The defoliant provides a case study in how not to deal with the unintended health consequences of war.
In 1961, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem asked the United States to help defoliate the lush jungle that was providing cover to his Communist enemies. President John Kennedy acquiesced and formally launched Operation Ranch Hand, the United States Air Force’s program of systemic defoliation with the chemical compound Agent Orange. So many years later, we’re still coming to grips with the devastating effects of Agent Orange on troops and civilians alike. Decades of the government dragging its feet on dealing with the Agent Orange issue in any comprehensive way has delayed a full reckoning. New information about diseases caused by the defoliant trickle in year by year while clean-up efforts continue in Vietnam itself. The entire Agent Orange saga provides a casebook study in how not to deal with the health and environmental fallout of combat.
Agent Orange use was revolutionary in scope, not concept. During and after the Second World War, Allied forces collaborated in exploring the potential of using defoliating agents in Southeast Asia. The British put those experiments to practical use when they used pesticides and poisons to clear brush and kill crops in a counterinsurgency campaign against Communist guerrillas during Operation Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. American leaders then, in a leap of playground logic, made the dangerous assumption that such a close, English-speaking ally using defoliating agents in war meant that it was morally and legally justified for us to do the same.
According to The New York Times, “From 1962 to 1971, American C-123 transport planes sprayed roughly 20 million gallons of herbicides on an area of South Vietnam about the size of Massachusetts.” This ecocide, as some have called it, wasn’t meant to just clear jungle space for patrols and reconnaissance; it was also part of the larger strategic goal of forced urbanization.