Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft
Earlier this month, bipartisan legislation titled The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Act was introduced in the Senate after a companion bill was presented in the House last month. The bill seeks to extend VA health benefits, currently reserved for US veterans who served on the ground, to Navy and Marine veterans who served in the offshore waters of Vietnam and suffer from illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is the name of an extremely toxic herbicide used by the US military as part of its elaborate program of defoliation — code-named Operation Ranch Hand — which involved spraying more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. The aim of this campaign of chemical warfare was to deprive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops of jungle cover and food supply. While the US government consistently downplayed the effects of the employed chemical defoliants as harmless and short-lived, recent evidence has shown that the military was cognizant of the deadly consequences of the dioxin contaminant. Not only that, but the military also failed to make use of available techniques that could have minimized the toxicity of the herbicides, used in concentrations 25 times the recommended limit. In fact, as early as 1965, the Agent Orange manufacturer Dow Chemical Company knew that the dioxin contaminant in the defoliant was “one of the most toxic materials known,” and as an Air Force scientist wrote to Congress in 1988, “because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned.”
Nearly four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the devastating legacy of Agent Orange, linked to a variety of debilitating illnesses including various cancers, birth defects and psychological disorders, continues to haunt thousands of US veterans as well as the Vietnamese population and ecosystem. The legislation recently introduced in Congress is a continuation of long-standing efforts of US veterans to extract compensation for their continuing suffering. In 1984, seven large chemical companies that manufactured the herbicide agreed to pay $180 million in compensation on the condition that all charges against them be dropped, and in 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law, providing benefits to veterans who served on the mainland and suffer from certain presumptive conditions related to their exposure to Agent Orange.
While US veterans have managed to secure limited compensation after years of organized action and hard-fought legal battles, the harm inflicted upon the Vietnamese population at unspeakable levels remains uncompensated and — perhaps more importantly — unacknowledged in the American public conscience. Aside from widespread famine in the wake of the destruction of crops used to feed the civilian population and the long-term poisoning of soil and ecosystem imbalance, more than three million Vietnamese bear the brunt of a disastrous policy of ecocide, which figures little in our mainstream discourse on Vietnam. According to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report, exposure to Agent Orange has resulted in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, while the Vietnam Red Cross reports 150,000 children born with birth defects in Vietnam since the end of the war. Toddlers with grotesquely bent spines, stillborn and mentally disabled children, kids with extra toes and fingers — these are some of the ramifications of the US military’s egregious acts in Vietnam. “If this was a death sentence, it would be better, but this pain still exists and I deal with it on a daily basis,” says Toan La, an 18-year-old with a paralyzed body and crooked spine, a consequence of his grandfather’s exposure to Agent Orange. He watches his muscles slowly degenerate and body become completely immobile. “It’s like a life imprisonment,” he says.
The suffering of the Vietnamese receives little attention from the US government, which has evaded accountability for its actions in Vietnam. The Nixon administration promised to contribute $3 billion towards post-war reconstruction and assuaging the plight of the Vietnamese in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, but this commitment has never been honored and the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange still remain uncompensated by the US. In 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens tried to take the matter into their own hands and filed a lawsuit against the US manufacturers of Agent Orange demanding compensation, but the case was dismissed in district court, in appeals court and, in 2009, by the US Supreme Court. Currently, around only 200,000 Vietnamese victims receive $20-per-month subsidies by the Vietnamese government, which is certainly not enough for their proper care. In recent years, the U.S. has begun to fund cleanup and treatment programs as part of its “Pivot to Asia,” paving the way for greater US military involvement in the country’s affairs.
Hence, for the most part, promises remain unfulfilled — and the plight of the Vietnamese not simply ignored, but also exploited for political gains.
The painful history of herbicide use in Vietnam is not an isolated incident of an American foreign policy misstep. An enormous number of cases of unchecked chemical deployment in foreign lands mark the long record of American military history. The use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq — illegal under international law — is only one such case that has led to an epidemic of cancer and birth defects among the region’s civilian population.
The deployment of harmful chemicals is not unique to the arena of formal warfare, however. The little known case of the US military’s target bomb practice in Vieques is one of the many examples of exploitation driven by American self-interest. The tiny island located off the coast of Puerto Rico was used as a practice ground for US Navy weapons for more than six decades until a massive campaign of civil disobedience finally put a halt to the bombing in 1999. Their food chain and soil critically contaminated, the islanders now face extremely high rates of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses — all exacerbated by a lack of access to facilities for medical treatment on the island. While the residents continue to suffer a situation that an editorial in Puerto Rico’s main daily El Nuevo Día has called “a crime against humanity,” the US continues to deny a link and dodge accountability.
This shameful legacy of inhumane violence, whose victims do not coincidentally belong to the Global South, is emblematic of global structures of power imbalance and reflective of a wide discrepancy in the sheer worth of human lives. The absence of accountability and discourse around the loss of millions of innocent lives belonging to developing countries is a testament to this asymmetry, examples of which abound. The uncontained radiation from France’s mismanaged nuclear testing campaign in Algeria in the early 1960s continues to cripple thousands of inhabitants, for instance. There has been minimal accountability for France’s actions, however, and the existing compensation scheme has utterly failed to provide substantial assistance to the victims.
Truly, then, some lives are worth more than others. Alas, history cannot be undone, nor past injustices ever completely rectified. Besides concrete reparations, the least that can be done to alleviate the impact of historical injustices and eschew the future ones is to generate a self-critical discourse that reflects acknowledgement and guilt over the catastrophes that we have needlessly brought about around the globe. Until this psychological realization comes about, there is little hope we won’t continue this toxic legacy of brute violence and disregard for human life.
Arwa Awan is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying History and Government.