Register Friday | May 25 | 2018

The Fog of War

Agent Orange still poisons Vietnam's water, soil and blood

Trinh Minh Lam still remembers the first time he was sprayed with Agent Orange. Marching near the Cambodian border in the summer of 1967, an American warplane flew overhead, and then a mysterious garlic-smelling fog descended. Within days, the surrounding jungle’s leaves wilted and died, turning lush foliage into a barren landscape. On the long march to battles in the south, Trinh, now nearly blind and fighting liver disease, consumed food and water tainted by the fog. “Only after reunification did we learn about Agent Orange,” he says. “Then we were sick.”

Between 1962 and 1971 (during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations), under the code name Operation Ranch Hand, US forces sprayed some 45 million litres of herbicides over a total area of 5 million acres of South Vietnamese jungle, including a half-million acres used for crops. Named after the coloured stripes on their shipping barrels, the chemicals Agents Blue, White, Purple, Pink, Green and Orange had a singular purpose: to destroy the plant life that provided cover and food supplies for Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers. Some areas in southern and central Vietnam were so heavily defoliated that what was once triple-canopy jungle is now barely more than grass and shrubs. About 65 percent of the herbicides used were Agent Orange, a variety favoured for its effectiveness; Agent Orange is made with equal parts of 2,4,5–T and 2,4–D chemicals and it contains a highly toxic and resilient contaminant known as TCDD, a dioxin by-product of the herbicide’s chemical creation.

Today, Trinh shares a room in a small house in the Vietnam Friendship Village Project outside Hanoi, a small health-care community created in 1993 by American and Vietnamese veterans to treat soldiers and children from all over Vietnam who are suffering from diseases linked to dioxin exposure. There are up to forty Vietnamese veterans who stay here at any given time (for periods of up to ninety days)—men who survived brutal battles, constant bombardment and wartime malnutrition, only to have the strange fog give them cancer, skin conditions and immune-deficiency disorders in the years since.

The vast majority of patients in the Vietnam Friendship Village, however, did not experience the war first-hand. Of the 180 people currently living in the village, 120 are the children and grandchildren of veterans. Many are young kids with severe deformities—enlarged heads and bulging eyes. Others are physically or mentally disabled, deaf or blind. All are diagnosed with a range of diseases and disabilities passed on through chromosome damage, contaminated mothers’ milk or caused by the presence of massive amounts of TCDD dioxin in their water, soil and meat. The children tend to stay in the village for up to two or three years (though some of them have been here longer), receiving treatment and vocational training.

Two sisters, Giap Thi Giang, twenty-three, and Huong, twenty-nine, weren’t alive when their neighbour Trinh was fighting, yet Agent Orange’s effect on them—muscular dystrophy—has arguably been greater.

The bulk of Giang and Huong’s day is spent doing rehabilitation exercises, stretching spidery limbs in order to perform the most basic movements. At other times, they sit cross-legged on adjacent beds reading books and studying English, struggling to turn the pages with their fragile hands. Their remarkably cheerful demeanour hides the fact that they are in constant pain.

One village, three generations of victims: a stark reminder of the consequences of chemical warfare. Hundreds of thousands are said to have died of dioxin poisoning since the end of the war, and, in some areas of the country, the chemical still contaminates the soil and food chain. It is estimated that between 500,000 and several million Vietnamese continue to suffer from a range of illnesses related to Agent Orange. It’s been more than thirty years since the war ended, yet gauging the actual number of Agent Orange victims is still a guessing game.

 

Vietnam is not the same country it was when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Motorcycles recently surpassed bicycles as the preferred means of transportation. In the cities, everyone appears to have a mobile phone. Communism seems absent; commerce is king. Outside the Friendship Village, Hanoi’s growing urban population is beginning to encroach on emerald-green rice paddies that have been worked for centuries by women wearing the traditional conical hats. The paddies will soon be eclipsed or consumed by urban sprawl. The war can seem like a dim memory.

In the Friendship Village, however, the conflict remains alive in the bodies and minds of its residents. This community was the brainchild of American veteran George Mizo, who returned to Vietnam in the nineteen-eighties to confront his memories of the war. During his visit, he met the man responsible for killing his entire platoon in 1968, General Tran Van Quang (Mizo, already wounded and in a military hospital at the time, was spared). The two men became unlikely friends and together developed the idea of setting up a community to help the living victims of the war.

In 1998 the village welcomed its first nine children. Since then, the Friendship Village has grown from a meagre staff housed in a few basic structures to a staff of sixty-two in a half-dozen French-style homes, several administrative buildings, a clinic, a school and a rehabilitation facility. Sadly, Mizo died in 2002 from health problems that he attributed to his own wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

A few small rice paddies and a swamp separate the Friendship Village from the rural hustle and bustle of a farming commune known as Van Canh. Being in the north of the country, the settlement is far removed from the intense spraying of herbicides that happened over southern Vietnam and the central highlands. Poor but vibrant, it’s not uncommon to see chickens loose on the streets and roadside stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to butchered dog, a popular meal for men in the second half of the lunar month.

