Of the many atrocities and crimes committed by the United States in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, the military’s use of Agent Orange has left the most destructive legacy, resulting in the ongoing suffering of Vietnamese citizens and U.S. veterans. This is what was done.
“…This is the crime of which I accuse my country…and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
James Baldwin, Letter to my Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation
War is Hell, but, for many, so is the aftermath, the ensuing “peace” that emerges out of war’s dust and ashes. Long after the last bullet tears through the flesh of the last soldier, the Hell of pain, suffering, and trauma remains. Though military operations in the Vietnam War have been over for decades, the war continues to rage each day in the form of children born with severe deformities, desiccated land that was once rich and arable, and veterans on both sides of the conflict who frequently develop new symptoms and are constantly plagued by old ones. The devastating effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant used to thin out the Vietnam jungle and destroy enemy crops, are a blemish on the U.S. national record and a glaring reminder of American foreign policy that has little respect for life and law. Decades later, the lethal effects linger, but there has been no justice.
In late 1961, despite strident objections from the State Department over the potential effects on civilians, the use of “burn down” herbicides in Vietnam was authorized by President Kennedy as part of “Operation Hades,” which would soon become “Operation Ranch Hand.” These defoliation and crop destruction efforts continued at a moderate pace until the war escalated in the mid-1960s. By early 1965, a new herbicide called “Agent Orange” was introduced.
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Agent Orange is a combination of two chemicals that undergo a chlorinated chemical process, creating the by-product 2,3,7,8-TCDD, “the most toxic member of the family of chemicals known as dioxin.” This form of dioxin, in fact, has been described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man.” Peter Schuck writes in Agent Orange on Trial, “As early as 1952, Army officials had been informed by the Monsanto Chemical Company…that 2,4,5-T was contaminated by a toxic substance.”
As American casualties in Vietnam mounted, it became increasingly clear that superior fire power had little consequence in a dense, guerilla-friendly jungle and that open-field combat would be to the Americans’ advantage. For this reason, the U.S. military scorched up to “25 percent of the country’s forests with the deadly chemicals Agent Orange, and also Agent White, Blue, Pink and Purple,” totaling approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides. In April of 1970, the military ceased all operations involving Agent Orange. The lasting damage, though, would be devastating and irreversible.
A generation born after the last U.S. jet returned from Vietnam would become the most affected victims, as up to 150,000 “deformed children have been born to parents who were directly sprayed with Agent Orange or exposed through contaminated food and water.”
In Vietnam, BBC News journalist Tom Fawthrop met what the “local villagers refer to as an Agent Orange baby” in the town of Cu Chi. As Fawthrop testifies, Tran Anh Kiet is 21 years old; “his feet, hands and limbs are twisted and deformed. He writhes in evident frustration, and his attempts at speech are confined to plaintive and pitiful grunts….He is an adult stuck inside the stunted body of a 15-year-old, with a mental age around six.” Many journalist who visits Vietnam has similar encounters. Jill Schensul of New Jersey’s The Record reports on her meeting with Nguyen Thi Lan and her five year old son, Minh. Nguyen lifts up Minh’s T-shirt to show the American journalist the effects of U.S. foreign policy: “Instead of the chubby belly of childhood, this torso is twisted, the skin taut over a gnarled rib cage that juts grotesquely from the right side of the chest…. He cannot see, hear, or speak.” Others write about children who are not allowed in school because their appearance frightens the other students, or babies whose life span only reaches a few hours, or adults who were children during the war and still randomly bleed from the ears and nose. There are countless horror stories like these in Vietnam, with new ones constantly emerging.
One public health study at Columbia University found that “up to 4.8 million Vietnamese were living in 3,181 villages that were directly showered with Agent Orange” and that dioxin levels are four times higher today than what was previously predicted. The most discouraging studies, though, are those that prove how toxic the environment still is in parts of Vietnam. In 2003, “Dr. Arnold Schecter, a leading expert in dioxin contamination in the US, sampled the soil [in the former military base Bien Hoa]…and found it contained TCCD levels that were 180 million times above the safe level set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.” Today, as many as three million Vietnamese suffer from the effects of toxic herbicides, as do tens of thousands of American veterans.
