Agent Orange in Vietnam
Ignoring the Crimes Before Our Eyes
By DAVE LINDORFF
October 16-19, 2009
On Oct. 13, the New York Times ran a news story headlined "Door Opens
to Health Claims Tied to Agent Orange," [see below] 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 diseasesParkinson'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 toxinsmost significantly
the increasingly common use of depleted uranium projectiles in bombs,
shells and bulletsan 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
Vietnamthe 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 Vietnama 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 hectares12% of the total
land area of Vietnam and almost 25% of the southern half of the
countrymight 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. His
latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006
and now available in paperback). He can be reached at email@example.com
Door Opens to Health Claims Tied to Agent Orange
By JAMES DAO
Published: October 12, 2009
Under rules to be proposed this week, the Department of Veterans
Affairs plans to add Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and
hairy-cell leukemia to the growing list of illnesses presumed to have
been caused by Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used widely in Vietnam.
The proposal will make it substantially easier for thousands of
veterans to claim that those ailments were the direct result of their
service in Vietnam, thereby smoothing the way for them to receive
monthly disability checks and health care services from the department.
The new policy will apply to some 2.1 million veterans who set foot
in Vietnam during the war, including those who came after the
military stopped using Agent Orange in 1970. It will not apply to
sailors on deep-water ships, though the department plans to study the
effects of Agent Orange on the Navy.
The shift underscores efforts by the secretary of veterans affairs,
Eric Shinseki, a retired Army chief of staff and a Vietnam veteran
himself, to reduce obstacles to sick or disabled veterans' receiving
benefits. The department has come under sharp criticism from Congress
and veterans groups for long delays in processing disability claims.
"Since my confirmation as secretary, I've often asked why, 40 years
after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, we're still trying to
determine the health consequences to our veterans who served in the
combat theater," Mr. Shinseki said in a statement. "Veterans who
endure a host of health problems deserve timely decisions."
The veterans department already recognizes more than a dozen
conditions as being presumptively connected to Agent Orange exposure
in Vietnam, including Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
But for diseases not on that list, veterans are required to provide
evidence directly relating their service in Vietnam to their illness,
a requirement that often leads to application rejections and
Veterans department officials estimate that about 200,000 veterans
might seek benefits under the proposed change in policy. But they
said they could not estimate the cost of the change until the policy
underwent public review and was published in final form, which could
take several months.
Mr. Shinseki's decision is a victory for groups like Vietnam Veterans
of America, which has been pushing the department to add Parkinson's
disease, ischemic heart conditions and hypertension to the list of
diseases presumptively linked to Agent Orange.
But the new policy is also likely to prompt debate over how much
responsibility the federal government should take in compensating and
caring for aging veterans who are exhibiting a growing list of
physical and psychological problems.
The most common of the three illnesses, ischemic heart disease,
restricts blood flow to the heart, causing irregular heartbeats and
deterioration of the heart muscle.
Parkinson's disease is associated with a loss of cells that secrete
dopamine, a brain chemical essential for normal movement. Patients
develop tremors, rigid posture, impaired balance and an inability to
Hairy-cell leukemia, a rarer condition, is a slow-growing cancer in
which the bone marrow produces too many infection-fighting cells,
lymphocytes, that crowd out healthy white blood cells, red blood
cells and platelets.
Agent Orange, named after the color-coded band on storage drums, was
the most common herbicide used in Vietnam to clear jungle canopy and
destroy crops. It contained one of the most toxic forms of dioxin,
which has since been linked to some cancers.
Aides said Mr. Shinseki's decision was influenced by a report
released in July from the Institute of Medicine that found "limited
or suggestive evidence" of an association between exposure to
herbicides and an increased chance of Parkinson's disease and
ischemic heart disease in Vietnam veterans. The report also found
"sufficient evidence," a stronger category, of an association between
herbicides and hairy-cell leukemia.
The report, written by a 14-member panel appointed by the institute,
was based on a review of scientific literature. The institute is
required by Congress to monitor the health effects of herbicides used
in Vietnam and produce updates every two years.
In its report, the panel warned that there was a paucity of
epidemiological data about Vietnam veterans. As a result, the panel
said, its findings did not represent "a firm conclusion" about
herbicides and Parkinson's and herbicides and ischemic heart disease.
It said it could not estimate the chances of veterans' developing
Despite those caveats, the Institute of Medicine report has been
cited by veterans advocates as providing sufficient evidence to
justify a rule change. Under laws governing Agent Orange policies for
veterans, the department cannot make benefits decisions based on
cost, only on the scientific evidence. Aides to Mr. Shinseki said the
Institute of Medicine report provided that evidence.
Some doctors and researchers say the expansion of Agent Orange
benefits has been based on weak or inconclusive science, given the
lack of studies on Vietnam veterans. Those skeptics argue that
diseases like prostate cancer or Type-2 diabetes are just as likely
the result of aging, lifestyle or genetic predisposition as exposure
to Agent Orange.