crash could wish for, but my driver seems shaken by our shenanigans as he points at the street from where the bus suddenly materialized. “That’s a new road. It wasn’t there last week,” he exclaims. Then, picking feathers from his Honda’s mudguard, he seems to reconsider. “Come to think of it, it wasn’t even there this morning.”
Given the phenomenal pace of growth in Da Nang, the taxi driver’s explanation is entirely plausible. Scaffolded tower blocks rake the skyline, shiny malls crowd busy intersections and, along the coast, new hotels compete for views over the South China Sea. Much of this growth has been fueled by Japanese investment: from the sportswear factories on its outskirts to the Japanese co-designed Hai Van tunnel — at 6 km, the longest in Southeast Asia.
Then there’s the subway system proposed by Marubeni Corp., which, in the not-so-distant future, might put hordes of the city’s motorbike taxi drivers out of a job.
Without a doubt, the partnership between Da Nang and Japan is an economic success story. But I’ve come to Vietnam in search of a different kind of knowledge — I’m here to understand Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
More than 4,000 km might seem a long way to have traveled to seek out an island on my own doorstep. However, Okinawa and Vietnam, Da Nang in particular, share a common history and parallel present — together with frightening signs of a future that threatens to drag the two regions, already torn by battles in the past, into warfare once again.
Relations between Okinawa and Vietnam date back more than six centuries to when Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and its merchants sailed throughout Southeast Asia, including to modern-day Vietnam, to buy rare woods, ivory and spices.
It was during the mid-19th century, though, that the two countries were truly launched upon matching trajectories, when they were annexed by more militarily advanced powers intent on building empires.
In 1847, the French navy bombarded Da Nang in an attack that paved the way for a century-long French exploitation of the region it named French Indochina. Okinawa’s loss of independence occurred in 1879, when Japan forced its king, Sho Tai, into exile before turning the islands into a prefecture of Japan.
Following these initial assaults, both France and Japan installed imported — and often incompetent — leaderships that denigrated the local cultures and imposed such a massive tax burden on the rural poor that the majority of the population survived only on the brink of starvation.
Roll forward six decades, and during World War II, French Indochina and Okinawa suffered the brutality of Japanese military rule. During its occupation of Southeast Asia, the Imperial Army massacred French soldiers in Indochina and commandeered the rice crop — so causing widespread famine.
At the same time on Okinawa, civilians were pressed into military service before almost one-third of the islanders were sacrificed in the spring 1945 Battle of Okinawa — a futile attempt to delay the inevitable Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Then, toward the end of World War II, Okinawa and Vietnam came into contact with the nation that molded most of their modern history: the United States of America.
Initially, it seemed as though the Americans would prove to be the liberators of the oppressed that many hoped. In Vietnam, they backed anticolonial freedom fighters, including future communist leader Ho Chi Minh, with guns and training; on Okinawa, the U.S. military treated the traumatized civilian population with a compassion quite at odds with that meted out by their preceding Japanese overlords.
However, Washington’s initial postwar sympathies soon underwent a rapid U-turn as the threat of the Nazis and their Axis allies was replaced by the Red Menace of communism spreading “domino-fashion” through the countries of Asia.
From 1950, the U.S. poured millions of dollars into helping the French colonialists reassert their control against Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese independence movement. Meanwhile, after the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco granted the U.S. control of Okinawa, it began seizing private property on which to build military bases. These installations served as a staging post for the 1950-53 Korean War, but it was the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict — particularly following the arrival there of the first U.S. land forces, in Da Nang in 1965 — that wrought so massive a transformation on the lives of every Okinawan and Vietnamese citizen at an economic, social and cultural level.
“The entire Vietnam War flowed through Okinawa’s military ports. Machine guns, claymore mines, C-rations, Agent Orange and coffins. We loaded it all onto ships and sent it to Southeast Asia,” says Glen Herman, a U.S. Army clerk at Naha Port during the conflict.
This flood of materiel was accompanied by the human impact of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilian contractors whose presence overlaid a new cartography on the native landscapes. On Okinawa, neighborhoods were renamed “The Bush” and “B.C. Street,” while Da Nang had the “Dog Patch” and “Frenchy’s Corner.” These areas existed alongside dozens of military installations — many of them, for example Okinawa’s Camp Kinser and Da Nang’s Camp Reasoner, were named after U.S. troops who’d lost their lives in fighting nearby. The military presence was so substantial that an identical saying arose among the residents of Okinawa and Da Nang: “We don’t just have bases — we are a base.”
Both regions had been impoverished backwaters prior to the American war in Vietnam — and the installations brought an economic boom. In addition to directly employing tens of thousands of local residents, they attracted others to seek work in the entertainment districts that sprang up outside the perimeter fences.
