The Saturated Jungle and The New York Times: Nature, Culture, and the Vietnam War

By Dante Leopoldo Sudilovsky '22
Advised by Professor Emmanuel Kreike

List of Abbreviations

AAAS: American Academy for the Advancement of Science
AOs: Areas of Operations
ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam
MACV: Military Assistance Command, Vietnam
NLF: National Liberation Front
NVA: North Vietnamese Army
NYT: New York Times
OCR: Optical Character Recognition – scanned document search technology
S&D: Search and Destroy


Into the Jungle

On March 19th, 1965 — as dispatches on expanded US military activities in Indochina were becoming regular front page news — New York Times reporter C.L. Sulzberger described his impressions of the nation with which the United States would soon become intensely entangled: “There are fetid mahogany forests tenanted by game and cut by sluggish rivers. In paddies near protected hamlets, peasants labor beneath their broad, conical hats. The uninformed would not know that burned-out slashes on the mountainsides show where the guerrillas grow their rice. Terminal cities appear peaceful and easy-going if dotted with soldiery. Nevertheless, between the towns and below . . . an invisible war proceeds, marked by singular savagery, obscured by jungle or fought at night."1 Sulzberger’s account of South Vietnam — a quaint land of peaceful paddies tended by peasants on one hand and a wilderness infested by savage guerrillas on the other — encapsulates many of the dichotomies which would pervade American mass media coverage of the Vietnam War. The conflict was not merely a Cold (proxy) War entanglement, but a grinding, brutal conflagration which pitted the technocratic, industrial American military machine and intelligentsia against an often-unseen enemy in an environment deemed primitive.

It would be an understatement to say that an extraordinary amount of scholarly attention has been paid to nearly every facet of the Vietnam War. Most pertinent to this addition to the scholarship, historians have tackled the paramount role textual and visual media played in influencing public opinion towards the war and the manner in which the war transformed the physical environment of Indochina.2 In this latter endeavor, historians such as David Zierler, Jacob Darwin Hamblin, and Edward Martini have comprehensively studied the US’ chemical defoliation program known as Operation Ranch Hand, one of the most infamous episodes of the entire war. A technology and tactic deployed as a military exigency, these authors trace how defoliation reshaped the physical landscape of Vietnam, the domestic and international politics of chemical warfare, and Zierler argues, fueled the growth of the nascent American ecology movement of the early 1970s.3 Hamblin takes Zierler’s argument one step further, connecting the defoliation controversy and American geopolitical maneuvers to President Richard Nixon’s grand designs to make the United States the world environmental leader.4 A more recent monograph by David Biggs on the other hand charts a localized approach to the environmental history of the war, studying the longer-term legacy of militarization in Vietnam and the “land’s deeper, layered past and its multiple meanings” through hundreds of years of military conflict.5

While this valuable scholarship has begun to chip away at the monolith that is the environmental history of the Vietnam War, many questions remain to be answered. One notable gap in the existing literature is the manner in which the massive and now infamous environmental impacts of the Vietnam War were depicted and understood contemporaneously to the conflict itself by the American people. In particular, Zierler, Hamblin, and Martini write on the perspectives and dealings of American elites — scientists, lawmakers, and diplomats — and do not trace the links between defoliation controversy and wider socio-cultural implications of the program on mass society. Unanswered questions include: how did the Vietnam War’s catastrophic environmental consequences impact American culture? How did the media present these consequences to the American people contemporaneously to the war? How did American culture and historical contingencies inform reactions to these catastrophic environmental impacts? This paper will make a first step in linking different inquiries which heretofore have been regarded in isolation: the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese environment, and the print media in 1965. In doing so, it will seek to document and analyze how journalists depicted the physical transformation of Vietnam and how they positioned the war within the wider sociocultural developments of American environmental thought.

Using selected articles from The New York Times (NYT) as its most important data source, this thesis will study the manner in which the newspaper reported on the Vietnamese environment deemed “jungle” in wartime dispatches in 1965.6 This year was selected for its significance as a marked turning point in the war, as 1965 was a year of intense US military escalation. While a more comprehensive version of this paper would analyze coverage of all years of the US’ military operations in Vietnam (1954 to 1975) and perhaps even years or decades after, this paper is limited to 1965 in light of: 1) the nature of NYT Vietnam War reporting in which variations in content, rhetoric, and style were subtle and unlikely to be observed if comparing adjacent years of coverage, and 2) the limited space and resources available in an undergraduate paper.

The central locus of the paper’s research methodology and framework, the Indochinese “jungle” as a concept and physical entity, was selected for: 1) its cultural, ecological, and symbolic significance in military, news media, and popular accounts and subsequent recollections of the war, a criteria explained in the next section 2) its role in the war as the site of intense infantry combat and aerial bombing, and 3) its role in the war as the site of immense physical and ecological devastation, resulting primarily from Allied military action, i.e., aerial bombardment, chemical defoliation, and mechanized clear-cutting. Study of the role of the “jungle” in the Vietnam War — a prominent series of ecozones of the conflict, a distinctly “natural” environment whose ecological health (generally) does not depend on the intervention of man, and a term deeply intertwined with Western conceptions of the Orient — provides us with a grounded testcase through which to interrogate the intellectual, cultural, and historical roots of American attitudes and assumptions which informed The New York Times’ coverage of Vietnamese Nature. In addition, this paper will explore contingencies closely interlinked with the “jungle,” namely the NYT’s coverage of 1) the American military strategy of deliberate destruction of Nature (including “jungle”) via mechanized warfare, a strategy termed by ecologists in 1970 as “ecocide;” 2) American military technology and use of firepower upon Nature. 

Paradise and Hell: The Jungle in the American Imagination

Popular and scholarly depictions of the “jungle” throughout the 20th century imbued the term with vivid and often contradictory connotations. In perhaps the most comprehensive account of American attitudes towards the jungle, Maximum of the Wilderness, Kelly Enright finds that “in the popular imagination, ‘the jungle’ was a dynamic mixture of myth and reality . . . a spectrum of landscape features, foremost among them overgrown vegetation.’”7 Beyond the essential ecological or biological ambiguity of the term — a descriptor for a series of distinct tropical biomes ranging from thick rainforest to tangled overgrowth — the nature of the “jungle” itself was contested. Simultaneously envisioned as a near-mythical rainforest landscape filled with beautiful and otherworldly flora and fauna; a dangerous battlefield in the Oriental tropics, an association cemented during 20th century American military interventions in the tropics; and a widely-used series of metaphors for urban, industrial, and primitive locales deemed to be violent and convoluted on the other, “jungle,” then as now, defies a simplistic definition.8 Vietnam War historical scholarship by and large has failed to critically engage with the origins, contradictions, and implications of wartime representations of the Oriental jungle.9

In contemporaneous and post facto accounts of the Vietnam War, the “jungle” which covered much of the northwestern Central Highlands and the lush landscape around Saigon was synonymous for dark, dangerous, and primitive swampy forests inhabited only by mosquitoes, intolerable heat, dangerous exotic animals, and an always lurking but never seen enemy (fig 1 below and Appendix). On the other hand, “jungle” in the contemporaneous mid-century American cultural milieu was not always such a foreboding and dangerous place. As Enright recounts, the jungle also represented a hopeful if primitive locale — a place in which colonialism-tinged tourism, heroic individualism, science, and commercialization all existed simultaneously. In this way, the jungle was a confounding setting of contradictory attributes: exotic Oriental beauty, simplicity, violence, “primitive” peoples, and immorality — or as Candace Slater puts it, a place “full of beasts, maladies, and fearsome people.”10

