Vietnam's victims of Agent Orange, 2007. Photo: Merle Ratner, Vietnam Agent Oran
Alameda, California was once home to one of the largest Naval Air Stations in the world with 271 separate and distinct trades to manufacture and repair every part of any aircraft. Vast quantities of chemicals went into this work including solvents, aviation fuel, and radium-based paints for cockpit dials. Leaks and spills were as common as they are in any operation of this magnitude. Rags, brushes, and cleaning supplies were regularly replaced, the worn-out burned in pits located at the northern tip of the naval base. Enough chemicals were mishandled or leaked out of containers and sewer pipes that the former base is, today, a Superfund site.
As I inch my way through the mountain of documents the Navy amasses as it cleans up the relatively manageable contamination in my home town, I encounter a theme that echoes in my other research into our military, the military mindset, and the effects of militarism: a tendency to under-report, minimize, even deny, "occupational" hazards. It crops up in military documentation, out of the mouths of military spokespeople, and is supported by the the national defense -- and homeland security -- industries that support and benefit from it.
There are more than 40,000 toxic sites in the U.S. and its territories... approximately 1,000 of which are on the National Priority List, and for which Federal cleanup funding is forthcoming. Certainly the financial costs of cleanup are considerable. But what of the moral and ethical cost? Just as each tax-paying American is implicated in the wars our country wages, so too are we implicated in the human and environmental damage.
Is the damage the U.S. military has caused here and abroad worth the material benefit the U.S. derives?
The more things change...
Vietnam. This year, as they did last year, and for several years before that, delegates from Vietnam came to the U.S. to plead their case and to raise awareness about their countrymen who continue to suffer the consequences of dioxin-laden Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. Air Force.
During the conflict in Vietnam, the U.S. military denied food and protection to those deemed to be "the enemy" and contracted with over 30 U.S. chemical firms to supply chemicals to defoliate Vietnam's forests. The most lethal chemical, Agent Orange, was contaminated with trace amounts of TCDD dioxin -- the most toxic chemical known to science -- which disabled and sickened soldiers, civilians and several generations of offspring on two continents.
Medical evidence indicates that cancers such as soft tissue non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, type II diabetes, and spina bifida and other birth defects in children are attributable to this exposure.
Surviving American veterans of Vietnam finally achieved limited compensation from the U.S. Government for some illnesses they suffer due to the poisons. The Vietnamese have received nothing. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently refused to review the dismissal of the lawsuit of more than three million Vietnamese against 37 companies that manufactured this chemical weapon.
Attorney for the Vietnamese plaintiffs, Jonathan C. Moore, states, "It is unfortunate that U.S. courts have chosen, contrary to U.S. and international law, to deny justice to millions of Vietnamese who suffer from the spraying of dioxin-laden Agent Orange which has left several generations of victims severely sick and disabled."
These ailments and deformities are significant, sobering, and heartbreaking...made worse because affected families are physically unable to work and generate an income. Moreover, the chemicals continue to affect Vietnam's natural environment and destroy its mangrove forests, soil, and crops.
Dr. James R. Clary, a senior scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch (the Air Force Armament Development Lab based in Florida at that time), wrote:
When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide. And, if we had [considered this scenario], we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.
This scientist's naive candor is refreshing. If he was working in today's military, he'd probably lose his job.