In the afternoon, when the smell of gasoline and the incessant honking of motorbikes have faded, the entire village seems to fall into a tranquil sleep. Children study in classrooms. The construction workers (a small hospital is underway) rest in the shade. Caregivers prepare for the kids to return home from the community school. When classes finish, the village erupts with the cries and laughter of children playing around palm trees and a murky fish pond. This is when the Friendship Village feels most alive.

Volunteering in the community last September, I met other Westerners like John Berlow, a fifty-six-year-old American once expelled from Harvard for his anti–Vietnam War activities. Berlow founded the Organic Gardening Project, supported by small and large institutional donors (including CIDA’s Canada Fund), as well as by some of Berlow’s friends. Hoeing and tilling the garden, I learn that Berlow still wears his politics on his sleeve. “The US,” he says “is a two-party dictatorship. What you see here is the result of war crimes, pure and simple.”

The garden provides residents with food and a source of much-needed income. The village is “grossly underfunded,” according to Suel Jones, an American war veteran who sits on the US board of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project. Although it currently receives support from the US, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and the Vietnamese government, the project still lacks the facilities and staff needed to treat its residents properly. At this time, there are only two doctors, five physiotherapists, three nurses and one pharmacist for nearly 180 patients. Severe cases are referred to a nearby army hospital for free care when people become too ill.

 

The standard comment is that dioxin is the most toxic chemical produced by man,” says Wayne Dwernychuk, vice-president of Hatfield Consultants, a Vancouver-based firm that conducted one of the most alarming studies of dioxin contamination in Vietnam. In a report released in 2001, Hatfield examined the isolated Aluoi Valley region in central Vietnam and found dangerously high levels of 2,3,7,8-TCDD—the dioxin in Agent Orange—in samples of soil, fish fat, duck fat, human blood and breast milk. The study also confirmed the transfer of the poison from contaminated soil to fish and ducks and then to humans—a chain that continues today. Hatfield theorizes that the Aluoi Valley is a microcosm of all of southern Vietnam. “This is not a historical problem,” the study concluded.

The south and central regions of Vietnam have also experienced disproportionately high levels of people who are born with disabilities, says Dr. Tran Huy Thong, director for the Centre for Research and Development of Community Health in Vietnam. I meet Tran in a small classroom in Hanoi, where he shows me photos of Agent Orange victims in the south and in the central highlands. Children totally immobilized by tumours the size of their bodies. Legs smaller than arms. Giant heads. For the most part, these people have received very little or no medical treatment. The country’s health-care system is woefully ill-equipped to treat such victims, most of whom are too poor to afford treatment even if it were available.

Dr. Do Thi Binh, who works at the Friendship Village, recalls a recent trip to the south where she saw severely disabled children left in cages while parents went to work. “They didn’t have a choice,” Binh tells me. “They are so poor, and they don’t want their children to die in an accident.”

Proving beyond a doubt that dioxin made these people sick, however, has been a daunting task. To date, the United States has not admitted that Agent Orange is a factor in the ongoing health problems of Vietnamese people. Nor does the US currently fund testing or treatment of those claiming to be sick from dioxin exposure. Its position is that the data linking dioxin from Agent Orange to disabilities in Vietnamese citizens exposed to the chemical are inconclusive: while dioxin can be detected in a person’s fatty tissue, it is impossible to prove that a particular disability is a direct result of exposure to the contaminant.

At over us$1,000 per test per person—and lacking the necessary laboratory technology—the Vietnamese government is incapable of executing the mass study needed to produce conclusive data. Like the poison in the soil, the problems facing the residents of the Friendship Village are unlikely to fade anytime soon.

“There are no programs that are specifically about Agent Orange [in Vietnam],” says an official with the US State Department, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The US position is that there needs to be more research on the topic, and that we would like our decisions to be informed on greater knowledge and better research.” Paradoxically, the US Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes the link in its own members. He notes, however, that the US has proposed several joint research projects with the Vietnamese government, all of which have been either turned down or fallen through. “At this point, the Vietnamese government hasn’t really taken us up on some of these ideas.” This view is disputed by Vietnamese and other scientists, who accuse the US of sabotaging plans for joint research.

It’s true that the Vietnamese government has been slow in addressing the problems caused by Agent Orange; it also hasn’t made the issue a top priority when dealing with the Bush administration (though, in 2000, Vietnamese president Tran Duc Luong made an appeal for assistance to then president Bill Clinton). The consensus among those familiar with the issue is that Hanoi fears jeopardizing much-needed economic ties with the world’s biggest economy.

For its part, the Vietnamese government has established several treatment centres and initiated an Agent Orange educational-awareness program. But many of the sick veterans remain poverty-stricken. Former soldiers at the Friendship Village tell me they receive between 88,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese dong per month—about cdn$7—and an additional 48,000 to 84,000 dong for each child (in rural Vietnam, many families are living on as little as $35 a month). They would receive more had they been injured during the war. This worries the veterans far more than their own diseases, since many look after disabled children or grandchildren at home. Bui Xuan Mat, an ailing veteran at the village, says he doesn’t know how his family will be provided for after he dies. “We are very worried. We don’t know when we will die because Agent Orange is in our blood.”

