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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

An Excerpt from Fred Wilcox's Waiting for an Army to Die

August 10

by Fred Wilcox

From Fred A Wilcox's Waiting for an Army to Die:

(BIEN HOA, SOUTH VIETNAM, 1966)— The twin-engine C-123 Provider transports are loaded, the booms on their wings checked. There is no real damage to any of the craft from the hits they took the day before, and the crews are checking the coordinates, air speed, and other details of the day’s mission. They will be airborne before daybreak, flying south, then east, and after circling at high altitudes they will descend in tight formation to spread thousands of gallons of Agent Orange over a target approximately 8.5 miles long, with each plane covering a swath about 250 feet wide. Within the dense mangrove forests are colonies of Viet Cong who have struck at the surrounding countryside for years, only to vanish into an impenetrable stronghold. But the men who participate in Operation Ranch Hand are not always told what lies beneath the foliage, or what they are spraying. Their assignment is to strip away the enemy’s cover, flushing him into the open where, tacticians believe, he will be destroyed by American and South Vietnamese ground forces. Until 1970, when the Air Force suspends use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Ranch Hand team will fly hundreds of missions, destroying thousands, then millions, of acres of mangrove forests, jungle, and crops.

Because of navigational difficulties, and the possibility of losing crew members when a plane is shot down, night flights have been ruled out. The slow-moving planes, skimming in broad daylight just 150 feet about the trees, make tempting targets to enemy gunners. The planes move in patterns similar to those one makes when mowing the lawn, forward and back until a predetermined area has been fully covered. Although a mission can be completed in three to five minutes, the Ranch Handers take many hits, making them among the most decorated veterans of the Vietnam War.

Sometimes the C-123s spray around the perimeters of base camps, where shirtless men carrying tanks of herbicides on their backs now and then playfully spray one another, or Huey helicopters mounted with spray booms work and rework approaches to the base. Some of the troops complain of headaches that last for hours, even days, and skin rashes that cover their arms, necks, and faces. But no one collapses or dies following his exposure to Agent Orange, and the defoliated Maginot Line between base camp and jungle might mean the difference between life and death. The defoliation campaign, though a topic of casual conversation among the troops, is accepted as just one part of the overall effort to defeat the enemy.

“I really didn’t know what they were spraying” explained John Green, who served as a medic in Vietnam. “Some people thought it was for mosquitoes, but I never really gave it much thought. I do remember walking through defoliated zones. Everything was dead. The trees had literally grown to death, because that’s how Agent Orange works—it accelerates growth in a plant’s cells until finally the plant or tree dies. Did we drink the water? Of course we did. Where we were there was nothing else to drink. If we found a bomb crater full of water we just scooped it out and drank it, no matter how brown or scummy it looked. Some of our food was undoubtedly sprayed with Agent Orange. But how were we to know? The army told us the stuff was harmless. And we were told it was supposed to be saving our lives. The ‘strategists’ had this idea that the enemy moved in neat little patterns, like a highway grid or something. You eliminate the pattern and you shut the man off, he can’t move anymore. But that, unfortunately, was nonsense. If they shut off one of his trails, he just found another. It was his country, and he really knew how to compensate.”

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