51 Years After U.S. Began Chemical War on Vietnam

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By Jeanne Mirer and Marjorie Cohn

There are images from the U.S. War against Vietnam that have been
indelibly imprinted on the minds of Americans who lived through it.
One is the naked napalm-burned girl running from her village with
flesh hanging off her body. Another is a photo of the piles of bodies
from the My Lai massacre, where U.S. troops executed 504 civilians in
a small village. Then there is the photograph of the silent scream of
a woman student leaning over the body of her dead friend at Kent State
University whose only crime was protesting the bombing of Cambodia in
1970. Finally, there is the memory of decorated members of Vietnam
Veterans Against the War testifying at the Winter Soldier Hearings,
often in tears, to atrocities in which they had participated during
the war.

These pictures are heartbreaking. They expose the horrors of war. The
U.S. War against Vietnam was televised, while images of the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq have intentionally been hidden from us. But what
was not televised was the relentless ten years (1961-1971) of spraying
millions of gallons of toxic herbicides over vast areas of South
Vietnam. These chemicals exposed almost 5 million people, mostly
civilians, to deadly consequences. The toxic herbicides, most notably
Agent Orange, contained dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals
known to man. It has been recognized “by the World Health Organization
as a carcinogen (causes cancer) and by the American Academy of
Medicine as a teratogen (causes birth defects).”

From the beginning of the spraying 51 years ago, until today, millions
of Vietnamese have died from, or been completely incapacitated by,
diseases which the U. S. government recognizes are related to Agent
Orange for purposes of granting compensation to Vietnam Veterans in
the United States. The Vietnamese, who were the intended victims of
this spraying, experienced the most intense, horrible impact on human
health and environmental devastation. Second and third generations of
children, born to parents exposed during the war and in areas of heavy
spraying — un-remediated “hot spots” of dioxin contamination —
suffer unspeakable deformities that medical authorities attribute to
the dioxin in Agent Orange.

According the Judgment of the International People’s Tribunal of
Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, the
Vietnamese exposed to the chemical suffer from cancer, liver damage,
pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to reproductive capacity, and
skin and nervous disorders. Their children and grandchildren have
severe physical deformities, mental and physical disabilities,
diseases, and shortened life spans. The forests and jungles in large
parts of southern Vietnam were devastated and denuded. Centuries-old
habitat was destroyed, and will not regenerate with the same diversity
for hundreds of years. Animals that inhabited the forests and jungles
are threatened with extinction, disrupting the communities that
depended on them. The rivers and underground water in some areas have
also been contaminated. Erosion and desertification will change the
environment, causing dislocation of crop and animal life.

For the past 51 years, the Vietnamese people have been attempting to
address this legacy of war by trying to get the United States and the
chemical companies to accept responsibility for this ongoing
nightmare. An unsuccessful legal action by Vietnamese victims of Agent
Orange against the chemical companies in U.S. federal court, begun in
2004, has nonetheless spawned a movement to hold the United States
accountable for using such dangerous chemicals on civilian
populations. The movement has resulted in pending legislation HR 2634
– The Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011, which attempts to
provide medical, rehabilitative and social service compensation to the
Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, remediation of dioxin-contaminated
“hot spots,” and medical services for the children and grandchildren
of U. S. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese-Americans who have been born
with the same diseases and deformities.

Using weapons of war on civilian populations violates the laws of war,
which recognize the principle of distinction between military and
civilian objects, requiring armies to avoid civilian targets. These
laws of war are enshrined in the Hague Convention and the Nuremberg
principles, and are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the
Optional Protocol of 1977, as well as the International Criminal Court
statute. The aerial bombardments of civilian population centers in
World Wars I and II violated the principle of distinction, as did the
detonation of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6
and August 9 of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese people were
killed in an instant, even though Japan was already negotiating the
terms of surrender. The use of Agent Orange on civilian populations
violated the laws of war and yet no one has been held to account.
Taxpayers pick up the tab of the Agent Orange Compensation fund for
the U. S. Veterans at a cost of 1.52 billion dollars a year. The
chemical companies, most specifically Dow and Monsanto, which profited
from the manufacture of Agent Orange, paid a pittance to settle the
veterans’ lawsuit to compensate them, as the unintended victims, for
their Agent Orange related illnesses. But the Vietnamese continue to
suffer from these violations with almost no recognition, as do the
offspring of Agent Orange-exposed U.S. veterans and

What is the difference between super powers like the United States
violating the laws of war with impunity and the reports of killing of
Syrian civilians by both sides in the current civil war? Does the
United States have any credibility to demand governments and non-state
actors end the killings of civilians, when through wars and drones and
its refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the use of Agent Orange,
the United States has and is engaging in the very conduct it publicly

In 1945, at the founding conference of the United Nations, the
countries of the world determined:

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in
our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and
worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of
nations large and small, and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the
obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international
law can be maintained, and

to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

If we are to avoid sinking once again into the scourge of war, we must
reaffirm the principles of the Charter and establish conditions under
which countries take actions that promote rather than undermine
justice and respect for our international legal obligations. The
alternative is the law of the jungle, where only might makes right. It
is time that right makes might.

August 10th marked 51 years since the beginning of the spraying of
Agent Orange in Vietnam. In commemoration, the Vietnam Agent Orange
Relief and Responsibility Campaign urges you to take action so as not
to see future images of naked children running from napalm, or young
soldiers wiping out the population of an entire village, or other
atrocities associated with war, poverty, and violence around the
world. We urge you to take at least 51 seconds for your action. In the
United States, you can sign an orange post card to the U.S. Congress
asking it to pass HR 2634. This would be a good start to assist the
Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange as well as the next generations of
those exposed to these dangerous chemicals in both Vietnam and the
United States.

Jeanne Mirer, a New York attorney, is president of the International
Association of Democratic Lawyers. Marjorie Cohn is a professor at
Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National
Lawyers Guild. She served as a judge at the International People’s
Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent
Orange. They are both on the board of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief
and Responsibility Campaign.