While a variety of justifications and official doctrines have been employed by state officials to explain violent foreign policies, the injury inflicted by the U.S. military on American soldiers in Vietnam stands as a unique source of shame. In Fred Wilcox’s book Waiting for an Army to Die, he writes that,in addition to soldiers’ own Agent Orange related ailments, at least 2,000 children with a range of deformities and birth defects have been born to Vietnam War veterans. Wilcox interviewed many veterans, including John Green, Ray Clark, and Jerry Strait. John Green, a medic in the war, says, “I really didn’t know what they were spraying….Some of our food was undoubtedly sprayed with Agent Orange. But how were we to know? The army told us the stuff was harmless.”
The government and the military denied the effects of Agent Orange on soldiers from the beginning and would deny adequate treatment for years. The Veterans Administration (VA), the second largest government bureaucracy with an annual budget of approximately $24 billion, was responsible for letting veterans’ conditions worsen while their doctors withheld treatment. When veteran Ray Clark began urinating blood, the doctors at the VA “insisted [he] was putting ketchup and water in the specimen jars” so that he could receive disability and they told him the problem was “all in the mind,” a refrain echoed to countless other ailing veterans. When former infantryman Jerry Strait, whose daughter was born with half a brain missing, visited the VA hospital to complain about severe headaches, he was told that it was “obviously due to war-related stress.” He was never informed that “he spent more than three hundred days in the most heavily sprayed region of Vietnam or that the food he ate and water he drank may have been contaminated with dioxin.” Jerry Strait and thousands more were poisoned by their own government. There was no accountability, no responsibility taken, and nowhere to turn.
It took almost two decades after the end of the war and years worth of litigation for the federal government to finally offer assistance to American victims of Agent Orange. Congress authorized financial assistance for veterans in 1991, but the government was careful in calling the link between Agent Orange and the veterans’ health problems “presumptive,” allowing the government to “effectively sidestep a de facto admission of guilt in Vietnam and avoid offering compensation to Vietnamese victims.” The U.S. government still maintains that “there are no conclusive links between Agent Orange and the severe health problems and birth defects that the Vietnamese attribute to dioxin.”
The United States government has used every method of denial, stonewalling, and manipulation to hide the truth about the effects of Agent Orange. Even the paltry research that has been conducted has been riddled with problems. Despite investing $140 million into an Air Force Health Study on Agent Orange, “a design flaw…has resulted in a quarter-century of inaccurate findings,” according to two scientists who were involved in the study. There was criticism of this research from the very beginning, as the journal Science expressed concern in 1979 that “there may be a conflict of interest in having the Air Force study itself….”
Many Vietnamese citizens and government officials have called upon the United States to admit wrongdoing, take responsibility, express contrition, and aid the process of reconciliation (for more on this, see “Part 2: What Must Be Done” [link here]). Yet, American foreign policy is far too complex and riddled with human rights abuses for such an admittance or apology to be made without jeopardizing legal standing and ability to continue current practices. The United States could not apologize to Vietnam, for instance, while ignoring the fact that, in the same year that troops withdrew, the CIA and the Nixon administration helped orchestrate the military overthrow of democratically-elected President Salvador Allende in Chile to install Augusto Pinochet, one of the most brutal and murderous dictators of the 20th century. Nor would it be satisfactory for the U.S. to apologize for Agent Orange, but not mention the terror-spreading Phoenix Program that resulted in the killing of up to 70,000 Vietnamese, many of whom were civilians and family of Vietcong, or the elite U.S. Army unit, “Tiger Force,” which, in the Central Highlands in 1967, committed the “longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War,” killing hundreds of unarmed civilians, as reported by the Toledo Blade. It is unclear what the U.S. could specifically apologize for in a war in which “every returning combat soldier can tell of similar incidents [to My Lai], if on a somewhat smaller scale," according to Robert Jay Lifton, a psychologist who extensively interviewed Vietnam veterans. Even more importantly for the U.S., apologizing for or openly acknowledging the damage caused by Agent Orange could adversely affect current practices in Iraq, most notably the use of white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah.
The use of Agent Orange was a tragedy and a crime that is recommitted everyday as Vietnamese citizens and U.S. veterans suffer from the effects and pass them on to their children. One of the many unheeded “lessons” of Vietnam is that atrocities do not end with the war, but linger and fester. By not admitting the truth about what was done, the U.S. allows the trauma of Vietnam to remain an open wound. By not taking steps towards justice and acknowledging what must now be done, the U.S. allows Agent Orange to remain an open atrocity.
Aaron Sussman is the co-founder and Executive Editor of Incite Magazine (www.InciteMagazine.org); he can be contacted at Aaron@InciteMagazine.org.For more of Sussman's work, visit www.ACrowdedFire.com.
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