Agent Orange to you and me. For some of us those two words conjured up the revolting nightmare of the US war in Southeast Asia. Operation Ranch Hand: between 1962 and 1971 US aircraft sprayed more than 21 million gallons of the dioxin-laden chemical over huge tracts of Vietnam and Laos. The usual explanation is that this was an attempt to destroy crops and remove foliage used as cover by communist forces. But there was an even deeper political logic at play. As a recent report from the US/Vietnam Friendship Association notes:
... the sprayings of Agent Orange and crop-destruction programmes were aimed at depriving the peasants of their food supply and forcing them to move to areas dominated by the South Vietnamese. By sustaining this policy of 'generating refugees' the Pentagon hoped to deny the national-liberation forces the peasants' support, leaving them without a rural society in which to live.The same report goes on to capture Agent Orange's toxic potency:
Dioxins are the most potent carcinogen ever tested and are produced as a by-product of heating or burning chlorine-based chemicals.Before the spraying even began the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Air Force knew perfectly well what they were up to:
Care must be taken to assure that the US does not become the target for charges of employing chemical or biological warfare. International repercussions could be serious.Since the late 1960s, both American and Vietnamese scientists have worked assiduously to establish the causal link between contamination by the toxic chemical and abnormally high incidence of birth defects, liver cancer, chloracne and other health problems. The evidence is compelling. You can find a bibliography of scientific and popular sources here and here. Many well-known studies establish the link beyond any reasonable doubt. Here, for example, is the American Journal of Public Health ten years ago:
With gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, human milk, adipose tissue, and blood from Vietnamese living in sprayed and unsprayed areas were analyzed, some individually and some pooled, for dioxins and the closely related dibenzofurans.... One hundred sixty dioxin analyses of tissue for 3243 persons were performed. Elevated 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) levels as high as 1932 ppt were found in milk lipid collected from southern Vietnam in 1970, and levels up to 103 ppt were found in adipose tissue in the 1980s. Pooled blood collected from southern Vietnam in 1991/92 also showed elevated TCDD up to 33 ppt, whereas tissue from northern Vietnam (where Agent Orange was not used) revealed TCDD levels at or below 2.9 ppt.Similar conclusions have been drawn about the adverse health effects of Agent Orange on American veterans who were responsible for the spraying and workers occupationally exposed to herbicides and dioxins. These scientific concerns lay behind the large class-action lawsuit that was filed in 1979 against the herbidice manufacturers, including some of the US's best-known corporate names: Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Unilever, and others, and settled out of court in 1984. It resulted in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which distributed nearly $200 million to American veterans between 1988 and 1996.
On Thursday came this shocking news. A US court has dismissed a lawsuit by some 4 million Vietnamese claiming that US chemical companies committed war crimes by making Agent Orange for use during the Vietnam War. There are reports here, here and here. The judge appears to have made two rulings that fly in the face of all known scientific evidence. In The Guardian report he is cited as follows:
U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein disagreed that the allegedly toxic defoliant and similar U.S. herbicides should be considered poisons banned under international rules of war, even though they may have had comparable effects on people and land.He also
found that the plaintiffs could not prove that Agent Orange had caused their illnesses, largely because of a lack of large-scale research.And here was his chilling conclusion:
There is no basis for any of the claims of plaintiffs under the domestic law of any nation or state or under any form of international law. The case is dismissed.There is so much outrageous nonsense contained in this judgment. First, his view that Agent Orange is not a poison is simply wrong. Second, there is convincing research but there are obvious reasons why there has been no large-scale study of the population: Vietnam does not have the resources to do it alone and has been canvassing for scientific support; at the same time there is the unwillingness of the US to join with its allies in funding crucial dioxin research in Vietnam. And third, a prima facie case would appear to have been made for compensation from the out-of-court settlement reached by the American veterans.
Behind all of this, of course, are the weasel words of the companies themselves. This is how the Washington Post is reporting the corporate stance and their connivance with the US state:
The companies protest too much. They are not collectively culpable (so they say) but they are unwilling to accept the responsibility laid at the door of individuals. Agent Orange did not create serious health problems (so they say) but the scientific evidence is there for all to see and American vets certainly made the case that their health did suffer. In any event, it's all the responsibility of the US government (so they day) but
Lawyers for Monsanto, Dow Chemical and more than a dozen other companies had said they should not be punished for following what they believed to be the legal orders of the nation's commander in chief.They also argued that international law generally exempts corporations, as opposed to individuals, from liability for alleged war crimes.
"We've said all along that any issues regarding wartime activities should be resolved by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments," said Dow Chemical spokesman Scot Wheeler. "We believe that defoliants saved lives by protecting allied forces from enemy ambush and did not create adverse health effects."
The Department of Justice had supported the chemical companies in court, saying a ruling against the firms could cripple the president's power to direct the military.So there's the rub. Where does this leave the plaintiffs? Obviously their lawyers plan to appeal. But this is the kind of issue that requires the voice of international outrage and public campaigning. Much has been done is recent years to draw attention to and combat the use of chemcial and biological weapons, whether in war or against civilian populations. But this obscene court decision perpetuates this vile blot on the conduct of American foreign policy. The plaintiffs' lawyer, William Goodman, puts it well:
The use of this chemical in Vietnam was a scandal from the very beginning, and the failure of this court to redress these wrongs is a continuation of that scandal.The struggle for justice for millions of Vietnamese should be the struggle for justice of all of us.