(NNPA)—You may not notice a victim of Agent Orange. They may look healthy on the outside, full of life and vigor. Yet inside them there is a time-bomb, a time-bomb set during the U.S. war against Vietnam more than 35 years ago. In over three million people, including U.S. troops who were involved in that war, this bomb has been going off over the years creating an ongoing catastrophe.
On a recent visit to Vietnam I had the opportunity to meet with leaders and activists in the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA). Formed in 2003 by physicians, Vietnamese war veterans and other activists, this mass organization spread throughout the country amounting to more than 60,000 members in chapters in most provinces. VAVA came together to remind both Vietnam, but also the world, of the continuing impact of the human-made plague that served as an instrument of war by the U.S. against Vietnam.
Agent Orange is a form of chemical warfare. It was promoted as a defoliant by the U.S. government, allegedly for the purposes of destroying jungles and forests where soldiers of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam were encamped during the Indochina War. As one leader of VAVA informed me, Agent Orange was described by the U.S.A as being so safe that soldiers were informed that they could use it on their skin against various insects.
Agent Orange was not safe at all. In fact, it was precisely the opposite. Getting into the blood stream it had a long-term impact on those exposed. The impact, however, was not immediate, at least on human beings.
In a discussion with leaders of VAVA, I asked at what point the impact of Agent Orange became obvious. There were two principal stages, I was informed. The immediate ecological destruction was obvious. The impact on humans, however, took longer to uncover. It was after the war had ended (1975) that the Vietnamese began to notice oddities. Strange cancers were on the rise. The most bizarre of birth defects appeared, hideous by any stretch of the imagination, including children born absent eyes and limbs.
Agent Orange might have been ignored altogether in the USA had not something else happened at the same time. Agent Orange’s impact became evident on U.S. veterans and their families. The same symptoms were occurring in the USA and neither the U.S. veterans nor the Vietnamese were being provided with useful answers as to what was actually going on.
A lawsuit against companies that were alleged to have been involved in the production of Agent Orange failed in U.S. courts, largely for technical reasons. At the same time, the U.S. government has not wanted to come to terms with the impact of this criminal instrument of war. In fact, according to various Vietnamese with who I spoke, U.S. diplomats repeatedly made it clear that true normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam would not take place as long as the Vietnamese continued to raise the issue of Agent Orange. Given that the USA has yet to pay the reparations to Vietnam promised at the time of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973, it is understandable that the Vietnamese government has been reluctant to press this matter.
The resolution of the Agent Orange horror will only take place when the U.S. government assumes responsibility for its use of chemical warfare in Indochina. Not only was Agent Orange used in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia against insurgent groups and their base areas. Assuming responsibility means an acknowledgement to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and, yes, the people of the U.S, that the U.S. committed horrendous damage against soldiers and civilians. In addition to the health impact on Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and U.S. veterans, extensive ecological damage was done to Indochina, including but not limited to the wholesale destruction of forested areas.
For those who have suffered the effects of Agent Orange, whether a U.S. veteran and his/her family here at home, or Vietnamese civilians and former combatants, the price has been literally and figuratively very high. The damage to families, the resources into medical care, and the proliferation of orphans, has put immense strain on entire populations. For Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, economically underdeveloped countries, the resource strain has been immeasurable. Yet in all of this, the USA continues to keep its fingers stuck in its ears and its eyes closed, refusing to accept responsibility for this atrocity.
The time has come to repair the damage. Congress and the president must act to move legislation that will address the extent of this horror, both in Indochina, but also here at home. It is time to bring the Indochina War to an end.
(Bill Fletcher Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He recently visited Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)