US contractors, diplomats and reporters tour the Da Nang Airport on August 9. Thomas Fuller of The New York Times is pictured center left (with backpack). Photo: AFP
Last month, The New York Times parachuted Thomas Fuller into Vietnam to cover the opening ceremony of the long-awaited Da Nang Airport cleanup project.
Once on the ground, Fuller followed the well-worn path of a foreign correspondent in Vietnam.
He perused the state newspapers for leads, trolled the blogs for dirt and made a few observations from the roof of his hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. He even called up Carlyle Thayer, the "Vietnam expert" who seems to spend most of his off-hours waiting to answer press inquiries from his desk at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
Fuller's roundup of Vietnam's political intrigue did not impress me much. Neither did his chronicle of the "growing fears of an economic meltdown." But his two pieces about Agent Orange did.
On August 9, Fuller filed a story from Da Nang which reminded his readers that the US sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange ("and other defoliants") throughout the region during the war.
He described the Da Nang Airport as "just one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases."
He does not deign to name, count or visit these sites.
During the course of his reporting, Ret. Lt. Gen Nguyen Van Rinh asked Fuller to tell the American people to take responsibility for the plight of Agent Orange's victims and Fuller does"” but he colors Rinh's request by reminding everyone that a bust of Ho Chi Minh was staring down at him when Rinh said it.
The victims of this campaign remain largely unseen.
The exception is a man named Dung who told Fuller he moved his family to Da Nang in 1996 and fed them with fish caught in streams and ponds around the contaminated airport.
Today, two of his three children suffer from a rare blood disorder and crippling birth defects.
"What caused the birth defects, and who is to blame?" Fuller asked his readers. "Detailed medical tests are out of the question for [parents], whose combined monthly income is the equivalent of $350, much of which goes to medical care."
Fuller mentions, in passing, that the fish they had eaten had been revealed, in laboratory tests, to be riddled with dangerously high levels of dioxin. He cited the case as an example in which links between illness and dioxin in Vietnam "appear striking."
When Fuller tries to connect these dots by asking the US Ambassador whether the nation would take responsibility for the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam he is "sidestepped."
On September 5, the Times ran Fuller's second Agent Orange story (filed from Bangkok) which abandoned his early curiosity about American accountability.
The story centered on an embarrassing and vague news item (circulated in numerous English-language media outlets including this one) about 24 people from Da Nang who would be sent to Hanoi to rid their bodies of dioxin using a quack regimen of saunas and vitamins called "The Hubbard Treatment."
Fuller did a good job of uncovering how the Church of Scientology's Association for Better Living and Education convinced some dumb or desperate doctors at Military Hospital 103 to tell a few unfortunate souls that if they exercised hard enough and took their vitamins, the dioxin in their bodies would go away.
But he did not do a good job of letting America know how badly it should feel about a group of Hollywood hucksters offering false hope to a people who deserve nothing less than the world's best doctors.
Dr. Wayne Dwernychuck, a retired environmental scientist who spent a significant portion of his life conducting dioxin research for Hatfield Consultants, described the Hubbard "detoxification" treatment as "laughable."
And that seems to be the point.
The New York Times found it perhaps funnier to run a story about quackery than to remind America that it poisoned an entire nation for generations.
And the story is funny"”especially if you share Marie Antoinette's sense of humor. At one point, Fuller quotes a US Embassy spokesman as seeming to suggest that contaminated Vietnamese should hop into time machines and encourage their past selves to leave Vietnam before America commenced the largest dioxin contamination in history:
"We are not aware of any safe, effective detoxification treatment for people with dioxin in body tissues," he said. "The best way to reduce health risks associated with dioxin is to prevent human exposure to dioxin."
Fuller closed the piece by describing Agent Orange's impact on Vietnam as something that is still open to interpretation"”the way some reporters might describe a local superstition.
"Many Vietnamese believe their health problems, and the birth defects of their children, were caused by exposure to the defoliant," he wrote.
Papers all over the world are picking up Fuller's yuck-yuck follow-up and running with it, transmuting America's great shame onto a handful of doctors at Military Hospital 103.
No one is picking up his first story, which entertained notions of America's outstanding moral debt, but never quite hit them home.
Here is the story I wish everyone in America had read:
High levels of dioxin continue to show up in the bodies of Vietnamese people 37 years after the last US helicopter left Saigon. Most of these people were the United States' nominal allies.
More than twenty years after the spraying stopped, blood tests analyzed by a research team led by Dr. Arnold Schecter from the University of Texas School of Public Health found pooled blood samples collected in southern Vietnam had dioxin concentrations that were 11 times higher than tissue samples gathered in the north"”where Agent Orange was not sprayed.
Like Fuller, the US is still waiting for what they call "proof positive" test results that a mass dumping of dioxin made lots of people sick"”but only if those people are Vietnamese.
The fact that dioxin has made a lot of people (and their children) horribly sick is not a question anymore; at least, it's not a question you could ask at an American Legion bar and expect to leave with all your teeth.
The United States will pay out an estimated $42.2 billion to sick US Veterans, their deformed children, and their survivors over the next ten years following the latest expansion of its list of diseases that are presumed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
The list includes every kind of respiratory cancer, multiple forms of heart disease and the "striking" birth defects and rare blood disorders Fuller found addling the poor kids in Da Nang.
The US government does not presume that the illnesses that struck Fuller were caused by dioxin. Instead, it challenges the Vietnamese government to prove that they were.
The big story here is not that Vietnam has done a bad job of treating dioxin patients.
The story is that the US plans to shower billions of dollars a year on the people who got sick dumping dioxin while begrudging a few million of those who had the dioxin dumped on them.
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