And You Thought the War Was Over

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 (Vietnam Red Cross) and, 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.