Agent of death

Print edition : November 18, 2005

IT is impossible not to be personal. I remember April 30, 1975. My laboratory partner rushed in, announcing: "There are celebrations. Vietnam is liberated." May Day had never been so intense and joyful as the next day. In this year's May Day I saw the same picture that I had seen 30 years ago, of a Vietnamese soldier piloting his tank to the abandoned United States Embassy. This 30th anniversary was no less joyful but there was also a reminder of the U.S. barbarism when I learnt of a meeting in Paris of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

The story of Agent Orange must begin with the British experiment of using defoliants in South-East Asia in the campaign against communist guerillas in Malaya in the 1950s. Defoliation, it was noted, served very important military purposes. Firstly, the trees, when defoliated, do not grow leaves and deprive the guerilla of the hideout and subsistence like fruits. More important, it destroys the economy of the countryside, on which the guerilla depends for political contacts and protection.

Agent Orange found its way into the battlefield as a sequel to this British success. Different defoliants derive their names from their colour and contain the highly toxic chemical dioxin. In 1959, the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) conducted its first field experiments in Camp Drum in New York, using Agent Purple, with an "optimal" bombardment of three litres an acre. Although the next field tests, in South Vietnam, were a part of the DoD programme, they were code-named Farmgate - implying agricultural objectives, where the military intentions were camouflaged.

The first field trials in South Vietnam were conducted in August - September 1961. In September - November 1962, large shipments of Agent Purple and Agent Blue arrived there, while Agent Orange was put to use between 1965 and 1971. The South Vietnamese authorities were either kept ignorant or were willing collaborators of the Americans. In the harbours, these chemicals were always unloaded manually, which meant that there was the danger of the containers developing cracks and the chemicals spilling over. The task of aerial spraying of these lethal chemicals was also given to civilian pilots, who became the victims of the herbicides that they sprayed.

Dioxin poisoning is highly carcinogenic and can lead to 28 fatal diseases. Being easily dissolved by fat and being an extremely stable carcinogen, dioxin can be transferred through the placenta to the embryo and to later generations. It can also enter the body through fish, meat and dairy products. This is one of the ways many veterans contacted the poison, while this route of entry is still unabated amongst Vietnamese citizens, even 30 years after the spraying. In fact, in the event of dioxin poisoning, it takes many years, sometimes 25-30 years, for the symptoms to develop. The cost of treatment is also prohibitive - the dioxin test alone costs about $1,000. That is why the problem snowballed into a crisis in the mid-1980s, when 300,000 U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War reported symptoms that could be linked to dioxin and sued manufacturers of the defoliant for $180 million as compensation. The Vietnamese received nothing.

The horror can be imagined from the fact that Vietnam has lost 500,000 persons in dioxin contamination and 650,000 are already identified with several forms of physical and mental deformities that can be identified with dioxin. The total number of people directly exposed to dioxin by spraying alone was estimated to be 4.2 million, in a total population of 40 million, at that time. The numbers affected by later contaminations is difficult to ascertain.

This war crime in Vietnam clearly has its roots in the American military and political bosses' complete disregard for human life. When the effects of Agent Orange came to be known, 5,000 U.S. scientists, of whom 17 were Nobel laureates and 129 were members of the Academy of Sciences, demanded withdrawal of chemical agents in warfare. No heed was paid, because the U.S. industry had geared up for the kill and here was a chance to put in action a "permanent war economy", which could be "bolstered with military orders". Chemical warfare was a part of the plan.

The biggest beneficiary in chemical bombing was the multinational company Monsanto, which has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a potentially responsible party for dumping hazardous chemicals in as many as 93 dumping sites. The discussions between the company and the U.S. Army on matters related to the use of dioxin in battlefield are still classified as secret documents. This must also act as a warning to India as the company now has a laboratory in the Indian Institute of Science while its Bt cotton experiments have wreaked havoc with farmers in several parts of India.

The Vietnamese have for long complained about this diabolic aggression against humanity. Their investigations are never published in Western scientific journals, and the Western press gives them no coverage. Many cases would have remained unrecorded but for an intervention by a top military man, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, a former commander of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, who had lost his son (a soldier) owing to dioxin poisoning, suffered in Vietnam. This raised an uproar and resulted in various studies, of which the latest (Nature; Stellman et al. April 17, 2003) gives a new estimate of the total amount of dioxin sprayed, which is several fold more than what was believed until now. From studies of the log books of pilots and the census data for 20,000 Vietnamese villages, they found that 3,000 villages were hit directly and between two and four 4 million lives were affected.

The most startling revelation concerns the total amount of dioxin sprayed, in the mangroves of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnamese have for long tried to focus world attention on the destruction caused in their country. A small baby talcum powder box containing 80 grams of dioxin, they tell the world, can destroy all the citizens of New York (seven million), if put in the water supply of the city. According to the 1974 estimate of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S,), Vietnam was sprayed with 101-163 kg of dioxin. The recent studies corrected this figure to be 366 kg, capable of killing 25,366.3 million people. Their estimate thus scales up the earlier estimate by a factor of 2.2-3.6. According to the National University of Vietnam the amount of dioxin actually amounted to 600 kg.

Thus the ability to kill and the economics of killing made Agent Orange the choice. The effects are for all to see: particularly now, when the third generation of veterans are showing a 70 per cent to 300 per cent increase in cases of leukaemia. In Vietnam the topsoil has to be dredged up on a scale that would amount to 10 per cent of the country's land area. In many places dioxin would have penetrated to a depth of seven feet below the topsoil and may remain active for 20 to 30 years.

Whose duty is it to do this restoration? The answer is clear: the ones who caused the damage must repair it too. But that would need a change in the mindset of U.S. policy-makers, a departure from the way they have treated the Bhopal gas victims. A quote from Colin Powell may be worthwhile. In his February 5, 2003, speech, made as the U.S. Secretary of State he told the United Nations Security Council: "No country in the history of chemical warfare has had more battlefield experience with chemical weapons since the First World War than Saddam Hussein's Iraq." No, Powell was being modest. That distinction truly belongs to the U.S.

In Vietnam, Guernicas were enacted in thousands - in My Lai, in Quang Tri, in Quang Ngai and in many other places. The enemy invested 500 pounds of bombs on every citizen of Vietnam and yet lost the war. The war was lost by America even as it started, as the U.S. had to fight every single citizen of Vietnam, who had a stake in national independence and the experiments in socialism that were taking place in every rice field, factory, school, college or cooperative. The Vietnamese proved their redoubtable Premier Pham Van Dong's prophecy: "B-52s and computers cannot compete with a just cause and human intelligence." The guerillas refused to die (it cost half a million dollars to kill a guerilla and in one case the Americans lost 99 planes, costing half a billion dollars to destroy one bridge) and the American ratings declared: " I ain't have no quarrels with the Viet Cong."

General Westmoreland's demands for more troops could thus not be met either economically or politically. The tiny land called Vietnam echoed with the words of its great leader, Ho Chi Minh, who "preferred to sing, even though sorrows were enough to make you weep." The song was:

Our mountains will always be, our rivers will always be, our people will always be; The American invaders defeated, we will rebuild Our land ten times more beautiful.

S. Chatterjee is a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.

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