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Globe & Mail
June 7, 2003

And You Thought the War Was Over

by Heather Mallick

I have found them. Yes, yours truly has tripped over WMD, the
"weapons of mass destruction" that Junior Bush and Tony Blair used to
justify their conquest of Iraq. Those missing weapons were variously
explained as a) destroyed before the war b) not "literally" there --
and why aren't reporters more conceptual in their thinking? c) never
there at all d) exported to Syria or e) in beakers in those two
Winnebagos a panicky Mr. Blair keeps mentioning.

What's more, these WDs are not just M for mass, they're F for forever.

The embarrassing part is they were found not in Iraq but in Vietnam.
We forget wars fast. Who'll remember Iraq next year? Who thinks of
Afghanistan now? And who knew the Vietnam War was still being fought
with WMDs?

What I am about to write upsets me a great deal and I have delayed
writing it. Some details may be distressing.

Despite Colin Powell saying Saddam Hussein was the biggest user of
chemical weapons since the First World War, the greater culprit was
in fact the United States. From 1961 to 1974, the United States
admits that it dropped 72 million liters of chemicals on Vietnam,
most of it Agent Orange with a super-toxic strain of dioxin called
TCCD. U.S. soldiers dumped an additional 260,000 gallons of herbicide
just to empty their tanks. The Guardian reports that one soldier
regularly dumped his poison into a central drinking water reservoir.
He doesn't want his name used, at which one can only smile hollowly.

A Canadian environmental science company, Hatfield Consultants, has
discovered that the dioxin hasn't dispersed. It has rooted itself in
the soil at levels 100 times higher than we would tolerate on
Canadian farmland, spreading through water into the food chain and
from there into human blood, breast milk and fetuses.

The poison has blossomed through three generations of Vietnamese so
far. It appears it will continue. Its toxicity is difficult to
describe. When General Powell held up his tiny vial of what he said
were scary anthrax spores, it hardly compared to a small 80-gram tin
of TCCD. That tin would destroy New York City. The United States
dropped 170 kilograms of it.

This WMD kills and maims unstoppably. The grandchildren of those who
first saw the sweet-smelling yellow powder fall from the sky are
damaged beyond belief. Agent Orange causes innumerable diseases plus
almost every cancer known to humankind.

I have obtained this information from Web sites created by Vietnamese
hospitals and U.S. war veterans abandoned by their government, as
well as e-mail with a Vietnamese doctor attempting to care for some
of Vietnam's 650,000 damaged children (500,000 have already died).
Most of all, I have relied on a recent Guardian exposť by Cathy
Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. I cannot read it and look at the
photographs without falling into sadness for days.

Some dioxin babies were born with two heads. Thankfully they are dead
and float in formaldehyde. Another baby photographed in a crib has a
massive pointed head and eyeballs that bulge far outside his face.
Another victim is 19. In her photo, she looks about 6. She walks like
a spider and her skin is septic wet red rubble. Her sister's fingers
and toes drop off and she loses more skin each day as her mother
watches. Polio, Down syndrome and profound retardation are
everywhere. Some children look scarcely human. Some women, the
Guardian reports, give birth to genderless squabs that sound like the
pigoons in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: Lumps containing organs.

We're used to bad things dissipating as time passes. The fields of
France are green now and their people healthy. Agent Orange is
different. The World Health Organization says there are two ways to
clean it up: Bake all the soil in Vietnam to 1,000 degrees Celsius,
or pave the country with concrete and chemically treat what lies
beneath. There are 80 million Vietnamese living on that soil. The
fact is, almost nothing can be done.

A Globe reader in Vietnam tells me the Vietnamese are resilient. They
tend to get on with things. "People have to manage somehow and they
have a miraculous ability to do just that. Physical limitations are
commonplace here and are not understood as obstacles to participation
in quotidian life."

When I visit http://www.vnrc.org.vn (Vietnam Red Cross) and
http://www.ogcdc.org, and contact a doctor who talked to the Guardian
reporters, his e-mail messages back to me end with gentle good wishes
for my family. I am stricken by this man's courtesy to a Canadian who
lives happily with her wealth and health intact. He needs money to
pay for operations on damaged children. He runs the OGCDC (Office of
Genetic Counseling and Disabled Children) at Hue Medical College with
small donations from around the world.

And there you have it. Agent Orange was the second time the United
States used a WMD, the first being Hiroshima, but its effects were
worse. It fits the Bush-Rumsfeld-Powell definition because poison is
still flowing now.

U.S. politicians rarely think long-term. Whether we support or oppose
their efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, those were mere social calls
by comparison. In Vietnam, the war is still being fought by proxy,
via an American liquid that came in orange cans.