From Smirking Chimp
By Marjorie Cohn and *Jonathan Moore
Watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick 18-hour series, "The Vietnam War," is an emotional experience. Whether you served in the U.S. military during the war or marched in the streets to end it, you cannot remain untouched by this documentary. The battle scenes are powerful, the stories of U.S. veterans and Vietnamese soldiers who fought on both sides of the war are compelling.
The toll in human terms caused by the war is staggering. Nearly 58,000 Americans and 2-3 million Vietnamese, many of them civilians, were killed in the war. Untold numbers were wounded. Many U.S. veterans of the war suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More U.S. Vietnam War vets have died by suicide than died in the war. However, those numbers do not begin to tell the complete story of the war.
The U.S. Engages in Chemical Warfare
In one of its most serious omissions, the series gives short shrift to the destruction wreaked by the U.S. military's spraying of deadly chemical herbicides containing the poison dioxin over much of Vietnam, the most common of which was Agent Orange. This is one of the most tragic legacies of the war. Yet, aside from a few brief mentions, the victims of Agent Orange/dioxin, both Vietnamese and American, are not portrayed in the series. More importantly, the ongoing harm created by this chemical warfare program is never mentioned.
Agent Orange/dioxin was an herbicidal chemical weapon manufactured by U.S. chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto and sprayed by the U.S. military from 1961 to 1971. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind.
Approximately 3 million Vietnamese and thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin.
The U.S. government was aware that the use of poison as a weapon of war was forbidden by international law well before it authorized its use in Vietnam. In fact, the U.S. government suppressed a 1965 report, called the Bionetics study, that showed dioxin caused many birth defects in experimental animals. It was not until the results of that study were leaked that the use of Agent Orange/dioxin was stopped.
Horrific Birth Defects
Those exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin often have children and grandchildren born with serious illnesses and disabilities. There is a virtual unanimity of opinion within the international scientific community that exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin caused some forms of cancers, reproductive abnormalities, immune and endocrine deficiencies, and nervous system damage. Second- and third-generation victims continue to be born in Vietnam, as well as to U.S. veterans and Vietnamese-Americans in the United States. For many of them and their progeny, the suffering continues.
Mai Giang Vu was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the Army of South Vietnam. He carried barrels of chemicals to spray in the jungle. His sons were unable to walk or function normally. Their limbs gradually "curled up," and they could only crawl. By age 18, they were bedridden. One died at age 23, the other at age 25.
Nga Tran, a French-Vietnamese woman who worked in Vietnam as a war correspondent, was there when the U.S. military began spraying chemical defoliants. A big cloud of the agent enveloped her. Shortly after her daughter was born, the child's skin began shedding. She could not bear to have physical contact with anyone. The child never grew. She remained 6.6 pounds -- her birth weight -- until her death at the age of 17 months. Tran's second daughter suffers from alpha thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder rarely seen in Asia. Tran saw a woman who gave birth to a "ball" with no human form. Many children are born without brains; others make inhuman sounds. There are victims who have never stood up. They creep and barely lift their heads.
Rosemarie Hohn Mizo is the widow of George Mizo, who fought for the U.S. Army in Vietnam. After he refused to serve a third tour, Mizo was court-martialed, spent 2.5 years in prison and received a dishonorable discharge. Before his death from Agent Orange-related illnesses, Mizo helped found the Friendship Village where Vietnamese victims live in a supportive environment.
Dr. Jeanne Stellman, who wrote the seminal Agent Orange article in Nature, said, "This is the largest unstudied [unnatural] environmental disaster in the world."