The Agent Orange issue is about much more than scientific evidence
An Agent Orange victim carries food for lunch at a hospice in Vietnam's central Da Nang City. The US and Vietnam launched the first concrete step toward cleaning up contamination from Agent Orange last month, in what the top US diplomat in the country said was one of the most significant developments in the history of the two nations' bilateral relations.
The long struggle to win compensation for suspected victims of Agent Orange has, with few and recent exceptions, met with stubborn resistance from those responsible for poisoning the land and people of Vietnam.
The main excuse has been the lack of scientific clarity about the connection between Agent Orange and human health. While it is true that questions remain about the health effects of Agent Orange, it is likely that they would have been resolved by now if a long-term epidemiological study had been launched at the end of the military war in 1975.
Instead, Vietnam was subjected to the continuation of the Vietnam War by economic means, an invasion from the north, and a war in Cambodia against a homicidal regime supported by the United States and its allies (one that continued long after the grisly crimes of the Khmer Rouge were exposed).
Thus Vietnam, shattered by decades of war and further impoverished by the economic embargo, lacked the scientific and financial resources for a systematic study of Agent Orange and its effects. The moral responsibility to conduct such a study has always lain elsewhere, of course.
Consequently, no one and least of all the United States is entitled to complain about the lack of indisputable scientific evidence for postulated links between dioxin and various medical conditions, including birth defects.
It is against this background that the Agent Orange/dioxin issue ought properly to be understood. For a variety of reasons, it has become the only war-related issue through which the Vietnamese have channeled their bitterness and sorrow, and it has therefore acquired enormous symbolic weight. In that context, it is not primarily a question of science: It has to do with a longing for justice, and for acknowledgement of the terrible suffering to which Vietnam and its people have been subjected.
There has been some improvement in the attitude of the US government, in recent years, although that may have more to do with geopolitical than with humanitarian concerns. But the disparity between the vast consequences of the war and the "aid" (not "compensation") is enormous especially if one considers such factors as the heavy debt of the puppet regime in Saigon, which Vietnam was forced to assume as a condition for ending the economic embargo.
It should also be kept in mind that the legacy of Agent Orange is only one of several war-related issues, and regarding most there is little or no dispute, scientific or otherwise. According to Robert McNamara, one of the key US officials responsible for conducting the war, the number of Vietnamese who were killed was the equivalent of 25 million citizens of his country. The number of wounded was several times greater, of course; and the emotional scars were and are so many and so deep as to defy calculation.
To that can be added the destruction of forests and farmland, the millions of landmines and other unexploded ordnance left hiding in the soil, the disruption of normal family life, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese MIAs, the effects of malnutrition, etc., etc. The list is long, and the consequences will continue to be felt long into the future.
One may well ask: What level of compensation would the United States demand for death, misery and destruction on that scale? Some indication is provided by what has transpired since the death of 3,000 office workers in New York in September of 2001 (0.0001 per cent of 25 million).
By comparison, the amount of compensation being asked for suspected victims of Agent Orange is a very small thing. Not even a hundred or a thousand times the amount requested would begin to compensate for all the terrible consequences of the Vietnam War.
Why, then, quibble over a lack of scientific certainty on the effects of Agent Orange, for which the victims of the war are surely not to blame? The most likely answer is that it has never been about the science, but rather the avoidance of responsibility: Great powers are not in the habit of compensating their victims. Among other things, that would set a very expensive precedent and perhaps even make war too costly to contemplate.
All the more reason, then, to continue the struggle for compensation of the victims of the Vietnam War. It is the very least that can be demanded of those responsible.
By Al Burke
Al Burke grew up in the United States, but emigrated during the Vietnam War and eventually became a citizen of Sweden where he organized the Stockholm conference on the war's long-term environmental and medical consequences (www.nnn.se/vietnam.htm). The opinions expressed are his own.