Sunday, August 12, 2012

Agent Orange: Has the United States Finally Admitted Chemical Warfare in Vietnam?

Chemical warfare is just a touch below the use of biological weapons and the use of nuclear weapons in terms of being horrifying manifestations of modern warfare. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and killed several thousand of his countrymen. That act was ultimately about the only justification for the invasion that deposed him, and provided the legal grounds on which he was executed. In the article, Chemical Warfare: Vietnam and Agent Orange, we discussed the foray of the United States into chemical warfare. In that case the number of victims was not in the thousands, but certainly in the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps in the millions. In that case no one was ever tried for war crimes—nor was guilt ever admitted.

A brief summary of what occurred in Vietnam was presented in the referenced article.
"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."

"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."

The use of Agent Orange is particularly insidious because it does its deadly work slowly and inexorably. One of it more heinous manifestations is the ability to cause birth defects. The deaths and the birth defects are still coming, now into the fourth generation after the war.
"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." 
Precise numbers of those harmed are difficult to determine, but a number of observers have produced estimates that are nearly as large as those presented by the Vietnamese.

No admission of responsibility has been forthcoming. The absurdity of that stance becomes evident when one considers how the US soldiers who were stationed in Vietnam and exposed to the defoliants are treated. 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."

First note the admission that Agent Orange is known to cause a number of illnesses. Then note that having inhaled just a single breath of air on land will render one exposed to the extent that the specific illness will be deemed to be associated with Agent Orange. The generosity of this policy is partly due to the political necessity of relieving the political pressure imposed by so many sick Vietnam veterans. But to the impartial observer it would seem that the US believes only its citizens are susceptible to the poisons involved.

It was encouraging to come across an article in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller with this title: 4 Decades on, U.S. Starts Cleanup of Agent Orange in Vietnam. At first one is disappointed in the limited nature of the program.
"The program, which is expected to cost $43 million and take four years, was officially welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. But bitterness remains here. Agent Orange is mentioned often in the news media, and victims are commemorated annually on Aug. 10, the day in 1961 when American forces first tested spraying it in Vietnam. The government objected to Olympics sponsorship this year by Dow Chemical, a leading producer of Agent Orange during the war. Many here have not hesitated to call the American program too little — it addresses only the one site [Da Nang] — and very late."

There is another program mentioned in the article—one with a revealing focus.
"The United States government is rolling out a modest $11.4 million program to help people with disabilities in Vietnam, but it is not explicitly linked to Agent Orange. The oft-repeated American formulation is ‘assistance regardless of cause’."

These efforts can be interpreted as an admission that Agent Orange caused harm to Vietnam and its people, and that Agent Orange has been responsible for the high incidence of birth defects. It is not an open expression of guilt, nor is it the type of apology that would be appropriate, but perhaps it is the best that can be done at this time. It might even be considered an act of political bravery for a president fighting a reelection battle to condone any policy that conveys the slightest suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the nation, or, worst of all, that an apology has been offered.

Let us hope that this initial effort is just the first step.

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