Tell us about yourself and background.
I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and received my B.A. from Mount Holyoke College. It’s the oldest women’s college in the country and a gem of an institution that has produced trailblazers such as Mona Sutphen (Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff), Kavita Ramdas (former President/CEO of the Global Fund for Women), Virginia Apgar (namesake of the Apgar score for newborns), Frances Perkins (former U.S. Secretary of Labor), and Ella Grasso (former Governor of Connecticut). For several years preceding college I worked with national and international women’s nonprofits, and grew increasingly interested in studying about human rights advocacy. I fulfilled this interest by enrolling in Columbia University’s Human Rights Master’s program where the focus of my studies was international human rights law, particularly strengthening the enforcement mechanisms of treaty law.
What led you to writing about international law and the Vietnam War?
Although the Vietnam War ended the decade before I was born, my father was of the War generation so I grew up learning about it from him. A trip my family took to Vietnam in 2003 really resonated with me because we visited the site of the My Lai massacre, and also climbed down into the claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels utilized by the Viet Cong during the War to hide and to transport goods for troops. This trip sparked my interest in learning more about Vietnam and its contentious relationship with the U.S. over the years. My Columbia program introduced me to global rules of conduct during wartime, including regulations for countries, armies, use of weapons, and protections for civilians. It was at this point that I decided to write about the Vietnam War for my thesis of the same title, which was later published as a book.
What can readers hope to learn from Scofflaw?
My hope is that this book will contribute to the field of international human rights law in several ways. First, that the U.S. takes responsibility for the impact of its left-behind weapons in Vietnam, and that it commits to clean up those weapons as well as making reparations to the civilians who were harmed. Second, that these findings foster greater adherence of all states to their post-war obligations for cleanup and reparations. Finally, that this book foment greater compliance of states to international law. I also hope it inspires the United Nations, international non-governmental organizations, and internal state and non-governmental organizations to strengthen enforcement mechanisms to compel state compliance in general.
What were the most challenging aspects of writing the book?
Without question the greatest challenge was addressing the intricacies of international human rights law. Jurisprudence, like life itself, exists in the grays. Law is extremely complex, and writing Scofflaw I imagine is similar to writing a who-done-it mystery with many moving parts, considerations and outcomes. The cleanup of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the remediation of Agent Orange, although overlapping issues, are also independent of one another. UXO cleanup, for instance, is more tangibly measurable than the cleanup of chemical herbicide which gets into chemistry, biology and environmental impact. Then, in addition to the dichotomous foci, are the legal components that weave both topics together: What do international treaties require of countries regarding clean up after war? What about civilian protections during and after hostilities? What do lawyers and scholars say about the retroactive application of law? What are the different or opposing interpretations of relevant treaty law? Do the legal definitions of ordnance and chemical herbicide include the weapons and chemicals used by the U.S. in Vietnam? What are the relevant considerations about U.S. violation of international law with regards to its responsibilities during and after the Vietnam War? The questions I had to consider are intricate and layered.
The topic of Scofflaw may lend itself to be controversial, insofar as opinions about the Vietnam War itself and debates about the interpretation of law. While Scofflaw has received meaningful praise from prominent endorsers, what kind of criticism might it have received?
This is a very good question, and it’s actually quite funny the presumptions made by the occasional individual who has read not one page of the book. I remember one person took the time to contact me with the sole purpose of ranting about my “leftist agenda,” and even went so far as to call me a lib-tard (liberal retard). Of course this behavior is so outlandish it’s comical, and fortunately these irreverent individuals are few and far in between. It is to be noted, however, that I made sure my analyses about international law are exceptionally balanced so as to make the book scholarly rather than a 214-page opinion piece.
But a more reasonable criticism, and one with actual merit, is that the Vietnam War is a thing of the past and the U.S. therefore is not obligated to clean up its left-behind weapons or to provide reparations for victims. Of course the counter-argument, which is detailed within the book, is that for Vietnamese civilians the War continues today. It did not end in 1975. Children and adults continue to die from explosions of left-behind U.S. ordnance, and babies continue to be born with severe birth deformities associated with the lingering residual levels of chemical defoliants in the environment and food chain.
What is the significance of the title?
Scofflaw is a term referring to an entity or individual that ignores or evades the law, especially laws difficult to enforce. The scofflaw in this book is the U.S. government for having violated global legal standards for cleanup of ordnance and chemical warfare after hostilities, and for failing to provide reparations to civilian victims.
Who has informed your research?
There are numerous scientists, legal scholars, historians and veterans who are making remarkable contributions to the issue of U.S. responsibility for cleanup of left-behind weapons, and whose research has greatly informed mine. Those whose research is particularly notable and/or whom I’ve gotten to know personally are Drs. Jeanne Stellman, Charles Bailey, Andrew Wells-Dang, Arnold Schecter, and Susan Hammond, all whom have researched the environmental and human impact of chemical herbicides from the War. Another person who has been instrumental is Chuck Searcy, a U.S. Vietnam veteran and co-founder of Project RENEW which provides community education about unexploded ordnance and works to restore the environment from the lingering effects of the War.
For those interested in traveling to Vietnam, what was your experience like?
Vietnam is absolutely delightful. I’ve visited twice, first in 2003 and again in 2016, and it is a very easy, enjoyable and beautiful country. I was unsure the first time how I’d be received as an American, since it is to be expected that some Vietnamese may feel resentment towards Americans, but I found that by and large they are extremely hospitable. Moreover, through direct conversations with people about the War, I was quick to learn that they differentiate between the actions of the American government and those of the American people.
And don’t get me started on the amazing food and landscapes! There are many microcosms within Vietnam, from the metropolises of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, to charming Hoi An, the history of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and the mountains of Sapa where tribal peoples live. Because of its beauty and history, Vietnam is a popular destination for solo-travelers and also safe even for young women foreigners such as myself.
Most notably, however, history comes alive in Vietnam. The site of the My Lai massacre is open to tourists, and readers will likely remember it from the famous photo of Vietnamese civilians piled naked, bloodied and dead across a rice paddy ditch. My Lai is where in March 1968, U.S. troops infiltrated a village of innocent families, gang-raped women, burned down thatch roof homes, and murdered upwards of 500 innocent children and adults. There are still bullet holes in the trees from that day.
Which organizations in Vietnam are doing remediation and cleanup of ordnance and Agent Orange, and how may readers contact or support them?
I’d suggest checking out Project RENEW, and the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA). Project RENEW cleans up left-behind and live U.S. cluster bombs and other munitions in Quang Tri Province, and provides community education about identifying and reporting munitions. VAVA was founded in 2004 to provide equipment and financial support for victims of Agent Orange and their families. Although they do not have a designated website, there is information about them online.
How may you be contacted should someone have questions about speaking engagements, your research, or book orders?
For any such inquiries you may write to: Scofflawbook@gmail.com.