Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment’

What would you do if you were drafted to fight in a war? As a conscientious objector opposed to all wars, Wayne R. Ferren Jr. had to answer that question during the Vietnam War.

Chapter 5: Vietnam—More Than a War

Why Vietnam?

Before I discuss the many events shaping the late 1960s and early 1970s, including those events that impacted me and Jerry Wayne Ferren directly, I think it is important to discuss the country of Vietnam, the Vietnamese, and the origins of the Vietnam War. My perspective is primarily from three aspects of the war: first from an understanding of foreign exploitation of the natural resources of the region; second from the marketing of American goods and services; and third from centuries of religious and cultural bigotry experienced by the Vietnamese and the local indigenous cultures. Together, exploitation, marketing, and discrimination supersede the effort to prevent the spread of communism, a significant but secondary element involving the country of Vietnam. The spread of communism was of our own making when we supported a series of incompetent regimes in South Vietnam claiming to represent a democracy, rather than supporting those forces wanting freedom from foreign domination for the people.

Without the context of the environment of Vietnam and its rich resources and cultures as a backdrop to war, and without compassion for the long-suffering people who call the region their home, it is impossible to understand why the Vietnamese were so determined to unite their country and rid it of foreign domination, regardless of whom they turned to for their support. This information and the environmental impacts of war also provided the context for my application for conscientious objector status. How could we go to war destroying the fabric of another culture and destroying the resources upon which it depends for survival, while proclaiming we are defending freedom for all, especially when many people in our own country are discriminated against? I could not.

Understanding the natural history of countries is important to me, whether they are regions of the earth I have chosen to study due to my personal and professional interests, or regions despite being beyond my direct experience, have affected my life profoundly. My background in geology, botany, and ecology makes it impossible for me not to be aware of my surroundings and the global context in which they occur. It is woven into my fabric.

Vietnam is an example of a region having a major influence on me. Although Vietnam is quite foreign to my personal experience (I have never been there), as it is to most Americans, Vietnam is no different from a majority of countries in having a rich and fascinating natural and cultural history. In fact, for its size, Vietnam is one of the most resource-rich, culturally-rich, and fascinating countries on earth. I find it no stranger to research, analyze, and interpret this region without ever being there than it is for my country to try to send me there, fight its people to the death if necessary, while having no personal dispute with Vietnam and the Vietnamese. I had to find out why we were in this situation. Why the Indochina Wars? Why the Vietnam War? Why had I been drafted to fight in America’s Vietnam War?

I think it is vital to provide an overview of the country from a natural and cultural history perspective so we do not lose sight of what really matters, the land and its people, rather than the wars that so often have come to represent it. The reunited country of Vietnam, with its self-determination following what we have come to know as the Indochina Wars, was a long time in the making.

Here are some of the reasons why we should marvel at this unique place on the planet and understand why its inhabitants fought to defend it….

Geology and Plate Tectonics

Because central themes of my analysis of the Vietnam War revolve around foreign access to and exploitation of Vietnam’s natural resources, it is important to review the geology, mineral resources, and other natural resources of the nation before exploring details of my perspective on the war. Vietnam is unusually rich in mineral resources for a nation its size, which has contributed to the desire on the part of other nations and cultures to acquire the resources or access to them one way or another.

The geology of Vietnam is complex and includes ancient and young rocks and sediments in a structurally complex arrangement. This complexity results from deposition, igneous intrusions, melting, and deformation by faulting, folding, and movements of the earth’s crust associated with plate tectonics (the drift of continents on the earth’s molten mantel)....

Most interestingly and vital to the story of the country, Vietnam is situated at the juncture of two important plates of the earth’s crust: the South China Plate to the north and the Indochina Plate to the south. The boundary of these two plates is the Red River fault zone extending from the Gulf of Tonkin northeast to Tibet. Over many millions of years, Southeast Asia was forced southeastward when the region of India collided with the region of Asia, producing the Himalayan Mountains. The South China Sea apparently was formed at the eastern end of the Red River fault zone when the area pulled apart during the tectonic movements of the region. North to south, Vietnam has five structural blocks, the northern one of which was part of the former Chinese continent prior to the collision with India. This geologic context of Vietnam influences much of the subsequent natural resource formation and evolution, as well as the desire of many cultures to exploit the resources including its mineral wealth….

Mineral Wealth

Many important mineral deposits are located in northern Vietnam. Examples include iron, manganese, chromite, nickel, copper, tin, tungsten, phosphate in the form of the mineral apatite, and zinc-lead, with many associated metals, including gold, cadmium, and antimony. These important resources have attracted immense interest since they were discovered.

The Red River fault zone in the north contains other important deposits associated with tectonic activity (i.e., pertaining to deformation of the earth’s crust such as a result of continental drift) taking place over hundreds of millions of years. One interesting feature is the coarse-grained intrusions known as pegmatites. These veinlike structures contain many important minerals, such as feldspar, mica, tourmaline, and beryl. In addition to mineral deposits in bedrock, other deposits occur as precipitates in limestone cavities, and others occur as placer deposits in streams. Sediments in several streams in northern Vietnam, for example, have yielded high-quality gems, including rubies and sapphires, which today are cut and polished in Hanoi.

Rare earth elements were discovered in northern Vietnam in the 1950s and today are important in the manufacture of high-tech products, such as computers and engines, due in part to their important optical and magnetic properties. Vietnam has some of the world’s richest deposits of rare earth elements, such as cerium (Ce), europium (Eu), lanthanum (La), neodymium (Nd), scandium (Sc), and yttrium (Y), as well as other important elements, including uranium (U) and barium (Ba). Today, Vietnam’s Rare Earth Research and Technology and Institute for Technology of Radioactive and Rare Elements, based in Hanoi, focus on the extraction and use of these important elements.

