'Long time to wait'

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An American scholar and Vietnam War veteran says Vietnam should not hold its breath for agent orange compensation from the US as "there is no political pressure to provide such assistance."

The following are excerpts from interviews conducted with W.D. Ehrhart - an American scholar, teacher, poet and Vietnam War veteran who has written and taught extensively about the war - on what the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam mean in the US:

Generally speaking, how aware are Americans of the Agent Orange issue?

Please understand that it is all-but-impossible to "speak generally" about a nation of over 300 million people. I can speak specifically for myself, but generalizations are inaccurate and dangerous because there are always myriad variations that all but negate any generalization.

A very large number of Americans were aware of the Agent Orange issue back in the 1980s when it first came to public light and veterans subsequently sued the chemical companies because it was regularly in the news for some years. I would imagine that most of those Americans who were aware of the issue assume now that the court settlement has long since made the issue a non-issue. What attention was paid to the issue was almost entirely from an American perspective. I doubt that more than a small number of Americans have ever lost much sleep over the damage done to Vietnam and the Vietnamese by dioxin. Most nations and cultures are self-centric. The US is no different.

Experts estimate it will cost up to US$17 million to clean up just one of the 25 Agent Orange "hot-spots" in question. The US has pledged $6 million to help clean up. Vietnam has asked the US for more assistance cleaning up Agent Orange. Why has the US been so hesitant to help?

There are hundreds of chemical "hot spots" right here in the US caused by various forms of industrial pollution (some of the worst are on US military bases), most of which have gone and continue to go without attention or serious efforts to correct. Nevertheless, most Americans are not affected by this problem, at least not directly, and thus there is very little political pressure to correct it. If there is little or no political pressure to clean up the messes in our own country, can you be surprised that there is little pressure to clean up the mess we made in Vietnam?

Should the US help more?

Well of course the US should help more, because the US caused the mess in the first place. But if you expect this aid to be forthcoming, you may have a long time to wait. There is no political pressure to provide such assistance. We have enough toxic messes in this country that aren't being cleaned up. Few Americans would support cleaning up toxic messes in Vietnam or any other country that is not the US.

The chemical companies that produced Agent Orange have betrayed their guilt by settling out of court, on more than one occasion, to pay American veterans millions for their exposure to the toxic substance. How can these companies get away with compensating Americans but not Vietnamese?

Firstly, these companies haven't really offered or been required to provide all that much actual compensation. The raw figures may seem like a lot of money, but when you spread it out among all the victims, it is something of a sad joke. Secondly, there is virtually no political pressure to force these companies to offer compensation to the Vietnamese. As I said, all cultures and nations are self-centric. The US is no different. With Americans losing their jobs and homes by the thousands, with the cost of healthcare skyrocketing, with all the other things our government might spend its money on, most Americans are not likely to demand that their tax dollars be used to compensate the Vietnamese.

Several countries have held truth commissions... why has the US not done this for the crimes of the Vietnam War?

Truth commissions in places like South Africa were empanelled by new governments that replaced the old governments that had been guilty of the heinous crimes. The US lost the war in Vietnam, but the essential power structure that perpetrated that war escaped unscathed and unchallenged. Criminals do not put themselves on trial.

Can we define Agent Orange as a Chemical Weapon or a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Well, it would be hard to describe Agent Orange as anything other than a chemical weapon. Dioxin is a chemical. As for a weapon of mass destruction, I think the very term is overused. A machinegun is a weapon of mass destruction. So is a grenade. How many people must a weapon be able to kill before it becomes "a weapon of mass destruction?"

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