 

In the years after the war, evidence mounted that the chemical companies and the US government knew of Agent Orange’s potential harmfulness. In the late nineteen-sixties, the Vietnamese press was already reporting high levels of birth defects and illnesses in the most-sprayed areas. Yet Operation Ranch Hand continued unabated during the heaviest years of fighting, with American planes even dousing their own troops as they patrolled Vietnam’s vast jungles. In 1966, experiments carried out by the Bionetics Research Laboratories under a US government contract demonstrated that high doses of 2,4,5–T in early stages of pregnancy “showed a higher than expected number of deformities” in lab mice and rats. The same year, twenty-two scientists, including seven Nobel laureates, sent a letter of petition co-sponsored by 5,000 American scientists to President Johnson, asking that the “large-scale use of anti-crop and ‘non-lethal’ anti-personnel chemical weapons in Vietnam” be stopped. But it wasn’t until a law student on Ralph Nader’s “Raiders” team came across a copy of the Bionetics report (which had been kept under wraps) at the FDA that the administration was forced to go public with the results of the study. In December 1970, after a damning senate-committee investigation, President Richard Nixon called for the “phase-out of the herbicide operations” in Vietnam.

But the damage had been done. Upon returning from combat, many American veterans complained of skin rashes, difficulty in breathing, cancers, and birth defects in their children, all of which they linked to Agent Orange. In the years that followed, veterans’ groups became entangled in extended legal battles with Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Hercules Inc. and other chemical companies that manufactured the defoliant. In 1984, the companies settled out of court for us$180 million, eventually divided between nearly 300,000 people—that’s just us$600 apiece. Today, Veterans Affairs compensates veterans for a number of illnesses linked to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia and spina bifida in children.

The Vietnamese have tried their luck in the US courts as well. Last March, a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by twenty-seven Vietnamese claimants. The suit demanded American chemical companies provide compensation for victims and accused the companies of crimes against humanity for their role in creating Agent Orange. The judge disagreed. “There is no basis for any of the claims of plaintiffs under the domestic law of any nation or state or under any form of international law,” said district-court judge Jack Weinstein. In essence, the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals during the Vietnam War did not fit the definition of “chemical warfare”—its stated use, after all, was as a defoliant—and did not therefore violate international law. Moreover, the US did not ratify the Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, until 1975. The lawyers representing the Vietnamese plaintiffs have since launched an appeal, which is set to be heard this year—by the same judge.

Without unequivocal evidence that dioxin caused the diseases, deformities and disabilities in the Vietnamese plaintiffs, there is little hope the lawsuit will succeed. “No one believes it can win,” says a somber Tran of the community health centre; he is currently gathering data for the second trial.

While winning the lawsuit is a lofty goal, it may be easier for the victims than coaxing an apology from the American government. “They are never going to get an apology. That’s never, never going to happen,” says Friendship Village board member Suel Jones, a sixty-two-year-old goateed Texan who served in the 3rd Marines during the war and now lives in Hanoi. Jones is active at the village and an ardent opponent of George W. Bush’s policies. On a recent trip to the US, Jones joined protester Cindy Sheehan (who lost her son in Iraq) outside Bush’s ranch compound in Crawford, Texas. “An apology is an admission of guilt, and the USA will never admit guilt. We’re not up to that. The best they can hope for is that the USA will start giving more humanitarian aid over here.”

For many vets like Jones, returning to South Asia has been a healing experience, a homecoming; helping those still suffering from Agent Orange is a way to fix the past. “Morally they were right; we were wrong,” Jones tells me over a beer in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. “Why were we killing these people? The war was built on a lie. We were the Germans who came back from World War II saying, ‘What the fuck did we do?’ As a veteran, I owe it to the Vietnamese to give something back. I think my government owes it as well.”

 

Ateenager dies during my time at the Friendship Village—a seventeen-year-old boy who had lived there for six years. He was suffering from muscular dystrophy, suddenly fell gravely ill and died at the nearby army hospital. He is the third person to die “in residence” in the village’s thirteen-year history. Life goes on; the children continue attending classes and playing with the volunteers after school. Looking at their faces, it’s easy to forget they could become dangerously sick at any time.

Sitting in his modest office, Dang Du Dung, the Friendship Village’s vice-director and a war veteran, sips a cup of Vietnamese tea and speaks about the upcoming lawsuit in the US. Although he agrees the case is unlikely to be won, he holds a slightly more optimistic view than others who work with Agent Orange victims. Winning, he says, is hardly the point. What the children and veterans in this village and the rest of Vietnam need most is the attention of the international community. Such awareness will bring more donations, research, volunteers and, he stresses, recognition of Agent Orange’s legacy. “In my opinion, to win or not to win is not important,” Dung says. “I just want the US and the world to know about Agent Orange. There is no other compensation that can reduce the children’s pain.”