The conditions of the Vietnam War, however, left little room for positive appraisals of the Vietnamese jungle. American and South Vietnamese infantry troops ventured deep into semitropical rainforests teeming with National Liberation Front (NLF – a.k.a the “Vietcong”) guerrillas and the regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Both of these enemies adapted the jungle’s thick foliage, rugged terrain, and disorienting conditions to launch ambushes and to avoid detection. The ensuing “Jungle War” — fought over the course of the entire war on the ground and in the air — represented some of the most violent encounters throughout the conflict. American troops laden with the latest and greatest military technology and agile and wily Vietnamese scoured and hid, respectively, in the humid rainforest. Following this on-the-ground reality, media depictions of the “jungle” in wartime and after-the-fact accounts portrayed a disorienting, exotic, and dark rainforest punctuated by violence, death, and ambush.11

Figure 1: Editorial cartoon of the “jungle” in the Sunday New York Times, 1970.12

The Jungle and Dichotomies of The New York Times

The New York Times did little to reconcile the unresolved and contradictory visions of “the jungle.” Rather, throughout 1965, the NYT consistently used the term as a boilerplate environmental descriptor upon which readers undoubtedly cast their own preconceived, culturally-rooted (and, within the context of the war, almost certainly negative) perspectives. In the newspaper’s coverage of the Vietnam War beginning in 1965, the “jungle” was an ill-defined, ill-described primitive locale comprising the vast and unseen battlefields in a faraway, exotic tropical land. Seldom an entity ascribed with intrinsic value whatsoever, the US military’s deliberate bombing, napalming, and defoliating of the rainforest brought only cursory acknowledgement and even less frequent description, let alone condemnation, by the NYT’s foreign correspondents and American commentators throughout 1965.

Even outside of locales which reporters and the military expressly deemed “jungle” — most prominently the rural countryside — the newspaper was generally ambivalent towards the US’ bombing and burning of the natural and semi-natural structures of villages, rice paddies, and rubber tree plantations. In fact, the newspaper often acted as a vocal booster of American technology designed to allow the US to overcome the harsh conditions and roadblocks posed by Nature in locales such as the “jungle” and the countryside. In cheering on the deployment of these technologies intended to destroy or disarm Nature, NYT reporters implicitly reinforced the dichotomous outlook upon which American military strategy rested: Western Culture as being apart from and oppositional to Nature. Such a Manichean worldview, reinforced throughout the period under study, countenanced the destruction of a primitive land with technocratic efficiency in the name of the exigencies of the Cold War.

Quantifying Nature: American Military Strategy and Tactics

The United States’ military and political objectives during the Vietnam War informed the tactics adopted in its quest to stabilize the South Vietnamese regime and the manner in which the US military perceived and interacted with the physical landscape of Vietnam — the cities, countryside, and jungle. Historians of the war have expended immense effort in teasing out the strategic, tactical, and political failures which precipitated the United States’ ignominious fate in Southeast Asia.13 Amongst other conditions, these historians have pointed to the US’ lack of clearly defined and achievable political and military goals. Scholars such as John Prados argue that the only unified “strategy” of the Americans was to wage a war of attrition: to kill as many enemies for as few casualties as possible. Informing the US’ tactics of overwhelming mechanized firepower, procurement of advanced technology, emphasis on aerial superiority, and avoidance of scaling up the war’s manpower or geographic reach, the strategy of attrition ensured that the “limited war” would play out with immense destruction — a game of waiting for the first side to call it quits.14

Throughout the war, the United States sought to leverage its technological and industrial might in areas as diverse as aviation, microelectronics, and data analytics in order to overwhelm a less advanced but seemingly inexhaustible enemy. Part and parcel with its postwar, Modernist means of war making — dubbed the “technowar” by James Williams Gibson — the US attempted to rationalize the lands, peoples, and resources of Vietnam by producing neat and digestible packets of data and statistics in an effort to use information to its advantage.15 Most famously, the United States fed its mainframe computers with information throughout the war in an ultimately vain attempt to calculate the conditions necessary for American victory.

On a more quotidian basis, collection and analysis of data played out directly on the battlefields of South Vietnam. As Duy Lap Nguyen explains, the United States’ “information panopticon” — surveillance of enemy activity by a dizzying array of military and civilian organizations using sensors, airplanes, and informants — was carried out in order to “isolate an irregular arm hiding in an impenetrable jungle in the midst of an inscrutable people.” The physical landscape of South Vietnam and the nature of the enemy informed the scope and methods of the US’ high-tech surveillance operations. Namely, both irregular guerrillas of the National Liberation Front (NLF – referred to as the “Vietcong” by the Americans and South Vietnamese) and the regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) “us[ed] the land and the peasants as cover so as to reduce a superior enemy to ‘a giant without eyes.’” Seeking to separate the “jungle” from the village and the “enemy” from the peasants, the United States carried out data gathering which it hoped would clarify the often fuzzy boundaries between these entities through the “quantification of every relevant detail of the environment and the people.”16

Michael Herr, American war correspondent and author of the influential New Journalism war account Dispatches, observed a map of Vietnam from his Saigon apartment in 1968: “The landscape has been converted to terrain, the geography broken down into its more useful components; corps and zones, tactical areas of responsibility, vicinities of operation, outposts, positions, objectives, fields of fire. The weather of Vietnam has been translated into conditions, and it's gone very much the same way with the people, the population . . .”17 Importantly, this process of technocratically rationalizing and quantifying the land and its people — assigning neat lines, numbers, and militaristic names on a map to which varying military tactics were applied — informed the US’ devaluation of the “jungle” and its surroundings as little more than designations on maps. Designating thousands of square miles of diverse landscapes with desensitizing, bureaucratic names such as Zone C, the Iron Triangle, and Military Regions I-IV, the US intentionally decontextualized the physical environment of South Vietnam in an ultimately futile attempt to efficiently carry out military and political operations based on the varying “needs” of each named zone.

Most dramatically, some of these named and supposedly isolated zones were designed as areas of operations (AOs) too dangerous for American ground troops. Dubbed colloquially as “Indian Country” by American soldiers, in these often-populated AOs, the United States applied such tactics as harassment and interdiction (H&I) and “free fire.” Without observation of the location to which its weapons were directed, the military bombed, shelled, and napalmed entire AOs. Put simply, the Americans attacked villages, jungles, rubber plantations, and rice paddies at will and without any reference to the location of the “enemy” following the logic of a designation system which deemed large areas hostile.18 Thus, to the United States, these AOs were not areas of nation-state building (“civilizing”) but rather battlefields in which primitive and unseen enemy, as well as ordinary peasants, were subject to relentless and near-random bombardment.

The technocratic rationalization of the land into named AOs and the use of beyond line-of-sight weapons by Americans (e.g., airplanes and artillery) created psychological and physical distance between the perpetrators of violence upon the land and the land itself. Essentially, the technocratic assumptions and techniques upon which the American war effort was based turned Vietnamese Nature into mere topographic features on a map which sometimes needed to be destroyed in the name of military necessity.

