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It’s Time to Compensate the Victims: Looking Back at Vietnam and Agent Orange

A mother and her child who was affected by his parent's exposure to the chemical, Agent Orange. (Photo: Brendan Wilcox)

Fifty years ago, while President Kennedy deliberated waging a sweeping herbicide warfare campaign in Vietnam, Rachel Carson may well have been scrutinizing the galley proofs of “Silent Spring,” a book Kennedy would soon read and respect. The biologist painstakingly amassed evidence that widespread aerial spraying with toxic insecticides and herbicides constituted a “peacetime” war on nature and human health.

Her electrifying treatise nailed the agricultural industrial complex – pesticide industries and the gaggle of research scientists, government bureaucrats and Congressionals tethered to the industry – for collusion in a chemical assault on nature and public health.

A firestorm ensued. The industry threatened to sue Carson's publisher; their hacks peddled sexist depictions of Carson and satires of “Silent Spring.” A tempest of Congressional hearings and citizen lawsuits over DDT pesticide excoriated the pesticide industry and government complicity, provoked immense national debate and launched the modern environmental movement. As Fred Wilcox bitingly observes, though, in “Waiting for an Army to Die,” this domestic outbreak of public debate, regulatory action and civic activism against our pesticide-drenched model of agriculture did not stymie the executive decision to wage and sustain massive chemical warfare in Vietnam for nearly ten years.

Also Read: An excerpt from Fred Wilcox's, “Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam.”

The most hazardous of the chemicals sprayed in Vietnam was Agent Orange, an equal mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, contaminated during the manufacturing process with the dioxin TCDD, arguably the most toxic small molecule known. First researched for use as warfare agents in World War II, the herbicides were given a post-war makeover for domestic use on brush and weeds in forests, agriculture, pasturelands and suburban yards. In 1961, they became the dominant weapon of choice to defoliate rainforest, mangroves and food crops over one-seventh of the land area of South Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. Wartime herbicide production spurred an accelerated manufacturing process, a haste which increased industry profits – while it also knowingly magnified the dioxin content and herbicide toxicity in Agent Orange manyfold.

In “Waiting for an Army to Die,” the author forcefully illustrates that wartime and peacetime uses of herbicides are two sides of the same coin. He recounts the stories of Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and also of Oregon mothers, Arizona potters, and others living near sprayed public lands, all of whom were suffering from a plague of cancers, nervous system effects, miscarriages and birth disorders of their children. In this eminently compassionate and politically astute book, reissued with a new introduction 22 years after the first edition, Wilcox takes us inside the tragic, yet gutsy lives of young, working-class vets who were left to die by “government stonewalling, bureaucratic shell games and the contempt of multinational corporations.” Their resolve to win just, respectful medical treatment and disability payment from the Veterans Administration (VA) in the face of stigmatization as neurotic, substance-abusing, mental cases is nothing short of heroic.

“Waiting for an Army to Die” is an unblinking high beam focused on the VA's heartless, obstacle-laden treatment of Vietnam veterans. But Wilcox also highlights a few noble people within an otherwise obstructive medical system, whose stories of courage and altruism relieve the callous betrayal of these veterans poisoned by their country. (“Sprayed and Betrayed” as the vets put it). One is a lower-level employee, Maude DeVictor, in the Benefits Division of the Chicago VA regional. On her own initiative, she collected personal data from clients seeking benefits – Vietnam vets, their wives and their widows – about their exposure to Agent Orange, health effects and reproductive history. When directed by her supervisor to cease her data collection, she turned the results over to the local media. DeVictor's pluck in the face of a punitive bureaucracy is one of numerous chinks in the VA's armored resistance to acknowledging the toxicity of Agent Orange and to undertaking independent scientific studies of Agent Orange exposure illnesses.

The other human face of this ruinous chemical warfare on a rural country's ecosystem and people is that of more than three million Vietnamese war victims of Agent Orange and the three generations of children born since with horrific birth defects and disabilities. Wilcox tells their tragic yet dogged story in a newly published companion book, “Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam.” Again, with compassion and an unflinching investigation into the multigenerational Agent Orange victims, he constructs a cogent moral case for compensation by the United States. Read separately, but more so together, the books' core contribution is that they do not let us leave the toxic legacy of the Vietnam War behind us as we wage new wars with new chemicals.

Le Van Can's son is 31 years old. His father and his mother were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and research suggests that exposure to the chemical is directly linked to fetal deformation. (Photo: Brendan Wilcox)

“Scorched Earth” collates many wide-ranging elements of the author's 30-year quest to prove, to convince “once and for all that Agent Orange destroys human beings.” He seamlessly joins chapters on the US decision to use Agent Orange and the 1984 veterans' class action lawsuit against the Vietnam War manufacturers of Agent Orange with the untiring, still unsuccessful attempts of Vietnamese plaintiffs to win justice in American courts for three generations of injuries from the chemical warfare. These historical chapters are interposed with ones describing the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi, a veteran-inspired oasis of classrooms, a clinic and organic gardens where Agent Orange children live and receive rehabilitation and vocational training, and Tu Du Maternity Hospital and Peace Village for severely deformed children in Ho Chi Minh City. Wilcox interviewed and summarized the work of perspicacious Vietnamese researchers and medical doctors who have kept meticulous records and published papers on the post-war generational birth disorders, horrifically deformed fetuses and epidemic of miscarriages and cancers still being suffered by Vietnamese. The clinical detail and photos of severely injured children taken by the author's son Brendan are bearable because of the author's deep-souled empathy and thirst for justice that pervade the stories.

“Scorched Earth,” while so laser-focused on one war's unfinished tragedy, begs a larger question about the moral nature of modern war. Has there been a war in the 20th century and early 21st which soldiers and civilians have not continued to live in their bodies (and souls) long after the shooting stopped? Consider mustard gas and nerve agents in WWI, radiation poisoning from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Agent Orange in the Vietnam War; depleted uranium in the Balkans, Iraq and likely Afghanistan and Libyan conflicts. All were and are justified by their perpetrators as militarily necessary to protect soldiers and win wars. Yet, after the truce, soldier and civilian victims of these war crimes have been marginalized and shunned, dismissed as neurotic complainers. They are encumbered with a burden of proof for their illnesses that shields war industries and government agencies from accountability and then left to agonize and die as their governments insist on “putting the war behind us.” Truces do not end wars for their victims, soldiers and citizens alike, as Wilcox's bracing books confirm. Nor do rules of engagement protect them during war.

The international conventions on the humanitarian conduct war contain the presumption that war can be waged with discipline and ethical restraint in order to minimize harm to civilians and their settlements. Yet, historians are hard put to identify any war of the last 100 years that did not spill over into excessive violence; deliberate environmental degradation; and indiscriminate victimization of civilians, especially women and children. Of this descent into increasing violence, Dwight D. Eisenhower commented in a 1955 press conference that once armed conflict begins, it gets “deeper and deeper” until the only limitation is “force itself.”(1)

Bombing in war has always contravened UN conventions on war because the raison d'etre of bombing is to obliterate strategic infrastructure and disable the enemy as quickly as possible. In the case of Vietnam, this meant destroying rainforest cover and food sources for the Vietcong and suspected peasant sympathizers. Conducting war – particularly aerial war – within humanitarian and ethical guidelines is an oxymoron. Reform of war has been tried for more than 100 years. It's time for abolishing war and compensating its victims.

1. Mark Kurlansky, 2010, “Nonviolence: Twenty Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea,” New York: Random House. p.140.

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