One Da Nang resident who made a living from the U.S. presence was Tam Le. As a young girl, she sold bottles of soda to American troops. Then, in her teens, she cooked meals for the GIs — including pork chops and mashed potatoes, which became legendary throughout American Da Nang.
Now 60 years old, Le runs a bar near the beach where U.S. Marines first came ashore in 1965, and she often helps American veterans visiting Da Nang to navigate this new landscape and find the areas where they used to serve. The walls of her bar are plastered with photos of some of these men — including U.S. movie director Oliver Stone, whom she met in the early 1990s while he was filming his Vietnam War epic, “Heaven and Earth.” Le’s review of the film? “Sh-t. It was not realistic at all.”
Le takes me on a drive around Da Nang accompanied by Jeremy Wilking, a young military expert who complements her firsthand memories with a GPS unit and satellite maps to track down the sites of battles in the area.
“Veterans contact us with the name of a hilltop or an L.Z. (helicopter landing zone) where, for example, their buddies died in a firefight. They want to come back to Vietnam to lay their ghosts to rest, but it’s a race against time. Da Nang is growing so quickly and construction companies are tearing down the hills that thousands fought and died for,” explains Wilking.
Over the next few hours, the pair guide me through mountain strongholds and abandoned command posts where the ground remains scattered with shell casings and impact-flattened bullets. We hack through dense jungle to explore bunkers that were first home to the French then U.S. troops — but which are now the domain of guano-squirting bats.
On the outskirts of Da Nang, there still stands the concrete sign for Camp Reasoner, a former U.S. Marine Corps base. Wilking brushes aside the vines to show me the slogan of the men who served here: “Silent — Swift — Deadly.”
More than any other of the ruins around Da Nang, it is this faded sign that so powerfully encapsulates the point at which the histories of Vietnam and Okinawa diverge: While Vietnam’s occupation ended with the departure of the last American troops in 1975, Okinawa continues to exist in a parallel universe where the U.S. never lost this war.
Shortly before visiting Da Nang, I was standing in front of another concrete sign — that one outside the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station on Okinawa. Its red and yellow paint was bright but it was draped with the banners of elderly residents protesting the planned deployment of V-22 Osprey aircraft to their island. Many of these demonstrators were old enough to remember the 1960s, when gigantic B-52s were constantly taking off from Okinawa to bomb Vietnam.
For five decades, such people on Okinawa have been campaigning against the American usage of their island as a springboard to wage war overseas. But both Washington and Tokyo (to whose control the U.S. returned Okinawa in 1972) have repeatedly ignored their voices.
In Vietnam, though, Camp Reasoner’s crumbling sign is a reminder — like Qin Shi Huang’s dusty terracotta army or Lenin fighting mold beneath Moscow’s Red Square — of the transience of empires.
The energy ever-present on the streets of Da Nang offers a compelling model for what a post-base Okinawa could become. At the moment, the U.S. military takes up roughly 20 percent of Okinawa’s main island but contributes barely 5 percent to its economy; it hobbles investment and deters infrastructural improvements due to uncertainties over the island’s future.
In Da Nang, on the other hand, the former U.S. installations have been converted into industrial zones and the beachfront bases into parks and hotels. To facilitate this growth, Da Nang’s roads have been widened — a particular point of contention on Okinawa, where the sprawling bases damn the island to choke-point tailbacks rivaling Tokyo at rush hour.
Since the 1990s, Da Nang has established itself as the terminus of the East-West Economic Corridor. Originating in Burma and traversing Thailand and Laos before reaching Vietnam, the transportation link facilitates trade and delivers untold economic benefits to the four nations.
Situated midway between mainland Asia and Japan, Okinawa is ideally located for a seaward extension of this corridor — a modern incarnation of its former Ryukyu Kingdom trading days. However, with the overbearing U.S. military presence on the island, including control over certain coastal waters used for military purposes, such an expansion currently seems the stuff of economists’ pipe dreams.
Back in downtown Da Nang, though it appears the city has seamlessly moved on from the Vietnam War, there is one aspect that, even with its boundless energy, it is finding impossible to escape: the toxic legacy of Agent Orange.
Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 176 million liters of the dioxin-tainted defoliant in Vietnam in efforts to kill its enemies’ crops and jungle cover. By the mid-1960s, it had become clear that the chemical caused serious health problems, including cancers and birth defects. But rather than curtailing its use, the U.S. military instead ratcheted up its spraying operations.
“Da Nang Air Base was the busiest in the world during the war — and one of the three main storage areas for Agent Orange in Vietnam. It was loaded there. The spray planes were washed down following missions. Barrels leaked there. Even today you can still smell it. It has a chlorine-like stench,” says Chuck Palazzo, a former U.S. Marine who now calls Da Nang home.
