The Last Ghost of War

Azadeh Shahshahani and John Zientowski

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. For millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of American veterans, the war lives on through the scars that Agent Orange has left on their bodies and bodies of their children. Agent Orange is a chemical defoliant that the U.S. government sprayed over the people and lands of Vietnam to destroy crops and rid the land of foliage. It contains elevated levels of dioxin, the most toxic chemical known to science. Through their exposure to the dioxin, Vietnamese citizens, American veterans, and Vietnamese-Americans (many of whom fought as U.S. allies) suffer from a variety of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinsons disease, and birth defects. Those directly exposed to Agent Orange now have children and grandchildren suffering from life threatening birth defects. The Vietnamese eco-system has also been damaged by the dumping of Agent Orange in a number of “hot spots” where it remains in the land and water, poisoning people, the fish, and the wildlife.

After strong grassroots pressure from veterans, the government now grants disability for service-connected illness to veterans who served in Vietnam and have one of fifteen diseases.

However, the Vietnamese people have yet to receive adequate compensation. Congress has finally appropriated some funding to clean up one toxic “hot spot” and assist the victims. This is an encouraging gesture. The money has yet to reach the victims, however. And the scale of human tragedy and environmental assault requires a much greater commitment of resources. Children and grandchildren of American veterans similarly receive no healthcare or assistance from the government for birth defects or medical conditions related to their parents’ or grandparents’ military service in Vietnam.

Dow, Monsanto, and the other chemical manufacturers who deliberately manufactured a “dirty” Agent Orange with higher levels of dioxin in order to maximize their profits, have denied any responsibility after a paltry settlement to a lawsuit brought in the 1980’s.

Last May, a body composed of distinguished jurists from around the world met in Paris to hear evidence of the impact of the use of Agent Orange. The Tribunal received testimony from 27 individuals, including victims and expert witnesses. The Tribunal found that the U.S. government and the Chemical manufacturers were aware of the fact that Dioxin was present in one of the component parts of Agent Orange; yet, they continued to use it and in fact suppressed a study which showed in 1965 that Dioxin caused many birth defects in experimental animals. The Tribunal concluded that the U.S. government and the companies must fully compensate the victims and their families. Earlier this week, a delegation of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims visited Atlanta to seek support from the American people. Pham The Minh, a 33-year old English teacher, was one of the delegation participants. As one of the many 2nd generation victims, Minh’s body bears the horrific legacy of Dow’s Agent Orange. Minh and other delegation members met with Congressman’s John Lewis’ staff and sought his support for legislation that would address the needs of both Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange.

It is time for the government to take responsibility for the human and environmental disaster that is still being caused by Agent Orange and provide comprehensive assistance to all those suffering from this deadly poison. Only then, will our country finally excise what has been called “the last ghost of war.”

Azadeh Shahshahani is an Atlanta attorney and Co-Chair of the International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. John Zientowski is a long-time Atlanta resident and Vietnam War veteran who served as a combat medic; during his service, John was in a number of areas defoliated by Agent Orange.

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