Agent Orange, Vietnam

Fred A. Wilcox’s “Scorched Earth” highlights the legacies of Vietnam War-era chemical warfare.

Agent Orange, Vietnam

Hon, Vietnam, 1999. (Book cover photo) by Stefano Amantini.

Beginning in the late 1960s, following a period of heavy use of Agent Orange by the United States military, Vietnamese hospitals saw a huge increase in the number of seriously deformed babies being born to parents exposed to the now-infamous herbicide. And to this day, obstetricians in Vietnam continue to deliver so-called Agent Orange children, who suffer from all manner of horrific birth defects, physical handicaps and mental deficiencies.

Fred A. Wilcox, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, has made it his mission to draw attention to the misery caused by Agent Orange. His 1983 book “Waiting for an Army to Die” highlighted the effects of chemical warfare on Vietnam vets. And in 2011 he published “Scorched Earth” (Seven Stories Press), which examines the ongoing impact of chemical warfare on the Vietnamese—ex-combatants and their offspring alike.

Last week I spoke with Wilcox by phone to discuss the consequences of the use of Agent Orange, and what he believes the U.S. ought to do to assist the victims.

Why did you write “Scorched Earth”?
I have been working on the Agent Orange issue—that is, chemical warfare in Vietnam—since 1980. I have also been teaching courses on the Vietnam War for thirty years, and talking to anybody and everybody who is willing to listen about what the U.S. did to the Vietnamese people and the environment. All these years later we have not apologized to the Vietnamese, and we mistreated our own veterans, refusing to acknowledge that they were sick and dying from something, which I believed very early on was their exposure to Agent Orange. I felt if I could show that the Vietnamese were suffering from the same kind of illnesses that vets were suffering from, that I could make the case that anyone exposed gets sick and often dies an early, painful death.

What was Agent Orange?
It was a fifty-fifty combination of two commercial herbicides—2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The reason it was called Agent Orange is that it was stored in fifty-five-gallon barrels and the military painted an orange stripe around those barrels.

Why did the U.S. military use herbicides in Vietnam?
The idea was to drive the Vietcong—and later the North Vietnamese—out of the jungles where they were hiding. The military realized we could not fight these people on their own turf. So the idea was to defoliate and destroy the jungles and the mangrove forests and take away their cover. That would drive the enemy out into the open where we would use our superior firepower to kill them.

The problem is that most of the herbicides contained dioxin. And the 2,4,5-T contained the most deadly kind of dioxin—TCDD-dioxin.

What kind of effects did U.S. servicemen and the Vietnamese suffer at the time of exposure?
Soldiers complained of nosebleeds and rashes and would get sick to their stomachs and all sorts of things like that, which the military responded to by saying that the rashes were jungle rot and the other illnesses were related to exposure to combat. The Vietnamese complained that after the spraying their crops died, their farm animals died, and sometimes elderly people and children died too. The U.S. military dismissed their complaints as Communist propaganda. They claimed the herbicides were benign and that they didn’t harm people or animals, even though they killed triple canopy jungles in a matter of days.

That’s important because the chemical warfare made a lot of Vietnamese people—even those who initially supported the U.S.—very angry. Also, our response: no matter what you say, no matter what you are experiencing, it’s not true. We denied that they were experiencing terrible illnesses and ailments. But Vietnamese children were being born with serious birth defects: missing arms and legs, huge heads, blind, retarded. The Vietnamese people were quite alarmed and believed it had to do with the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides.

What kind of environmental damage was done?
We sprayed twenty million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam. By the time we stopped using Agent Orange in 1970, we had destroyed an area of five million acres—about the size of Massachusetts. Some of the mangrove forests have grown back, but the jungles have not. They’re dead and nobody knows if they ever will grow back.
 
How many Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange?
The Vietnamese estimate that they have about three million people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. And about 500,000 children have been born with serious birth defects.

Tell me about Friendship Village.
Friendship Village is a place in Hanoi that was established by Vietnam combat veteran George Mizo. After the war he decided to go back and do something for the people and make a contribution, which was to establish Friendship Village, a place where the Vietnamese government takes care of Agent Orange children. They take wonderful care of the children there, but it’s also a place of healing. Mizo wanted a place where anybody who fought or suffered in the war could come together and talk and heal their wounds. 

What do you think the U.S. should do to assist the Vietnamese?
The U.S. government needs to apologize to the Vietnamese people for what we did to them for the years we were there in their country. Then we need to admit that we engaged in chemical warfare and start compensating the victims.

The other thing I would like to see is for somebody to stand up and say: The chemical companies manufactured this deadly substance. They knew it was contaminated with dioxin. They sold it to the U.S. government and they profited handsomely. It’s time for them to admit what they did, and come up with a fund to compensate the victims.

Photographs from “Scorched Earth”