Various tactics adopted by the United States throughout the war — helicopter assaults, large-scale sweeps, search and destroy (S&D) operations, and clear-and-hold— subjected the countryside to extraordinary firepower countenanced in part by the underlying American strategy of attrition: if enough of the enemy’s forces were bombed into submission — if enough of “his” villages were burned and if he was deprived of jungle cover — the war could be won by cheap American bullets rather than by costly American bodies.19 Importantly, the purpose of this firepower was not generally to destroy Nature per se (i.e., it was not the intention to destroy Nature directly but rather to destroy the enemy), but it was nonetheless the US strategy’s and tactics’ direct and foreseen consequences.20 In 1965, The New York Times by and large was influenced by the same technocratic assumptions of the US military — that the war could and should be won by the application of sufficient firepower, regardless of its impact on Nature and a countryside which was reduced to mere numbers and shade on a map.

The Media and the Vietnam War

Serving as the key interlocutor between official accounts of military operations and the public 10,000 miles away, US journalists played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and conveying information about the Vietnam War to the American people. The role of the media, unlike that of Nature, has been the object of intense scholarship and debate, both during and after the conflict.21 Not only did journalists produce a truly unprecedented volume of media during the war — articles, photographs, newsreels, and books — but historians such as Sandra C. Taylor have pointed to the enduring influence of journalistic accounts of the war even to this day. Reporters were not mere observers but also active critics of the war effort, scrutinizing the daily occurrences of the Vietnam War within the in vogue “New School” tradition of critical analysis.22

Recollections of the war in American popular culture remain enshrined in a mythology of the media’s preeminent role in shaping both our memory of it and its outcome. While the former claim is highly plausible and is backed up by recent and 20th century scholarship, the latter has been thoroughly discredited.23 An upswelling of conservative backlash and effective political messaging throughout the 1970s and 1980s against the establishment liberal-leaning media fueled the notion of the US media’s detrimental role in the war effort, a perception which saw it as an institution essentially oppositional to the US’ war aims. Yet, the analyses of historians such as Daniel C. Hallin, author of a comprehensive history on the American media in Vietnam, discredit the very factual basis of this markedly successful partisan argument.

Journalists in Vietnam were afforded access to information and the battlefield unprecedented in the history of wartime reporting. Such privileges as complete freedom from government censorship and direct physical access to the frontlines afforded these correspondents the information with which to challenge the US government narrative. Despite its penchant to challenge the execution of the war, especially as it dragged on, the institution of the American media itself before, during, and after the war remained firmly rooted in the cultural and political status quo, with “respect for order, institutions, and authority” at its very core.24 The journalistic practices and information gathering means of the media gave the greatest weight to the viewpoints of those at the top of the American political and military hierarchies, not figures oppositional to the Americans’ ultimate aims. Essentially, the US media challenged aspects of the US’ conduct of the war — for instance criticizing the government’s lack of clear strategic aims — while supporting the underlying logic of the US’ involvement in the first place — that the military intervention in South Vietnam was a necessary endeavor.

Importantly, the manner in which the NYT and other news organization reported on the war was constrained by political, economic, and temporal factors which had the effect of elevating establishment perspectives. Carpini points to contingencies which sharply hindered foreign correspondents’ ability to portray the Vietnam experience wholly “accurately:” dependency on government sources for information; government accreditation and self-imposed censorship of military secrets; journalists’ loyalty to national interests in providing positive reporting; economic pressures to produce news which did not portray one’s nation in a negative light; and strict deadlines and word limits under which foreign correspondents operated.25 NYT coverage of the war was further constrained by another boundary to which Carpini argues all mainstream media outlets are subject: the “legitimacy” of a topic or viewpoint as defined by its acceptability to the dominant culture — or put simply, a story’s newsworthiness.26 These carefully circumscribed boundaries of legitimate viewpoints shaped the extent to which Vietnam correspondents were able to question and critique America’s conduct of the war.

Vietnam correspondents from major newspapers, wire services, and television stations were stationed in Saigon or other large urban centers in South Vietnam, generally on one-year deployments. These journalists, both seasoned “old-timers” who had been on the Asian beat for decades and young upstarts fresh off an airplane, accessed information almost exclusively from the US government, the only source deemed “legitimate.” Such official purveyors of information as MACV press releases, government spokesmen, soldiers and officers, and various “well-informed” sources providing knowledge “on background” (i.e., unattributed) were by far the most commonly cited authorities. In addition, access to the frontline(s), the ever-changing hot spots of activity, was carefully regulated by the military.27 With the press in Vietnam wholly reliant on the government for its information and its transportation and safety on the battlefield, the NYT’s wartime reporting was certainly not the product of the whims or even necessarily the agency of individual reporters but rather represented the articulation of often-rigid boundaries and limitations informed by contingency and culture. Given these restrictions, the manner in which the NYT reported on the “jungle,” ecocide, and technology within the theater of war often tracked the prevailing attitudes, assumptions, and rhetoric of the US military in particular and American elites in general.


Primary source research was conducted with a relatively novel method of screening hundreds of articles via optical character recognition (OCR) keyword matches. Such a method seeks to capture all mentions of key terms, a research strategy near-impossible to accomplish just two decades ago before the advent of searchable digital archives. The advantages of this strategy are myriad. It allows a researcher to quickly survey the prominence of individual ideas and terms within the media landscape; find specific terms in all contexts, regardless of their prominence in individual articles; and track the changing or static use of a term across weeks, months, and years. In this research, I conducted a search of the ProQuest database of The New York Times in 1965 for articles with both “Vietnam” AND “jungle” in the body of the text and/or the headline. This search yielded 343 articles. Upon completion of this initial phase, I conducted searches in these years to find articles which featured both “Vietnam” AND “defoliation,” “herbicide(s),” “ecology,” “ecocide,” “plows,” “crater,” and “napalm.”

For all the advantages of this OCR research method, its primary disadvantage lies in the sheer number of “hits” for certain terms, a reality which necessitated some degree of article triage. This was accomplished by a month-by-month approach in which all news and opinion articles which contained search terms (e.g., Vietnam AND jungle) were briefly scanned and minimum of 5 articles per each month were selected for close reading.28 Articles were selected for: 1) Context of term use and 2) Novelty of term use. For example, I noted but did not necessarily analyze articles in which “jungle” was a fleeting reference or geographic stand-in within otherwise formulaic dispatches. Of particular interest were articles which offered environmental descriptions of the “jungle” and those that tangentially or directly referenced wartime activities which had the effect of degrading the environment. Finally, I read and notated each of these individual articles, searching for: descriptions of the jungle, Nature, and the NLF, technology and machinery of war, and instances of the targeting of Nature via bombing, napalming, defoliation, etc. The main portion of analysis involved articles which featured both “Vietnam” and “Jungle.” I read and analyzed 87 of these articles from 1965. I will now sketch out the broad questions and scholarly frameworks vis-à-vis the complex interplay between conflict, the environment, and human society.

