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Agent Orange in Vietnam: Ignoring the Crimes Before Our Eyes October 17, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Media, Vietnam, War.
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Published on Saturday, October 17, 2009 by CommonDreams.orgby Dave Lindorff

On Oct. 13, the New York Times ran a news story headlined “Door Opens to Health Claims Tied to Agent Orange,” which was sure to be good news to many American veterans of the Indochina War. It reported that 38 years after the Pentagon ceased spreading the deadly dioxin-laced herbicide/defoliant over much of South Vietnam, it was acknowledging what veterans have long claimed: in addition to 13 ailments already traced to exposure to the chemical, it was also responsible for three more dread diseases-Parkinson’s, ischemic heart disease and hairy-cell leukemia.

Under a new policy adopted by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the VA will now start providing free care to any of the 2.1 million Vietnam-era veterans who can show that they might have been hurt by exposure to Agent Orange.

This is another belated step forward in the decades-long struggle by Vietnam War veterans to get the Defense Department and the VA to acknowledge the American government’s responsibility for poisoning them and causing permanent damage to them and often to their children and grandchildren. Dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances known to man, is known to cause many serious systemic diseases, autoimmune illnesses, cancers and birth defects. (It is also a warning about the general Pentagon and government approach to other hazards caused by its battlefield use of toxins-most significantly the increasingly common use of depleted uranium projectiles in bombs, shells and bullets-an approach which features lack of concern about health effects on troops and civilians, denial of information to troops, and denial of care to eventual victims.)

Missing from the Times article, written by military affairs reporter James Dao, which did include mention of the obstructionist role the government has played through this whole sorry saga, was a single mention of the far larger number of victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam-the people on whose heads and lands the toxic chemical was actually dropped, or of the adamant refusal by the US government to accept any responsibility for what it did to them.

According to the article, the VA estimates that there may be as many as 200,000 US veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses. But according to a court case brought on behalf of Vietnamese victims, which was dismissed by a US Federal District Judge who ruled that there was “no basis for the claims,” there are at least three million Vietnamese, and possibly as many as 4.8 million, who are suffering the same Agent Orange-related illnesses as American veterans and their children. It is estimated that as many as 800,000 Vietnamese in the country’s south currently suffer from chronic health problems due to Agent Orange exposure, either to themselves, or to a parent or grandparent. Most of these victims, some of whom are retarded, and others of whom cannot walk or have no use of their arms, need constant care.

Veterans for Peace, an organization whose membership includes a large number of Vietnam War veterans, has issued a call for the US to provide funds for health care, education, vocational education, chronic care, home care and equipment to clean up hotspots of dioxin in Vietnam-a call which Congress and the White House have consistently ignored. Tests have found dioxin levels around the sites of the three main former US bases in what was South Vietnam to be 300-400 times recognized safe levels. The US dumped huge amounts of Agent Orange for miles around those bases to kill off jungle cover that Vietnamese fighters could use to approach the bases, but it was never cleaned up when the US pulled out.

One organization that includes a number of American veterans of the way, including former military doctors or soldiers who later became physicians, is the Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA Inc., which raises funds to help establish communities in Vietnam to care for the victims of Agent Orange.

It may seem a pathetic stab at principle given America’s use of two nuclear weapons against civilian targets in Japan a few years later, but back in World War II, in the midst of the most brutal island-to-island fighting during the Pacific War, a US Judge Advocate General in the Pentagon ruled that a military request for permission to use herbicides against the Japanese on Pacific islands would be illegal under the Hague Convention (forerunner of what are now called the Geneva Conventions). He ruled that trying to destroy the crops of civilians on those islands to deny food to the Japanese troops would be a war crime. The US went ahead and used the herbicides anyway, arguing that even though it was illegal, the US was free to go ahead, since the Japanese had already broken the laws of war by using strychnine to kill military guard dogs in Siberia. Under the rules of war, if one side breaks a rule, the other side is no longer bound by it.

But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese never used toxic materials against US forces or against South Vietnamese forces. And the Pentagon in the Vietnam War never even considered whether spraying a highly toxic herbicide over 1.4 million hectares-12% of the total land area of Vietnam and almost 25% of the southern half of the country-might be a war crime.

Moreover, the Pentagon knew, before it began its massive defoliation campaign, about studies showing that Agent Orange was heavily laced with deadly dioxin, but covered up those studies, some by the chemical’s makers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, and never even warned the troops who handled the material daily, or who were sent out to fight in areas that had been heavily sprayed.

The ongoing medical disaster in Vietnam caused by America’s criminal use of Agent Orange to defoliate a nation would be a good place for President Obama to start earning his just-awarded Nobel Peace Prize. He could kick off his peace campaign by finally honoring President Richard Nixon’s immediately broken promise to provide several billion dollars in reconstruction aid to Vietnam at the conclusion of peace talks at the end of the war. Not a dollar of such aid was ever given.

Dao says he didn’t mention significance for Vietnamese dioxin victims of the VA’s decision to recognize three new diseases as being Agent Orange-linked, because “my beat is veterans,” and because he only had 800 words in which to cover his story. That may be true (though surely the Vietnamese at least deserved a one-sentence mention). But back on July 25, when the Times ran a story (by Janie Lorber, not by Dao) about the finding by an expert panel of the National Institute of Medicine linking Parkinsons, ischemic heart disease and leukemia to Agent Orange, upon which the latest VA decision was based, it also failed to mention the Vietnamese victims. In that case, the lapse was simply journalistically inexcuseable, since it was about a new medical finding, not a policy decision regarding the treatment of veterans.

