Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chemical Warfare: Vietnam and Agent Orange

One tends to think of acts of chemical warfare, biological warfare, and nuclear warfare almost as points of no return. Engaging in them would be proof that mankind is irredeemable and that an ugly end is near. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on some Iraqis who were given him a hard time and killed several thousand. This act was ultimately used as justification for why he had to be overthrown and executed. Apparently the man was evil on a scale that civilization could not tolerate. At about the same time Saddam was being disposed of I came across an article in a Canadian paper pointing out that the most prodigious practitioner of the art of chemical warfare was in fact the United States—and the victims were not in the thousands, they were in the millions. The author was referring to the widespread use of herbicides in the war in Vietnam, an act with a legacy that is still unfolding.



This juxtaposition of images was troubling: the evil Saddam Hussein being rendered insignificant in comparison to the sins of my own country. It was disconcerting for a number of reasons. How could an act, so heinous in retrospect, be of such little actual moment today? How could it lie buried in our subconscious while today deformed babies are being born and people continue to die because of our poisoning of the land? How could we apply such a strict standard to others and neglect to apply it to ourselves? How could they arrive at the decision to do such a thing?


Here is a brief summary of that to which I am referring.


Between 1962 and 1971 the U.S. military executed a program called Operation Ranch Hand. This involved spraying about 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants over Vietnam, and parts of Laos and Cambodia. The program was advertised as a defoliation campaign aimed at denying cover to enemy troops, but about half the effort was actually aimed at destroying crops in the countryside. The intention was to eliminate a food supply for the enemy. Of course it eliminated the ability of anyone to support themselves in the areas sprayed, friend or foe. The goal was to force civilians into the cities where they could not be manipulated by the enemy. Several herbicides were used with Agent Orange being the most familiar. For simplicity we will refer to all chemicals used as Agent Orange.
“Air Force records show that at least 6,542 spraying missions took place over the course of Operation Ranch Hand. By 1971, 12 percent of the total area of South Vietnam had been sprayed with defoliating chemicals, which were often applied at rates that were 13 times as high as the legal USDA limit. In South Vietnam alone, an estimated 10 million hectares of agricultural land were ultimately destroyed. In some areas TCDD (dioxin compound) concentrations in soil and water were hundreds of times greater than the levels considered "safe" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Overall, more than 20% of South Vietnam's forests were sprayed at least once over a nine year period.”
Note that this strategy has no reference to the fate of the native population other than to make their farms and homes uninhabitable. But how do you spray farms without spraying farmers? How do you spray a forest without contaminating the soil and water supply? And what can people do once you stop spraying but try to return home and pick up their lives. These are not complex considerations. The people doing the dispersing, purchasing, and production of these chemicals knew what they were doing. The calculus of the war was apparently such that they were willing to kill with their chemicals large numbers of civilians—orders of magnitude more than Saddam, the amateur.


Consider this description from a Vietnam veteran published just last year in an Oregon newspaper.
“I realized, first hand, that what we did as an American Nation was wrong. The effects of Agent Orange immediately manifested themselves on the environment here so many years ago.”

“Sprayed by the US on the jungles, on the rice fields, the river banks, on the people – spilled onto the runways, the tarmacs, the storage facilities. Leached into the water supply, the food supplies.”

“The crops, the animals and the humans – the children, the adults, the elderly. Plants and trees withered quickly, just to die and never to return to normalcy again. The toll on the animals and sea life were next – it was slow, but gradual and deadly.”

“The water supply was contaminated early on – but the lies from the US Government as well as from Monsanto and Dow were told with such convincing and straight-faced language, the people of this country, as well as I and my fellow veterans believed it.”

“’Agent Orange is not harmful or deadly to human beings’, said the liars. ‘In fact, you can drink it and nothing would happen to you’, was stated time and time again by these greed filled and soul-less people.”

“The lies continued over the years and remain so to this day. My own government refuses to accept responsibility. The chemical companies continue to lie. All of them continue to fill their bank accounts.”
And here is his description of our country’s legacy and responsibility.
“Today, 4 generations after the first spraying occurred, people continue to die. Children continue to be born with severe physical and mental deformities. Disease is rampant. Satan himself could not have contrived such an ideal evil. Over 7 million victims and still counting by the second.”

“Who knew, that after so many years dioxin would still be present in the soil, in the water supplies? Who knew that so many would become sick? Who knew so many would die? The US knew. Monsanto knew. Dow knew.”

“Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information act as well as what is now in the public domain reveal with no doubt that the US Government knew exactly what they were doing and what the effects would be. Ditto Monsanto. Ditto Dow. Ditto all the rest who conspired to keep this evil secret – secret.”
The number of Vietnamese harmed by this contamination is unknowable, but it seems clear that millions suffered some level of injury; deaths were in the hundreds of thousands; birth defects were in the hundreds of thousands.
“According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.”
And the numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.


As far as I know, United States has never admitted that a war crime was committed or that any of the normal wartime conventions were violated. But they have admitted, indirectly, the severity of what they had done. Not only were the natives subjected to the chemicals, but their own troops were as well. It is one thing to ignore a deformed Vietnamese child, but large numbers of sick and angry veterans will eventually be heard.


Consider this excerpt from a Veterans Administration publication.
“Veterans who served on land in Vietnam, went ashore when a ship docked to the shore of Vietnam, or served on the inland waterways of Vietnam anytime between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 (including brief visits), and who have a disease that VA recognizes as associated with Agent Orange exposure are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange."

"Note: Vietnam Veterans with these specific diseases do not have to prove that their diseases are related to their military service to qualify for disability compensation.”
What they are admitting is that anyone who came close enough to Vietnam to be in contact with land or water will be presumed to have incurred a sufficient level of contamination to have caused the specific list of diseases known to be associated with Agent Orange—no questions asked. Part of this broad mandate for disability coverage is driven by political considerations, but those factors would not have come into play without the recognition of the extent of the problem first becoming widespread.


Why bring this up now? I have a relative who is a Vietnam veteran. He never spoke much about the war until recently. He is now on Veteran’s Disability and suffering from a variety of ailments. One of the things he commented on was how many of the people he served with were already dead or dying. He is about my age. My cohorts seem to be rather healthy. This stirred up more than a trace of guilt. So many people were against that war that the poor soldiers came home to a rather unsympathetic nation. There was little gratitude expressed for what their country made them endure. Writing a few paragraphs about their hardships will not atone for this lack of appreciation, but reminding people about the insanities of war and the madness of those who would choose to wage it may help a bit somewhere downstream.


Collective repression of unpleasant memories is not justifiable, but it is understandable. The subject of chemical warfare never comes up in this context. It should—perhaps it must. I want to scream every time I hear a politician blithely proclaim that “we are the greatest country in the world.” This will become a better place when we can criticize our country and still be considered a patriot.


The veteran quoted above attributes the decisions made during the war to greed and moral deficiency. That may be too simple an explanation. Reality could be far worse. Clearly, war attracts those who are so motivated and informed, but I cannot envisage the U.S. government and military populated with Saddam Hussein-like plotters oblivious to any moral perspective. I fear it is much more likely that highly moral people were put in environments where the unthinkable could become commonplace and familiar—even comfortable. If you put a group of people in a restricted environment where they have limited contact with people outside their group, they can come to strange and irrational conclusions. Here, think of the Pentagon, or those who spend their lives thinking about the best way to wage nuclear war. Groups have a dynamic of their own and people will do in a group, things they would never do as individuals. What is frightening is that if such group “mis-think” can happen once, it can certainly happen again.

1 comment:

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