The War, Environment, and Society Nexus

War and violent conflict do not take place in neutral, “imagined spaces.” They are not isolated from the landscapes, resources, and societies which beget them. Rather, war, society, and the environment form a triad of reciprocal connections, exacting powerful influence on one another. Broadly speaking, existing literature on the society-environment-war nexus may be grouped into three often overlapping frameworks: 1) Nature as affecting war; 2) war as affecting Nature; and 3) war, Nature, and society as forming a complex, interlinked “hyperobject.”29

While simpler frameworks one and two allow scholars to view the relationships between Nature and human Culture in “isolation” from each other (i.e., only analyzing the effect of war on Nature or the effect of Nature on war, not the complex, reciprocal interactions between these two processes), these neat lines between Nature and human Culture — a separation often erected by Western academia — are seldom so unequivocal in war or in peace. As a general matter of material existence, humans must intercourse directly with Nature for survival. Even supposedly anthropogenic systems of production are rarely solely the product of human invention. For example, in her environmental history of the Civil War, Lisa Brady introduces “agroecosystems” as a conceptual framing of sedentary agriculture. Despite its close association with “civilization,” agriculture does not represent a clean break from the lifeways of hunter-gathers — lives of hunting and gathering sustenance directly from Nature. Rather, agroecosystems are a mere domestication and reorientation of the natural environment’s “trophic processes...and energy flow” towards the production of food and fodder. They “are neither entirely natural nor completely domesticated,” and thus represent, like many aspects of “civilization,” a fuzzy melding of natural and human-directed processes.30

Further weakening any semblance of a Manichean Nature/Culture dichotomy, Emmanuel Kreike broadens the terms of human and Nature intercourse by advancing “environmental infrastructure” as a conceptualization of the myriad and mostly ignored ways in which products of Culture are rarely just that. “Coproductions of human ingenuity and labor on the one hand and nonhuman actors and forces on the other,” these “human-shaped environments” include a diverse range of infrastructures beyond Brady’s narrower focus: “homes, stables, fields, fences, soils, [etc.]”31 Destroying environmental infrastructure, “environcide” as Kreike terms it, has a measured impact on human society far beyond the destruction of a battleship or the leveling of a fortress — entities with less direct connections to Nature.32 By hindering or eliminating the capacity of a population to use and maintain its environmental infrastructure, environcide temporarily or permanently severs the population’s intertwined relationship with Nature, destroys rural lifeways, and forces immense disruptions to patterns of social reproduction. With this conceptual framing, the blurred lines and areas of active communion between Nature and human Culture become crucial in interrogating the broader societal implications of war.

Nature Affecting War

While an incomplete picture of the society-environment-war nexus, the first framework of analysis — Nature as affecting war — illustrates the way Nature is an active agent in human conflict. An exemplar of this school of thought, James L.A. Webb, Jr. in his somewhat deterministic and “longue durée” Desert Frontier argues that climatological changes in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries along the frontier between the Western Sahel and Western Sahara were a primary force driving an increase in raiding and violent conflicts which smoldered across this zone of contact. Increasing aridity in the Sahel, an interstitial ecozone which mixed features of savannah and desert ecozones, “brought about an increase in regional exchange across the desert frontier, and this increase was rooted, in good measure, in new patterns of political violence.”33 As Webb explains, the societal knock-on effects of the ecological shift were profound, heralding not only an increase in violence but also the formation of new ethnic identities, alterations of patterns of commerce, and the extension and expansion of chattel slavery in the context of a burgeoning trans-Atlantic slave trade.34

In another climatologically focused monograph, Dagomar DeGroot charts the manner in which Nature impacts war (and society) vis-à-vis the violent centuries during and subsequent to the Dutch Golden Age. Whereas Webb’s analysis may be seen as deterministic, DeGroot argues that the Dutch were not only affected by their changing climate but also recognized and responded to these changes.35 As in Desert Frontier, climatological changes — fluctuations in temperatures during the Little Ice Age — wrought far-reaching direct and indirect alterations to patterns of agriculture, commerce, and, ultimately, violence. The Frigid Golden Age seeks to explain connections between Dutch commercial and military successes in terms of this climate change (and resulting changes to patterns of local weather) while stressing that “no wars were ever won or lost solely because of [it].”36 While not always on the side of the Dutch, Nature, the author argues, “multiplied the military consequences of human decisions and policies.”37 In this way, historical contingency and preexisting cultural patterns led humans to react to climate changes in variable ways, disparate responses which ultimately shaped the outcome of conflict.38

Of course, the impacts of Nature on war need not be climatological in origin but rather may be unambiguous, local, and, sometimes, banal. In her environmental history of the American Civil War, Lisa M. Brady illustrates that in many instances, landscapes, terrain, and everyday weather play a crucial role in helping or hindering military campaigns. During General Grant's siege of Vicksburg, for example, the physical terrain protecting the city, “‘the series of irregular hills, bluffs, and narrow, torturous ridges,’” proved a challenging, though not insurmountable, impediment to conquest.39 Untraversable and inhospitable ecozones, miserable weather of all degrees, and poor environmental living conditions were part and parcel of innumerable wars and conflicts — and may have played an important role in shaping the outcome of these conflicts.

Disease, too, can profoundly shape the trajectory of human conflict and broader society.40 In Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana, the author traces the nuanced connections between smallpox, British and American armies and societies, and wider trans-continental exchanges of people, goods, and disease during and after the American Revolutionary War. Amongst the author’s findings, Fenn argues that the confluence of Nature and war refracted the military campaigns of the Revolution by unleashing highly variable consequences unto British and American soldiers, a contingency which correspondingly influenced human decisions and the outcome of the war.41 The spread of the “Pox,” multiplied by the “meeting, dispersing, and regrouping” of people in wartime, cut short the lives, hopes for freedom, and military participation of a large number of runaway Black slaves who sought to join the British cause. Finally, it compounded the demographic and cultural devastation of Native American populations across the continent as it spread from armies to traders to Indians.42 Smallpox operated not merely as a deadly contagion, but also as a dynamic historical actor which intersected with both societal norms and historical contingency — an active agent which powerfully affected human decisions.43

War Affecting Nature

The inverse of these cases focuses on interrogating human impacts on Nature as a result of conflict. Within this second framework, humans intentionally or incidentally alter, destroy, or degrade Nature through wartime activities, including through the bombing, poisoning, and burning of landscapes; the destructive pillaging of enemy (or friendly) land; the displacement of human populations; and the exploitation of Nature to sustain the machinery of war.44 Perhaps the most straightforward and ancient form of environmental destruction vis-à-vis war is the practice of “living off the land” in which armies, hindered by poor logistical capabilities and/or seeking to diminish their enemies’ resources, ravage the countryside in search of forage, fuel, and fodder. This practice of chevauchée has profound direct impacts on both Nature and on society writ large both by the direct consumption of resources and by the degradation or destruction of environmental infrastructure.

In this latter case, Kreike argues that chevauchée is not merely “living off the land” but an environcidal activity whose impacts on human societies are extraordinary. A concerted effort to destroy the complex eco-social relations which link man and Nature, it is “a crime against humanity and Nature.”45 Brady likewise finds that chevauchée’s instrumental consequences are far greater than they appear on the surface. In her analysis of the practice in War Upon the Land, Brady argues that the Union Army’s chevauchée during the Civil War represented not a mere reoccurrence of this ancient warfare technique but a deliberate weapon of war to attack the socioeconomic foundations of the South. A tactic to bring about the Union’s overall strategic aim, General Grant’s chevauchée “focused on destroying the physical, economic, and cultural landscapes of the [South] imposing his own will over the fertile southern landscape.”46

Often, the environmental impacts of conflict are subtler and latent yet further reaching than even the glaring trail of destruction left in the wake of roving armies. Elinor Melville’s classic environmental history of the Mezquital Valley in New Spain during the Spanish Colonial era is a case study on such unforeseen, unintentional, and long-term environmental impacts of conflict. Through the violence of disease, corvée labor, and expropriation of land, the original Olmec subsistence farmers of the Valley were displaced by immigré Spaniards, their African slaves, and Old-World livestock. After replacing indigenous agricultural with Old World livestock rearing, the Spaniards allowed their sheep to consume the seemingly unlimited, lush grasses of abandoned crop fields. As a result, the livestock population exploded, only to subsequently collapse in a typical case of “ungulate irruption” whereby rapid growth of a livestock population outpaces the capacity of their food sources to regenerate. Concomitant with the widespread denuding of surrounding mountains for mining, the irruption converted the Valley into an arid desert over the course of the 17th century—a complete transformation of an entire region’s ecology and productive capacity.47 As Melville’s study illustrates, the impact of violence on Nature may be both latent and utterly extraordinary.