At this point, the only way the New York Times can salvage a bit of its journalistic reputation on this topic would be by having Dao, Lorber or some other reporter write a piece about the impact of America’s Agent Orange use on the people of Vietnam. They could start by calling a veteran at Veterans for Peace or the Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net

Obama please note: Those who fail to ‘master the past’ are guilty, too March 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Foreign Policy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Latin America, Vietnam, War.
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Japan Times, March 1, 2009, http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20090301rp.html

In “Guilt About the Past,” based on guest lectures that Bernhard Schlink gave at Oxford University last year, the University of Berlin law professor describes the “long shadow” cast by the perpetrators of war crimes on their descendants.

“The act of not renouncing, not judging and not repudiating carries its own guilt with it,” he states in the book published in January by University of Queensland Press.

Last week in this column I discussed issues of guilt and atonement as they relate to Germany and Japan. This week I will examine how concepts of responsibility and self-questioning apply to the United States of America.

U.S. presidents, secretaries of state and defense, and members of Congress are certainly quick to point out perceived human rights’ abuses and political crimes committed in other nations. The assumption is always that the U.S. occupies the moral high ground of human dignity — so allowing Americans to believe in themselves as altruistic and selfless.

OK, they tell themselves, we have made mistakes; but our actions have always stemmed from pure motives. Others’ evil actions are motivated by intolerance and greed; our own regrettable actions are aberrations.

In fact, buried deep in America’s moral high ground are the bones of millions of victims of whom most Americans seem purposefully oblivious.

Schlink speaks of the need to “master the past” — that is, to come to terms with your nation’s crimes through law, atonement and reconciliation for all involved. If Americans wish to avoid repeating the tragic blunders and crimes committed in Vietnam and Iraq (to name just two war zones), they would do well to heed his message:

“Guilt also reaches those who do not actively separate themselves from the perpetrators and participants through dissociation, judgment or repudiation.”

In other words, it is not sufficient to merely “regret” past actions and believe that “looking forward” and “getting the country moving again” are substitutes for atonement. Future generations must, to use Schlink’s term, “master the past” by taking responsibility for it. Americans demand this of others — why not of themselves?

Let’s get specific.

The U.S. is guilty of conducting the most massive campaign of chemical warfare since World War II — far exceeding anything perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds of Iraq. Between 1962 and 1970, American planes sprayed the countryside of Vietnam with dioxin in order to defoliate wooded areas its opponents used to hide themselves and their supply routes from aerial observation.

Of the 3 million Vietnamese estimated to have been exposed directly to this dioxin (known in the U.S. as Agent Orange), 1 million are acknowledged to have suffered serious health problems as a consequence. In addition, some 150,000 children have been — and continue to be — born with birth defects attributed to the use of this weapon of mass destruction.

However, all appeals by Vietnamese officials to the U.S. to apologize and pay reparations or compensation have fallen on deaf ears. The U.S. government has awarded up to $1,500 a month to the 10,000 U.S. service personnel adversely affected by Agent Orange. Why hasn’t this been extended to non-American victims?

What is the difference between this and Japan’s discrimination against non-Japanese radiation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why are Americans so averse to recognizing guilt for actions toward others?

This tendency to bury, rather than master, the past is all the more conspicuous when crimes are being committed in the present.

The U.S. spearheaded an illegal war, based on false premises, in Iraq, and for the past six years has killed, maimed and traumatized millions of that country’s citizens. Most Americans now consider the war a strategic error. But has anyone in power, even President Barack Obama, who opposed it from the beginning, spoken in terms of guilt and atonement? Do Americans care about the fates of those millions of people whose lives their state’s actions have ruined?

Several weeks ago, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed the establishment of a truth commission to investigate illegal practices by members of the Bush administration. Yet President Obama has repeatedly stated his opposition to this, instead declaring that he wants “to get it right [by] moving forward.”

There’s the political rub. By proposing “change we can believe in,” as Obama has, you emphasize the importance of the future by bypassing serious reflection on the past. It’s as if you go to the PAST file, highlight it and hit the DELETE button. Then you simply create a new file headed NEW IDEALS.

As Schlink puts it, ignoring past crimes has entangles you in them whether you like it or not. He writes:

“The principle is as follows: to not renounce the other includes one in that person’s guilt for past crimes, but so that a new sort of guilt is created. Those in the circle of solidarity who are themselves not guilty through actions of their own, bring about their own guilt when . . . they do not respond by dissociating themselves from those who are guilty.”

For instance, Americans are naturally perturbed by the intense animosity expressed toward them by Iranians — yet they seem ignorant of the fact that their Central Intelligence Agency, together with British intelligence, engineered a coup against Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Similarly, if the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile have vented criticism against the U.S., wouldn’t it be helpful if Americans were aware of their country’s active intervention in Latin America to subvert the development of democratic processes?

These are old stories. Yet they need to be analyzed not as strategic or tactical errors, but as seriously unethical transgressions.

The Obama ideology of “moving ahead” without attempting to redress past wrongs implicates those in the present all over again. Even as the Obama reboot sweeps the old icons from the screen, Americans would do well to remember that the virus remains deep in the system.

What, then, is to stop them from instigating new fiascoes that result in untold misery and death? The smiling face of President Obama on the screen saver is no protection against the virus.

The era of U.S. exclusivity and pre-emption, so misinterpreted and degraded by George W. Bush and his advisers, is over. This means that Americans will be judged worldwide by the same standard once — and still — applied to Germans and Japanese.

“One deserves to be proud only of what one achieves, not of what one is,” writes Schlink in “Guilt About the Past.”

“Instead of assuring the younger generation that they have the right to be proud or denying them the right, we owe it to them to integrate the past into our collective biography.”

What will be the world’s collective view of post-Bush America? Americans should take a cold hard look at their past, as they so require of others. The world will forgive what is admitted to and atoned for. Without admittance and atonement, there is no moving forward. The positive example of Germany and the negative example of Japan should be ample testimony to that.

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