- Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs
Following up on the prize-winning Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (University of Washington Press, 2011), David Biggs’s Footprints of War sustains the lofty expectations that we have come to anticipate from him. Shifting from the Mekong Delta to central Vietnam, especially the region around the city of Huê, Biggs explores how layers of militarized landscapes have shaped the nation’s history from the early modern period through the present. The book grew out of an applied environmental history project in which Biggs [End Page 652] used American archival sources to assist the Vietnamese government in locating chemical hotspots resulting from U.S. troops’ storage and deployment of chemicals, including weapons. The project is thus one of those rare works that combines practical benefits with broad scholarly significance. Extending his temporal gaze backwards and forwards from the conflict that Vietnamese people call the American War, Biggs contends that the geography of central Vietnam, by channeling generations of combatants into particular areas, gave rise to layered militarized landscapes that shaped subsequent conflicts and nation building through to today. In assembling this argument, Biggs provides important insights into the history of war, landscape, and nation building that will be relevant far beyond Vietnam’s borders.
Footprints of War bears an intellectual debt to Annales School historian Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, but where Braudel fell back on geographical determinism in attributing the Mediterranean world’s physical features for engendering historical trends, Biggs offers a more complex causal relationship. He highlights the “geologic facts” of the central coast—a narrow strip linking more populous regions and bordered by hilly highlands on one side and the sea on the other—for rendering it a conflict zone (p. 23), and notes that geography made certain sites strategically significant, encouraging repeated generations of soldiers to occupy these sites. Biggs never loses sight of human agency, however. He shows how recurrent military campaigns transformed the landscape, leaving successive “footprints of war” that affected the challenges and opportunities of subsequent combatants and nation builders.
Biggs levers this history of serial military colonization to probe the concept of creative destruction. We usually associate this idea with the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who contended in the 1940s that dismantling prior systems was a necessary precursor to capitalist innovation. Biggs reminds us, however, that the idea has a much longer history. German historians and economists used it to explore how warfare facilitated advancement by clearing away the old order even before the First World War. Biggs illustrates how creative destruction reshaped Vietnam as well. Since the early modern period, sites cleared by warfare have been repurposed as towns, tree nurseries, and industrial parks. Conversely, Biggs shows how war’s legacies limited the types of development that could occur on sites scarred by destruction, including the herbicides that threatened plants and humans alike.
Biggs also considers how competing landscape perspectives shaped conflicts. He notes how the aerial, geometric perspective adopted by French and then American soldiers contrasted with the landmark-based [End Page 653] orienteering preferred by communist soldiers. According to Biggs, “What led [politicians in] France and the United States to continue this war was not a lack of knowledge on the ground but an overwhelming faith in their global, aerial perspective” (p. 100). This perhaps overstates the case, but Biggs effectively demonstrates the significance of the Western military’s 40,000-foot view of Vietnam. By pioneering methods of aerial photography and, later, satellite imagery to comprehend terrain, and then by dropping Agent Orange and other herbicides to expose the land to their buzzard’s-eye gaze, American officials made aerial perspectives a key war objective. Conversely, communist soldiers navigated via place names and vernacular landmarks. This made geolocating them difficult even when opposing forces intercepted communications. Linking this to his discussion of creative destruction, Biggs contends that American policymakers’ reliance on aerial perspectives coalesced with the military’s...