Palazzo is a campaigner well known for spreading awareness about the ongoing damage caused by Agent Orange, which harms not only those directly sprayed but their children and grandchildren, too.
The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that as many as 3 million people in the country are today suffering from the effects of dioxin. As an honorary member of the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange / Dioxin (DAVA) — a government-sponsored organization that offers support to survivors — Palazzo often takes international visitors to the three aid centers run by DAVA in the city.
At Dioxin Center #3, I witness the impact of Agent Orange — children with malformed limbs, children born without eyes, adults with the minds of toddlers.
“Da Nang has approximately 5,000 victims of Agent Orange. These are only the healthiest ones. The worse off have to stay at home because they are bedridden with muscular dystrophy and mental problems. They are the third generation and there’s no end in sight,” says Nguyen Thi Hien, president of DAVA.
The survivors here at Dioxin Center #3 are an appalling reminder of the bonds that continue to tie Vietnam to Okinawa. According to U.S. veterans interviewed by The Japan Times in an ongoing two-year investigation into military defoliants on Okinawa, the chemicals that poisoned so many in Vietnam were shipped via the island — where Agent Orange was also tested and routinely sprayed around bases to keep them free from weeds.
In 1971, the U.S. Congress finally acted on reports of Agent Orange’s health risks by canceling its spray missions over Vietnam. That decision forced the Pentagon to relocate its in-country stocks of the defoliant — a total of 25,000 barrels, many of which were leaking. According to U.S. Army records, the place where it decided to move these poisons to was Okinawa; proof, if any more were needed, of Washington’s disdain for the island, Okinawan residents and its own troops who handled the barrels without being warned about their contents.
Decades of independent scientific research has highlighted more than 20 dioxin hotspots on former U.S. bases in Vietnam, enabling its government to warn local residents of the dangers.
However, U.S. authorities have repeatedly refused to authorize environmental tests on the bases under its jurisdiction on Okinawa. This has left many Okinawa residents, and current U.S. service personnel, worried about potential contamination in the areas where they live.
In August 2012, to a torrent of media coverage, the U.S. embarked upon a cleanup of Agent Orange contamination at its former Air Base in Da Nang. Whereas most reports painted this as long-overdue recognition of the problems caused by defoliants, the U.S. consulate’s spin doctors there made it clear that this was purely an environmental issue unrelated to any human health effects. Such a denial, which contradicts overwhelming evidence of the dangers of dioxin, and the 5,000 victims in Da Nang alone, angered many critics.
Wayne Dwernychuk, an environmental scientist who led the research into dioxin hotspots in Vietnam, sees a more sinister motive behind America’s assistance.
“The Da Nang cleanup is a calculated first move on the political chess board of the region, targeting China’s aspirations. Designed to strengthen ties between Vietnam and the U.S., it will lead to the assured establishment of a U.S. military presence in Vietnam.”
In the context of the U.S. war that killed millions of Vietnamese, such a proposition might initially sound incredible. However, the past years have seen rising tensions between Vietnam and China — particularly over the ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which many believe sit atop reserves of oil and natural gas.
In 1988, China killed more than 60 Vietnamese sailors in a skirmish in those waters, and this summer Beijing announced it would set up an army garrison on the islands. Against this backdrop, it seems likely the Vietnamese government would allow the U.S. to build a base in its country — a move in line with current American foreign policy which, as expounded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2011, will focus on “forging a broad-based military presence” in Asia.
Territorial tensions with China are disturbingly familiar to Okinawan residents, who during the past year have witnessed escalating friction in their own backyard following Tokyo’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands located approximately 400 km west of Naha. While in public the U.S. has urged for a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the dispute, the deployment of Osprey aircraft to Okinawa, in October this year, has got many residents worried that Washington will exacerbate regional disputes to justify its presence on Okinawa while furthering its own strategic goals.
Throughout their histories, the residents of Okinawa and Vietnam have repeatedly fallen victim to the clash of empires and ideologies. From the 19th-century occupation by the French and the Japanese occupation, respectively, to the devastation of 20th-century conflicts, both have suffered as proxies in the clash of greater powers.
Once more there may be troubling times ahead. Almost 70 years after World War II ended and the U.S. stepped onto the global stage as the dominant economic and military superpower, today its influence, like that of all past empires, is on the wane.
It seems certain that China will inherit America’s mantle, but what is less sure is how that handover will play out. History offers few hopeful scenarios: Empires tend to go down fighting and drag whole continents into violent uproar. For the people of Okinawa and Vietnam to be spared more generations being thrust into the frontlines of war, though, the lessons of the past must be learned and applied, lest this region become awash in blood yet again.