August is a month of war memorials. On August 7 and August 9, we remember the 64th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an act which launched the perilous era of nuclear weapons. August 10th is the 48th annual Memorial Day for Victims of Agent Orange, the dioxin-laced herbicide sprayed massively over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. Most of us grew up believing that because the Second World War had a moral core to it – for which it was known as the “good war” – the Allied acts done in that war were right to do and that they contributed to winning the war against fascism.
By contrast, the U.S. war in Vietnam was an immoral and failed war which divided the country and stained its reputation abroad, and from which the military has been seeking to recover ever since by finding a “right” war to win. The facts of these wars are much more complex for their victims. And, for these victims, neither war is finished.
World War II was the first war in which bombing of civilians in cities – Germany of British cities, Britain of German cities, and the U.S. of Japanese cities – became a central military strategy, in deliberate violation of international conventions on war. Momentum to bomb culminated in the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the blast in Hiroshima, which killed 100,000 immediately, the American military censored all documentation and photo images of the bomb’s unparalleled human and environmental devastation. Recently released “Top Secret” documents reveal that the U.S. government knew before dropping the bombs that Japan was seeking surrender. In his diary, President Truman privately acknowledged that the atomic bomb was not necessary for Japan’s surrender. In 1946 the United States Strategic Bombing Survey drew the same conclusion, adding that Allied bombing in Germany and U.S. bombing in Japan did not appreciably shorten or win the war. Nor did 10 years of chemical warfare shorten or win the war in Vietnam. By the final truce, two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and 50,000 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives.
However, for an estimated three million Vietnamese civilians and many U.S. veterans and their children, the war has never ended. They suffer devastating disease and deformity – including many cancers; severe birth defects, such as missing limbs and grossly distorted bodies; learning disorders; reproductive disorders; and multi-generational genetic damage — from exposure to Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide. Twenty million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed aerially by U.S. warplanes over Vietnamese jungles to destroy the Vietnamese cover and food crops and to force Vietnamese peasants to relocate. It was also truck and hand-sprayed on the ground to clear around U.S. military bases. Toxic waste from spraying and spills was abandoned by the fleeing American government, leaving the equivalent of Superfund sites for the Vietnamese government to clean up.
The legacy of the Vietnam War persists in the dioxin residues accumulated in the soil and water, food chain, and bodies of current and future generations of Vietnamese. In 1984 Vietnam veterans won a $180 million settlement against manufacturers of Agent Orange, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, a settlement which, in reality, provided little compensation per veteran (an average of $1200 for the most affected). However, the most severely afflicted victims of the Vietnam War – the Vietnamese – have received nothing by way of compensation and services from the U.S. government.
On January 31, 2004, the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), a victims’ rights group, filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court against several U.S. manufacturers of Agent Orange. The lawsuit alleges that the United States conducted chemical warfare against the Vietnamese and violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning biological and chemical warfare; and it seeks restitution for the victims and the cleanup of chemical hotspots that remain from the war. The lawsuit was dismissed in district court, in appeals court and recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Throughout the month of August, events are taking place nationally and locally to raise awareness and generate activism around the mounting threat of nuclear weapons and the proliferation dangers posed by the resurgence of global nuclear power. United for Peace and Justice has declared August a Nuclear-Free Future Month. Actions and educational events are planned in cities and towns throughout the country, in affiliation with local peace and justice organizations. August 10th is the 48th annual commemoration for victims of Agent Orange.
For those who want to support the claims of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, visit the website of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC). VAORRC is a national coalition of veterans, Vietnamese-Americans and other community leaders formed in support of justice for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims.
H. Patricia Hynes has published and spoken widely on the public health effects of war on civilians, particularly women. She is a member of the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.