In addition to questions of temporality, a fundamental discussion within this “war on Nature” literature concerns the manner in which modern technology and conceptions of “total war” have exacerbated man’s ability to exploit and destroy Nature. On one side of this conversation, Edmund Russell argues in War and Nature that the demands of modern, industrialized warfare spurred a subsequent expansion of man’s exploitation of Nature which correspondingly expanded the scale of the war itself.48 Using a case study of the interlinkages between the military, industry, and academia — and eventually broader areas of American society, including domestic chemical producers and advertisers— from World War I to the dawn of the Vietnam War, Russell’s monograph supports the contention that modern, industrialized warfare represented a break from preindustrial human exploitation of Nature during war — something new under the sun. Following in Russell’s footsteps, historian David Zierler’s Invention of Ecocide finds that herbicide use during the Vietnam War was characterized by technocratic assumptions about the supremacy of Western technology and war making. Driven by hubris in the power of their own creations, the Americans conducted the most extensive campaign of chemical warfare in human history.49

Providing a contrasting viewpoint, Emmanuel Kreike argues that “total war” and its frightening ability to scorch Nature was not an invention of 20th century industrialization but rather represented a continuation of practices of “total war” which began hundreds of years prior, practices rooted fundamentally in deliberate environcide. In evaluating the Dutch Revolt of the 16th century, for example, Kreike finds that warfare, of course, was not a romantic encounter between set piece armies, separated from civilian society. Rather, warfare “affected anyone and anything in its wake” as armies flooded lands, expropriated resources, and destroyed the livelihoods of rural peoples. These practices of “total war” displaced communities and fundamentally altered their social and economic lifeways.50

A Tangled Knot: War, Environment, and Society

Kreike’s assertion that total war is an invention far predating the Industrial Revolution is grounded in a more comprehensive and subtle interpretation of the Nature-war articulation, one which sees the exchanges between war, environment, and society as complex, multi-faceted, and interlinked. While 16th century armies lacked napalm, Agent Orange, DDT, and atomic bombs, they nevertheless possessed the means to wage total war against a population by exploiting, degrading, and destroying its environmental infrastructure — by committing environcide.

This scholarship — one which explores war, Nature, and human society — is present in all monographs mentioned above, though with varying levels of intensity. For instance, Webb finds societies transformed by new exchanges and opportunities prompted by conflict arising from climate change. Kreike traces the profound societal impact of both spectacular episodes of violence which destroy environmental infrastructure (e.g., the breaking of dikes, flooding polder lands) and the everyday violence of war (e.g., expropriation of resources by occupying armies). Another addition to this literature is Micah S. Muscolino’s Ecology of War in China, a monograph which illustrates the complex and contingency-specific conditions that articulate the society-environment-war axis.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Chinese Nationalist forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek opened holes in a dike holding back the mighty Yellow River in the Henan province as a last-ditch effort to avert military catastrophe at the hands of the invading Japanese. While the Nationalists met their narrow wartime objective, the river — Nature — became untamable. Hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland and dozens of villages were left submerged in silty brown water all the while Chinese and Japanese forces and civilians alike devoted immense resources and energy into redirecting its flow.51 Ultimately refracting the course of the war, this act of deliberate destruction of environmental infrastructure also imparted immense impacts on Henan society. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to leave their ancestral villages while disease, famine, and ecocide resulted concomitantly from the waterlogging of a vast rice-producing region. Disruptions to or destruction of rural lifeways, the wholesale transformation of industrial economies and consumption patterns, and the realignment of perceptions of Nature are the mere tip of the iceberg of the vast web of societal implications of war and Nature.52

Applying the Nexus: The Vietnam War

After a long detour, we may now return to the Vietnam War. The three aforementioned conceptual framings of the war-environment-society nexus readily apply to the decade-long conflict. In Vietnam: 1) Nature played a preeminent role in dictating the conduct of war; 2) The war altered and marred both Nature and Vietnam’s environmental infrastructure; and 3) The confluence of Nature and war with its attendant ecocide and environcide produced extraordinary impacts on Vietnamese society.

Several of the frameworks previously introduced will serve as guideposts of my analysis of The New York Times. First, dichotomies — Nature/Culture and Industrial/Primitive — are readily apparent in both descriptions of environmental destruction and reactions to it published in paper. Malcom Browne, Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press and a future Pulitzer Prize winner, succinctly summarized a prevailing if often unspoken Western view of Vietnam in his 1965 book on the war: “The Indochina area is an essentially lawless corner of the earth, never more than a step or two away from complete anarchy.”53 Following Malcom’s assertion, neither the US military nor journalists saw Nature in Vietnam as a dynamic, intrinsically valuable ecological entity but rather as a vast, stateless wilderness which harbored a primitive, pre-modern enemy.

Underpinned by this worldview which saw Western and industrial culture in opposition to Eastern and primitive nature, the Americans turned to artifacts of technocratic Cold War culture to overcome the military challenges imposed by Nature. Advanced technology and overwhelming firepower were deployed to attack the jungle and its denizens. Cutting-edge machines, gadgets, and chemicals — products of a stratagem and ideology which stressed the inherent advantages afforded by advanced technology — were used to wage a war effectively, though not “intentionally” per se, against the environment seen as jungle.54 As a result, the Nature/Culture dichotomy played a central role in media coverage of the war as the American war machine barraged jungles with devastating explosives, soared above the landscape in foliage-penetrating, radar-equipped supersonic jets, and deployed troops with the latest and greatest in “jungle war” materiel.

Nature was perceived as an active agent in the early stages of the Vietnam War, a finding in line with those of, for example, Brady, DeGroot, Fenn, and Kreike, et al. The natural environment of Indochina shaped military decisions and, ultimately, the outcome of the war. As described in NYT reporting throughout 1965, monsoon weather, thick jungle and inhospitable terrain, malarial mosquitoes, and extreme heat were intense impediments to the American military machine and affected its conduct of the war. Monsoonal weather diminished or prevented Americans from flying their helicopters and planes and launching their bombing raids. Within cultivated areas, rice paddies and the soggy ground surrounding them were untraversable for heavy vehicles intended to fight Soviets on the Eurasian steppe.

Many of the same environmental hardships faced by the US and ARVN were seen as boons to the NLF by the NYT. The guerrillas made better use of the resources of Nature, exploiting, adapting, and constructing complex, hidden environmental infrastructure within the jungle and interstitial villages — building huts, tunnels, foxholes, rice and equipment storehouses, and carving out rice paddies. More generally, the dense jungle and foliage of South Vietnam provided the guerrillas with camouflage, a relatively safe base of operations, and a near-perfect environment from which to launch ambushes against Americans burdened with sophisticated, heavy military equipment.

By 1968, NYT journalists were less likely to describe Nature in terms of actively aiding the enemy — though Nature certainly did continue to hinder American military operations. As referenced by Michael Herr in Dispatches, quoted in the introduction (page 19), the US military’s “rationalization” of all aspects of the war including the weather and geography turned the harsh conditions of the “jungle” into categorizable and quotidian occurrences, a technocratic percept also adopted by NYT correspondents.55 This small change in rhetoric did not change the fundamental conditions on the battlefield, however. In spite of all American efforts to overcome it, Nature in its myriad incarnations exacted a powerful influence on the conduct and, ultimately, the outcome of the Vietnam War.


