Agent Orange: A Part of History Still Needing Action

Greer Brodie-Hall

March, 2018

   
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    Medics conducting medical operations at the height of the Vietnam war. Image courtesy of  Air Force Medical Service . 

Medics conducting medical operations at the height of the Vietnam war. Image courtesy of Air Force Medical Service


 

Agent Orange. A term possibly unfamiliar to those without a greater knowledge of the Vietnam War. In short it is one of the most devastating war-time maltreatments of the United States, which to this day continues to permeate the Vietnamese population. In an effort to cripple the Viet-Con, the United States began spraying a myriad of herbicides in their mission labeled ‘Operation Ranch Hand’. This act of war’s intention was said to eliminate forest cover and crops, so that the enemy would be without food and protection. The chemicals used were identified as rainbow herbicides, coming in pink, green, purple, white, blue and orange. The United States army sprayed nearly 20 million gallons between the years of 1961 to 1971, over a span of 4.5 million acres. Today, it is reported by Vietnam that nearly 3 million people have been or are still affected by this devastating act of war.

Nearly 57 years after the first use of Agent Orange, those affected are seeing lasting results in the third generation of their families. Reportedly, 400,000 Vietnamese have been killed or maimed due to their mental and physical disabilities. Along with this, 500,000 children have been born with serious defects. Short-term exposure to the dioxin causes liver problems, severe acne-like skin disease, and a darkening skin color. The chemical is linked to multiple cancers, type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, miscarriages, nerve disorders, heart disease, birth defects, and psychological symptoms. The physical effects on the children being born to this day are a horrifying representation of this historic action.

In terms of warfare, Agent Orange is considered a scorched earth method. It is not widely acknowledged directly as a form of chemical warfare because the United States has stated that the purpose was to destroy and weaken the environmental capabilities of the Viet-Con. Scorched earth is a form of military policy used to destroy property and resources in order to impair the enemy. Whereas, chemical warfare is defined as the delivery of a toxic chemical in a bomb or shell. To some, this definition is controversial because the United States declares that this was not the intention of the army. Therefore, when explicating the type of warfare used, it becomes clear that Agent Orange was a contentious action utilized during wartime.  

The controversy arises from the perceived understanding that the dioxin used, TCDD, is one of the most dangerous of all dioxins, and is regarded as a carcinogen. The reason this remains such a pervasive issue for Vietnamese people is because the chemical continues to exist in the environment for many years. It stays in the soil, lakes, and food chain. Until recently, some citizens were still fishing and eating from heavily polluted rivers. The insidious effects remain a very central grievance against the United States. The war may be over, but this scorched earth fighting lives long after the violence stopped.

What is most concerning is the lack of claimed responsibility by the United States. For them, to agree that Agent Orange is directly linked to some of the devastating impairments, would be to claim a moral duty, and an acknowledgment of a violation of international law. However, the United States’ veterans affected by the herbicide have been receiving funds for multiple years. In 1991, George H.W. Bush legislated the Agent Orange Act, which mandated that some diseases found after the war be associated with Agent Orange, and receive compensation/treatment for this wartime event. In 1979, 2.4 million US veterans filed a class action lawsuit against the seven major chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, settling with $180 million in compensation. Even though the US government has clearly claimed responsibility for effects on their veterans, they continue to back away from accepting their role in the lives of the Vietnamese.

In 2004, the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange filed a seemingly identical case against the chemical companies. However, in 2005 the federal judge dismissed the suit with another court rejecting the appeal in 2008. This action outraged the Vietnamese victims, whom continue to see the shattering effects that the United States claims to not be responsible for.

The United States did however begin cleaning up some of the remaining hotspots, which are still highly contaminated with dioxin. In 2012, they began the decontamination process in Da Nang which lasted nearly 5 years, with over $110 million being used. As of January 2018, the United States has formally committed to decontaminating one of the largest “hot spots” around the Bien Hoa airport, which is just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

Even though this is a drastic step forward, the United States still has a long road ahead if they are hoping to repair the lasting damage inflicted. It is believed that the dioxin will not stop affecting genetic code until it passes through another six to twelve generations, and there will remain nearly 28 more “hot spots” throughout the country. The pervasive number of disabled and ill Vietnamese people will continue to wish for acknowledgement by the United States. The Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange, remains steadfast in their belief that Agent Orange has a direct and causal relationship with the generations of families affected.

On a final note, there has been another action made by Representative Barbara Lee of California to repair some of the damage done. She introduced the H.R. 2114 Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 and H.R. 334 Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2017, both of which would provide a myriad of services and care to those affected. It would also clean up and restore the environment which continues to impair the Vietnamese.

Even though there have been actions taken, this issue continues to be ignored in the United States. Personally, before visiting Vietnam, I had very little knowledge on the lasting impacts of Agent Orange. This would be astonishing to some of the victims that feel the ruinous effects every day. The fighting may have stopped, but the necessity to continue the exposure and conversation of this decade-long act of war must not be left in the past.