In the seminal work on warfare, The Art of War, the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu devotes a full chapter to the importance of terrain. French historian Fernand Braudel conceptualized history as the longue durée, (“long duration”), arguing that continuities in the deepest structures of society—including a geographical determinism—are central to history. Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter proffered that military actions produce creative destruction, imposing empty footprints that permit new spaces for development.
In Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam (University of Washington, 288 pp. $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) David Biggs weaves the concepts of Tzu, Braudel, Clausewitz and others together with an impressive array of aerial photography and maps to present a regional history of central Vietnam as a form of stratigraphy, with layers of foreign and domestic militarization and cultural iconography.
David Biggs is a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside. His award-winning 2011 book, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, examined the environmental history of Vietnam in the 20th century. The genesis of his new work was a request from the Vietnamese government to use U.S. archival sources to locate potential environmental hazards resulting from the storage and deployment of chemicals and weaponry during the American war.
This innovative applied environmental history focuses on the narrow central coast around Hue, the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty in Annam, now Thua Thien Province. Though Hue is most recognizable to Americans as the scene of vicious fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the area also was the subject of Bernard Fall’s 1963 renowned book about the French Indochina War, Street Without Joy.
Biggs goal is to understand how military processes become embedded and woven into multiple landscapes. The six chapters of the book are organized chronologically, starting with a history of the area through 1885, followed by chapters covering the end of World War II, the French War, the Viet Minh era, the American War, and concluding from 1973 to present day.
The crux of the book is the American involvement in Vietnam as Biggs seeks to use the environment as an archive to contextualize the war. He contends that landscapes, like people, preserve memories of the devastation that was reaped upon them long after the fact. Biggs returns to the titular “footprints” often, employing the term literally and metaphorically. He argues that while an environmental footprint can be measured and analyzed, a socio-cultural footprint is as important, but infinitely more difficult, to discern.
Biggs outlines the guerrilla activity in the region dating back to the 1400s and the Tay Son Rebellion, a devastating late 18th century civil war that included for the first time a legion of French advisers. The French invaded the region in 1883 and ruled until World War II. World Wars I and II and communist revolutions in Russia and China spurred a generation of Vietnamese nationalists, including Ho Chi Minh, who fought alongside the Allies in World War II.
New technologies, including airplanes, aerial photography, and radios, were used for social and ecological engineering. A leitmotif of the book is how the Vietnamese used technology to enhance their enviro-social networks—using radios to establish an underground community, for example—when the French (and later the Americans) believed that technology could overcome the terrain.
The American response to the historic spatial limitations of Vietnam was to ramp up bombing, and, when that was ineffective, to send in more troops and helicopters. The futile efforts of the Americans to mold the environment proved to be a bitter irony.
The spaces the U.S. military cleared allowed North Vietnamese Soviet-built tanks unfettered access to Saigon in 1975. The book ends on a hopeful note outlining attempts to regreen, redevelop, and reclaim landscapes long devastated by war.
The book can be periodically dense and assumes the reader has a degree of understanding of Southeast Asian history. But these are minor quibbles.
This is a pioneering study written with great enthusiasm.
–Daniel R. Hart