Saturation Bombing the Jungle

1965 marked a pivotal year of escalation and intrenchment in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. By the spring of that year, it was increasingly apparent to the military and Washington observers alike that a continuation of the US’ “airpower and advice” strategy in Vietnam would merely serve to maintain an unsatisfactory status quo — a grinding, bloody stalemate between mostly-unseen communist guerrillas and a bloated, ineffective South Vietnamese military supported by a cadre of 23,000 American uniformed “advisors.”56 Debate amongst the liberal intelligentsia raged in the pages of the NYT in the spring and early summer, with most calling for an end to the US’ burgeoning and questionably-effective aerial bombing campaign against both North Vietnamese infrastructure and South Vietnamese guerrilla hideouts.57 Despite this growing tension, the Johnson Administration, faced with an seemingly-insurmountable gauntlet of answering to both Cold War prerogatives and a rising chorus of domestic critics from both sides of the aisle, made the fateful decision to escalate American involvement in the war.

Quickly, the number of American advisors and soldiers in Vietnam tripled from 23,000 in March to nearly 70,000 in June. In a tactical escalation with both important military and symbolic repercussions, US troops began carrying out “Search and Destroy” (S&D) missions against the NLF without direct cooperation from the South Vietnamese military. Prior to this escalation, President Lyndon B. Johnson had replaced the unimaginative and orthodox general of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Paul Harkins, with the distinguished World War II veteran General William Westmoreland in 1964. Westmoreland’s S&D strategy utilized superior American technology, mobility, and firepower to root out communists in their jungle camps and rural enclaves. In the “search” phase, a range of US casualty-reducing, industrial, and technological means were deployed to find enemy sanctuaries: chemical defoliants, special “people-sniffing” machines, and observation planes to pierce through the dense vegetation canopy that marked much of South Vietnam. Upon detection of suspected camps, “destroy” was carried out through airstrikes employing both conventional explosives and napalm to obliterate the target. This was followed by rushing in swarms of soldier-laden helicopters to eliminate the enemy and their environmental infrastructure, including huts, rice storage buildings, and underground tunnels and bunkers.58

In seeking to extricate the guerrillas from their hidden jungle “strongholds” via S&D and massive aerial bombardment, the American and South Vietnamese military apparatuses engaged in massive operations in and above the rainforests of Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, mentions of the “jungle” regularly marked NYT dispatches on the war in 1965. However, during this escalation phase of the “jungle war,” the “jungle” environment itself was rarely described or defined by the writers of the NYT. While making an appearance in 354 articles over the course of 1965, “jungle” was mostly a passive descriptor of the land — and, moreover, not one which necessarily connected to any ecological reality.59

In both the words and photographs published by the newspaper, “jungle” did not always identify a distinct biome as such but rather it emerged as a broad descriptor used by journalists and editors for thicketed, marginal, or swampy land — not necessarily the dense tropical rainforest associated with the grimy jungle warfare in Vietnam. A frontpage photo of “troops advancing in the jungle” on June 30th, for instance, depicts soldiers wading through a scrubby field with a single, lone tree in the distance — hardly a “jungle.”60 A photograph printed on July 1st reporting on the same military operation reproduces this “false jungle” phenomenon: soldiers exiting a helicopter into the “jungle” run through scrubby, sandy terrain.61

In describing the environs of military altercations, journalists cycled between varying, often imprecise descriptors of the land. Mangrove forests, swamps, lines of trees, and scrubby fields were part and parcel of the “jungle” of Vietnam. Many of these instances of “false jungles” are less easily identified than clearly mislabeled photo captions but rather operated as subtle rhetorical devices which leveraged “jungle” to describe the shadowy, dangerous environs where the enemy lurked. For instance, Seymour Topping reported on a battle within a quadrangle of “jungle-shrouded canals.” After announcing that the Americans had happily crushed the NLF guerrillas, however, Topping described this same battlefield without the ominous flair — as merely “tree-lined.”62

Of course, the “jungle” was a real place, and its military significance only increased throughout the course of 1965. Between January and June 1965 — a span of months just prior to the US’ military escalation in the summer— NYT coverage uncritically framed the jungle as a testing ground for advanced US technology and firepower while presaging many of the patterns which would intensify throughout the year. The early coverage stressed close connections between the jungle terrain of South Vietnam and the guerrillas’ martial successes, an advantage which could be combated through technology and superior firepower. NLF guerrillas were “extremely tough jungle combat veterans whose assets include the ability to support themselves with little more than a bag of rice” and who would disappear into the jungle at the drop of a hat.63 Nature itself was on the side of the guerrillas: South Vietnam was an ideal landscape from which to launch “hit-and-run” guerrilla raids.”64

As winter turned to spring, Americans began pursuing a strategy of intensive bombing the jungle in areas alleged to contain NLF outposts, all the while continuing aerial assaults of “Viet Cong” peasant villages. The NYT heralded American airpower as a panacea against guerrillas. “Air assault[s]...[are] believed to be specifically useful for jungle warfare,” claimed a February 3rd article.65 March headlines by Saigon-based correspondent Seymour Topping were even more bullish on the implications of aerial assaults on NLF jungle outposts and villages: air power “wins Vietnam battle” and “hurt[s] morale of Vietcong.”66 An article by another Saigon correspondent, Jack Langguth, claimed American air strikes “spur Saigon’s morale” and was accompanied by a photograph of a propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider releasing bombs on an area of dense jungle purported to contain a “guerrilla stronghold.”67 Another Langguth article reported on how air power was “being put to the test,” finding that napalm was “too valuable” in penetrating the natural and environmental infrastructural defenses of the guerrillas (caves and trenches, respectively) to consider giving up.68 During this time period, the damage to the Vietnamese jungles which this profligate use of aerial assaults wrought was mentioned in only one article — an April article by Topping describing a raid on a “jungle area” which “ripped tree cover from at least 30 large wooden structures.”69

In June, aerial assaults on the jungle went (almost) nuclear.70 Following a political and military doctrine which stressed overwhelming airpower and firepower in lieu of bloody (and politically costly) infantry assaults, the United States escalated its bombing raids on the jungle itself. “Roll[ing] . . . explosives across the entire region, like a carpet,” Cold War nuclear bombers dropped conventional bombs on remote swaths of the jungle thought to harbor the enemy.71 Beginning on June 18th, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was tapped to use dozens of its 8-engined, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers based in Guam to “saturate” the jungle with hundreds of tons of conventional explosives. These 4,400-mile round-trip bombing raids were carefully orchestrated and extraordinarily expensive endeavors which engaged more than 30 of the massive planes. Nonchalantly reporting on these acts of foreseen “ecocide,” a term which would not be invented for another five years, the NYT neither criticized nor condoned such activities in its coverage but rather wryly detailed these SAC missions.72

Neither the military nor the NYT were naive to the destructive implications of these raids. Quoting a young, bellicose B-52 pilot, the bombing raids were more than merely destructive towards Nature: “‘We’re doing a lot more than killing monkey and making kindling wood out of the jungle.’”73 This pilot’s monologue notwithstanding, few of the 16 articles on SAC raids analyzed between June and December 1965 made a point to even broach the subject of the raids’ damage to the jungle.74 Rather, the primary focus of these articles was the rote routine of the impressive sorties and relaying “estimated” NLF death tolls. Even the caption accompanying a photograph directly depicting the destructive aftermath of one such bombing raid — the only such photo of damage to the jungle resulting from bombing raids within 87 NYT articles analyzed — was far more concerned with the military operation occurring within the photograph than the severe environmental consequences pictured.

