“In the abominable history of war, with the sole exception of nuclear weapons, never has such an inhuman fate ever before been reserved for the survivors.”—Dr. Ton That Tung, a Vietnamese research scientist, on Agent Orange
During the Vietnam War, American forces sprayed more than 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, an herbicide, over Vietnam as part of an attritional warfare strategy to destroy the forest cover of the Viet Cong and to destroy their food supply. Over a ten-year period, 5.5 million acres of cropland, forest (including mangrove forest) in Vietnam were destroyed.
Agent Orange contains a dioxin, a group of toxic compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPS). Dioxins accumulate through the food chain, and high exposure can increase the risks of many types of cancers, reproductive and development problems and weaken the immune system. Vietnam estimates that half a million Vietnamese children have been born with congenital or developmental disorders resulting from their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange in the environment.
Several summers ago, I volunteered at the Thanh Xuan Peace Village, a non-profit that provides housing and schooling for one hundred child Agent Orange victims in Hanoi. The children at the school had either neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and Down syndrome, or severe physical disabilities. Some children, as young as five-years old, are Vietnam’s third generation of Agent Orange victims. At the school, I helped run leadership workshops for Vietnamese high school students, in hopes that they would organize a continuing volunteering program at the Peace Village, and raise awareness of Agent Orange’s persistent health effects in their own community.
Between 1962 and 1971, 2.8 million U.S. military personnel were exposed to Agent Orange. Vietnam veterans exposed to the dioxin report skin rashes, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers, birth defects in their children, psychological symptoms and a plethora of other health problems. In the decades following the war, the US government and military denied the causal relationship between Agent Orange exposure and various health effects. In one instance, the VA reportedly told a veteran suffering from hematuria that he was “mixing ketchup and water” to receive disability benefits. In 1991, the United States Congress passed the “Agent Orange Act” acknowledging the grievous health effects of Agent Orange and granting veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange disability compensation. However many veterans have received little or no compensation or health benefits from the government.
In 2005, a class-action case was filed against the chemical companies responsible for manufacturing Agent Orange, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, on behalf of the Vietnamese people. The case was dismissed, as “supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime.” In 2012, the United States began its first major cleanup effort of Agent Orange in Da Nang, Vietnam, a major port city. The cleanup program, supervised by USAID, is estimated to cost 43 million dollars and will take four years.
Walking around the crowded and chaotic streets of Hanoi, nibbling on street food at the night markets, the signs of a long war were hardly visible at the surface. The ongoing tragedy of Agent Orange is an example of what Rob Nixon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison calls “slow violence,” which is defined as “understated violence with delayed repercussions” and often “poses challenges to environmental action because its effects are difficult to observe.” At a 2013 talk given here at Duke, Nixon said that only sensationalized violence gains media attention, whereas less obvious violence—particularly environmental violence such as Agent Orange—does not make media headlines.
Although military operations ended forty years ago, the effects of war are not over for the Vietnamese people and many U.S. veterans—including those suffering from other war injuries or PTSD. The United States has the moral obligation to acknowledge and address responsibility for the health and environmental consequences of its Agent Orange campaign, and compensate both the Vietnamese people and its own.