Other mineral deposits are located in the northern and southern portions of the country, such as tin, tungsten, aluminum in the form of bauxite, titanium in the form of ilmenite, zircon, gold, graphite, and others. Kaolin deposits containing the clay kaolinite occur in districts throughout Vietnam and are often high in quality. This type of clay is produced from the deep weathering of rocks high in alumina and has facilitated the development of a ceramic industry for many centuries. Vietnam also has large coal reserves, mostly in the form of high-quality Mesozoic anthracite (hard, lustrous coal with fixed carbon) in northern Vietnam. Deposits of subbituminous coal (material high in organic compounds but in the form of a tarry substance rather than “hard coal”) in the Red River Delta, and lignite (a form of coal in which the alteration of vegetable material is less than subbituminous coal) also have been discovered during explorations of the region, especially for oil.

Mineral resources of Vietnam have been utilized and exploited for millennia, as evidenced by crude mining during the Bronze Age. Since this early period, copper, zinc, tin, and gold have been mined; whereas silver, iron, and nonmetal deposits, such as kaolin, probably have been mined since 100 BC. The Chinese likely exploited these minerals during the Ming dynasty (ca. AD 1368–1644). With French occupation of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, exploitation intensified. During the first half of the twentieth century, France exported coal, gold, tin, chromite, zinc, antimony, apatite, and talc. Additional exploited materials were used for local industrial purposes, especially for cement and construction during French occupation of Vietnam.

During World War II, Japan occupied Vietnam and exported the majority of mineral production during this period. Following the short-lived independence of Vietnam following WWII, mining of coal and phosphate and operation of cement and steel facilities accelerated with the assistance of European countries and China. France eventually asserted its dominance, and Vietnam was once again exploited in a calculated way. Because of our allegiance to France over several centuries, we came to their aid in an effort to subjugate the southern portion of the country. This brief analysis ignores or minimizes several important political developments in the modern history of Vietnam. These elements include the following:

1) the French Mandate for Southeast Asia, which grew out of the Treaty of Versailles following WWI;

2) the failure to hold open and free elections in Vietnam as promised following WWII, largely because the results would have favored independence, which the French vehemently opposed; and

3) the onset of the Cold War, a product of which included a host of smaller countries such as Vietnam under the control of either major western countries or the Soviet Block, becoming pawns in the postwar East-West conflict.

Nonetheless, domination of the region for access to natural and cultural (i.e., labor) resources is the oldest, most important focal point throughout Vietnam’s long history, elements often ignored among the political analyses.

During the American Vietnam War, the second Indochina War, much of the development, extraction, and exploitation of natural resources was halted due to the disruptions of war. The motive of the US focused on the richness of the resources and the benefits the US would gain in winning the war. Tin and tungsten, for example, were among the greatly valued minerals from Vietnam and essential to the US.

I was fully aware of this relationship between natural resources and foreign exploitation during my personal efforts to oppose the war and to obtain my conscientious objector status. I detail the economic and natural resource exploitation rationale for the Vietnam War in the next chapter, but it is sufficient to say at this time the initial and primary purpose for US involvement was to gain control of the resources so other countries, especially those competing for power in the region and globally, did not gain control. Southeast Asia was the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, a supplier of petroleum and other “strategically important commodities,” such as rice, coal, and iron ore. If Southeast Asia fell to communism, it would seriously jeopardize the United States’ fundamental economic and hence security interests in the region, including the Pacific islands where we had a chain of military bases.

Awareness of the exploitation of Vietnam even reached popular culture when folksinger Bill Frederick recorded “And Freedom Too” on his prophetic 1967 album Hey, Hey … LBJ and other songs of the U.S. Antiwar Movement:

We fight for coal and zinc and manganese, lumber, fruits and rice.

Rubber, pepper, iron ore, kapok, tea and spice.

Cattle, quinine, bauxite, sugar, all the country through

We fight for tin and tungsten … and freedom too …

We can’t lose Southeast Asia,

So we’ll bomb it ‘til it’s bare.

And then I’ll start a tungsten mine

And become a millionaire.

In a second song, “Exploitation Blues” from the same album, Frederick wrote the following:

We helped those dirty peasants in Vietnam,

We gave them poison gas and napalm bombs.

We gave them a chance to fight our war,

But they don’t seem to love us anymore.

I guess they just got those exploitation blues.

And so, our self-interests during the war were well known and exposed for all to ponder our real objectives in the region….

Modern exploitation of Vietnam’s mineral resources comes in the form of international corporate partnerships with the Vietnam government to locate, extract, and export the natural resources—a different approach than colonialism, invasion, and occupation but with similar deleterious results to the environment and the people. The correlations among the location of rich mineral deposits associated with the Red River fault zone, continental drift, evolution of cultures, and the conflict with foreign interests for natural resources is fascinating. The need for resources by empires and their expanding global interests comes in full focus when examining the history of Vietnam and its wealth of natural resources. Geopolitics is one of the most powerful influences on the region: rich in mineral resources, Vietnam will continue to be envied by foreign powers.

“Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment” is available for purchase.

Wayne R. Ferren Jr. is a conscientious objector who performed alternative civilian service during the Vietnam War at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, now of Drexel University. He earned a bachelor of geology and a master of biology from Rutgers University. He worked as a botanist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for 26 years, serving in various capacities, including the executive director of the Museum of Systematics and Ecology; director of the Carpentaria Salt Marsh Reserve; and assistant director of the UCSB Natural Reserve System. Ferren provided CO and military draft counseling during the Persian Gulf War and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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