Adorning the front page of the NYT on June 19th, the black and white photo showed a birds’ eye view of jungle and a massive water-logged bomb crater, paired with an ambivalent caption which commented on the eye-catching crater seemingly as an afterthought: “After B-52 Raid in Vietnam: A US helicopter waits to pick up members of reconnaissance team sent out to assess damage caused by raid by big bombers near Bencat, 25 miles north of Saigon. Water-filled crater was blasted by 1,000 pound bomb.”75 NYT reporters and editors were scarcely concerned with such trivial things as “water-filled craters” and became even less concerned with the SAC bombing raids as they became routine. In fact, as their frequency increased — reaching a total of 53 bombing raids by October 25th — reporting on the B-52 jungle saturation strikes decreased. As NYT coverage suggested but rarely stated explicitly, these B-52 missions were largely failing to deliver the promises of their expense and firepower: the destruction of the NLF's purported, immense jungle bases.76 Some articles even implied that the jungle was not adequately destroyed by the raids, preventing the landing of helicopters and the assessment of damage.77 Despite being subjected to hundreds of tons of lethal explosives, Nature still seemed to have the upper hand.

While ignoring the broader ecological costs resulting from aerial carpet bombing of the jungle, the NYT honed in on the new tactics and technologies the military was developing to deprive the guerrillas of the advantages afforded by Nature. Vietnam, a headline explained, was a “war laboratory” for the US, an assertion echoed throughout Malcom Browne’s The New Face of War.78 Advanced communications and surveillance equipment were “smothering” the NLF’s jungle hit-and-run operations. “Common, commercial” chemical defoliants were “employed to strip jungle areas of foliage to expose Viet-Cong insurgents and to deprive them of possible ambush sites.”79 New munitions such as “lazy dog” canisters filled with thousands of kinetic projectiles penetrated soft jungle foliage and new delayed-action bombs were being dropped by the hundreds on suspected jungle bases.80 “Non-lethal nausea gas” filled the tunnels and foxholes which guerrillas bored into jungle mountains.81 In most articles analyzed, the jungle was not an entity which existed for its own sake but rather was a locale which harbored the enemy and onto which advanced US technology was to be unleashed.

Although these articles by their nature were hyper focused on particular gadgets and technologies which purported to give the US military an edge in jungle warfare, even general coverage of battles and wartime maneuvers in the jungle were awash with highly-technical details about the “numbers” of the industrial war machine: specific plane models and their unique capabilities and precise counts of bomb tonnage dropped on a particular designated area on a particular day.82 In effect, in its militaristic coverage of the war, the NYT seldom evoked the “jungle” without also referencing the industrial means by which the US military sought to destroy it and the advantages it gave to the enemy. Helicopters, jet planes, herbicides, and napalm bombs were as ever present in NYT coverage as the vast triple-canopied jungles they were assigned to assault.

Yet, Nature was not one to be outdone by the military-industrial complex. As the war intensified in early summer as South Vietnam’s monsoon season approached, NYT reporters began to discuss the role which the physical environment — both Nature and environmental infrastructure — was playing in the war. Centered around examinations of weather at first, the NYT reported on Nature’s apparent preference for the enemy. The rainy monsoon season was seen as hindering America’s most important advantage, airpower, while enabling the communists to launch a feared “Monsoon offensive.” Unable to fly helicopters and airplanes in the expected blistering downpours of June and July, the US would be incapable of launching airstrikes and rescue missions, spelling likely disaster for the South Vietnamese troops US aircraft regularly “bailed out.”83 Seeking to explain the dynamics of the modern military machine being more vulnerable to poor weather, a June 19th article titled “Weather An Enemy” argued that primitive infantry forces such as those of the NLF “‘will have less difficulty negotiating the quagmire of ooze, flooded fords, and dense foliage than will the hordes of trucks, tanks, heavy artillery and the administrative ‘tail’ of the modern military machine.’” The weather afforded an advantage to the “unmodern” guerrillas, creating the conditions on the battlefield “‘most conducive to the enemy’s tactics.”’84

Such poor weather — and consternation about its arrival — made a regular appearance in accounts of ongoing military engagements and in dire predictions of communist retrenchment during the early summer. In one such article of the former type, Jack Raymond described a tense and stormy scenario as American and Vietnamese troops hunkered down in their base, surrounded by mines, barbed wire, and sharpened bamboo in the highlands of the Pleiku province of South Vietnam. In near-constant rain, airlifts and airstrikes to reinforce against an apparently-impending NLF attack were out of the question: the “dark clouds” were “propitious for Communists.”85 Echoing this account of seemingly adversarial Vietnamese weather challenging the American military, a Sulzberger piece announced that the monsoon season “is a new test, a new contest of wills.”86 However, for all the bluster and gloomy predictions of the US military men and summertime NYT reports about the arrival of seasonal rains, the feared “Monsoon offensive” did not come to fruition. Taking stock of this gross miscalculation near the end of the rainy season in late September, Neil Sheehan wrote that air sorties increased throughout the summer, that weather was generally manageable, and that the NLF never intended to launch an audacious general offensive.87 The Americans were looking to the cataclysmic weather of the monsoon season as the most expansive means of Nature seemingly being in cahoots with the NLF. They should have looked, instead, to the jungle.

The actual ways in which the guerrillas took advantage of the power of Nature were much more quotidian. As reported throughout 1965 in the NYT, the NLF camouflaged themselves and their equipment in foliage, built hidden booby traps on jungle paths, hid their bases deep in the forest, and even constructed their huts to be so low to the ground as to be invisible from the air.88 The NLF were waging a seemingly “organic” means of war, a sharp contrast to the Americans’ industrial behemoth whose armies were kept fed and happy with the products of post-war consumer capitalism—imported, mass produced C-rations and cans of Budweiser chilled in gas generator-powered field refrigerators.89 Perhaps most directly detrimental to the US and South Vietnamese, the NLF used the brushy, bamboo-laden foliage growing on roadsides as the base of operations for their most successful military tactic in 1965: ambush. Americans turned to technologies such as ground vibration-detecting devices, mini-Claymores, and night gun scopes to prevent guerrilla ambushes launched from the peripheries of Nature.90 Even before these new gadgets could be deployed, the NYT reported unequivocally that the ambushes could be averted with firepower: “low-flying Skyraiders can blast the Vietcong out of almost any position with their heavy load of bombs and napalm.” Yet, ambushes continued to mount a heavy toll on the South Vietnamese and American armies throughout the year. Airpower was not a foolproof solution to the NLF’s adaptation of Nature.91

The NLF not only co-opted Nature directly in their military designs but also modified pre-existing environmental infrastructure to provide themselves with protection from American firepower. The NYT reported in separate articles that guerrillas were digging bunkers, foxholes, and tunnels into the “natural fortifications” of rice terraces, building defensive walls out of the soft monsoon mud, and constructing expansive trenches into the banks of canals along paddies.92 In the latter case, the NLF furthermore leveraged Nature to its advantage by concealing its trenches with foliage and building them only along tree-lined sections of the canal. While only a cursory feature of NYT coverage in 1965, the NLF were effectively transforming villages and rice paddies of the fertile Mekong Delta and beyond into what Biggs terms a “militarized landscape” — “landscapes that are not just physically connected to military processes but also tied in cultural and political ways.”93 Reconfiguration of existing environmental infrastructure, rather than its destruction, was the NLF’s modus operandi. The American solution to this problem of the enemy’s physical entrenchment in both environmental infrastructure and Nature was a turn to even greater firepower in the years ahead.

Conclusion: Ends and Beginnings — Nature, Coke, and Bison

[The Mỹ Lai Massacre] was a tragic but understandable act of troops stuck in Indian country.

—Colin Powell, paraphrased by Charles Lane in 1995 New Republic profile.94

Capping off the year with residual Christmas cheer, a December 26th, 1965, article by Hanson Baldwin took stock of the war which had mushroomed into a pulsating conflagration in the span of mere months: “It is a strange type of war - one of the most difficult Americans have ever fought. In some ways it represents a throwback, it is said, to American frontier fighting against the Indians. The terrain, the environment, and the climate are difficult and trying. A dangerous strain of malaria, other tropical diseases and venereal disease are prevalent. The enemy knows the terrain, is acclimated, and has what one officer called ‘animal cunning.’”95 Despite the hardships imposed by unfriendly Nature and a ferocious, animalistic enemy, however, the author argued that G.I’s were “rising to the test.”

In a patent, somewhat eerie synthesis of American thinking and confidence vis-à-vis its battle against enemy and Nature in Vietnam, Hanson reproduced the prevailing Nature/Culture and Civilized/Primitive dichotomies which permeated both NYT coverage of the war and the war’s on-the-ground conduct. As evidenced by Baldwin’s invocation of them, the Indian Wars, the American genocides against frontier Indians which occurred less than 100 years prior, loomed large in popular imaginations of heroic and just conquests of primitive peoples using tools of industrial society. Reproduced and reinvented constantly in the midcentury by mass media, the “Indian Wars” pitted the steel and steely determination of the Americans— trains, guns, hardtack, and grit — against a ferocious enemy living off Nature’s bountiful bison herds.96 The Americans nearly exterminated these bison during its war against the Indians, a fair price to pay for the elimination of an enemy who threatened America’s destiny.

Relatedly, during the Vietnam War, the trope of “Indian Country” described dangerous areas brimming with enemies which could ultimately be conquered by sheer firepower and military strength. A term used by American soldiers during conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries (from the suppression of the Filipino Revolution in the early 20th century to the present day War(s) on Terror), Anne McClintock observes that “Indian Country” reflects a pattern of imperial control and imagining of the land:

Indian Country is a form of imperial ghosting, a floating, displaced country of the Euro-American imagination, globally dispersed and perpetually shifted, a no place and an everywhere. It is an aspect of imperial paranoia, double sided with respect to power: both the geographic marker of a profound sense of impotence and chaos, and the historical marker of a fantasy of omnipotence, the future preordained by a heritage past that guarantees military victory as manifest destiny.97

In Vietnam, American military men imagined themselves doing something similar to their 19th century Indian War predecessors, fighting against a primitive enemy ensconced in Nature (the Indian Country) by turning to the artifacts of Modern Culture and High Technology. In 1965, NYT coverage of the escalating war in Vietnam found that the bombing, napalming, and strafing of the Vietnamese jungle, perhaps like the destruction of the bison, was merely the cost of bringing Coke, capitalism, and freedom to the subsistence hamlets of Vietnam. Yet, as in the Indian Wars, the Americans could not isolate themselves from Nature — they could not fight the war in the clean, idealized simulated wargames carried out on IBM mainframes in the Pentagon.98 Nature was powerfully shaking American decision making and the military’s ability to locate and eliminate its enemy.

Throughout 1965, the NYT reported the manner in which Nature was an active agent in the war as rain pummeled troops and grounded planes, mud mired vehicles, and the jungle ensnared equipment-laden troops. Reporters also detailed the ways in which Nature seemed to be on the side of the enemy — providing the NLF with stormy weather, dense foliage, and ideal ambush terrain. Although describing and experiencing a clearly powerful and allegedly antagonistic Nature, a captivated NYT and the American military were convinced of the inevitable success of ingenious technologies and overwhelming firepower to turn the tide of the war against Nature and a vexing enemy. The muddy fields, the soaring jungles, the monsoonal downpours, and the disease-carrying mosquitoes of South Vietnam induced the American military-industrial complex to develop new technologies and techniques to fight a jungle war. Against these expectations of the NYT and the military alike, the next 7 years of American involvement in Vietnam would ultimately prove that the NLF’s and NVA’s David-like determination and wily adaptation of both Nature and environmental infrastructure could ultimately overcome the latest and greatest gadgets of the industrial Goliath.


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Sheehan, Neil. “B-52’s Press Raids On Red Stronghold.” The New York Times. August 28, 1965.

———. “Vietnam’s Monsoon Nearly Over: Did Not Bring Red Gains Feared Last May.” The New York Times, September 25, 1965.

Special to The New York Times. “Air Assault Force Proposed by Army.” The New York Times. February 4, 1965.

———. “Asian Reds Make Gas a Top Issue: Propaganda Drive Believed Effective Though Belated.” The New York Times. March 25, 1965.

———. “Iron Triangle’ Fight Goes On.” New York Times, October 13, 1965.

———. “Morse Says Justification by U.S. of Air Raids in Laos Is ‘Jungle Law.’” The New York Times. January 19, 1965.

Special to The New York Times. “State Department Hails Raid.” The New York Times. June 20, 1965.

Special to The New York Times. “Text of U.S. White Paper on North Vietnam’s Growing Role in War in the South: Report Details Extent of Hanoi’s Assistance to the Vietcong in Men and Supplies U.S. Says Choice of Peace or War Is Up to Reds.” The New York Times. February 27, 1965.

———. “U.S. Troops Open First Big Attack Against Vietcong: Drive With Vietnamese Unit in Jungle Is a Departure From Defensive Role.” The New York Times. June 30, 1965.

Sulzberger, C. L. “Foreign Affairs: New Phase in an Endless War.” The New York Times. March 19, 1965.

———. “Foreign Affairs: Traps to the Right and Left.” The New York Times. April 2, 1965.

———. “Foreign Affairs: The Loss of Options in Vietnam.” The New York Times. January 11, 1965.

Sulzberger, C.L. “Foreign Affairs: One Kind of War We Can’t Fight.” The New York Times. March 3, 1965.

———. “Foreign Affairs: What the Rains Will Bring.” The New York Times, May 30, 1965.

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Topping, Seymour. “Air Attacks in South Vietnam Hurting Morale of Vietcong.” The New York Times. April 15, 1965.

———. “Portrait of Life with the Vietcong -- a Defector’s Story.” The New York Times. May 23, 1965.

UPI. “Bus in South Vietnam Halted 3 Times in Hour by Vietcong.” The New York Times. January 24, 1965, sec. 1.

———. “U.S. Air Command Calls Raid Accuracy Excellent.” The New York Times. June 19, 1965.

———. “U.S. Bombers Strike 3 Vietnam Targets.” New York Times, November 30, 1965.

“Vietcong Forces Excel in the Jungle.” New York Times, February 9, 1965.

“Vietnam Nettle.” The New York Times. June 20, 1965.

William Tuohy. “War Is Hell and, by God, This Is One of the Prime Examples.” New York Times, October 28, 1965.

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