Monday, September 5, 2011

COUNTERPOINT As 9/11 nears, morality dictates we recall victims of America, too

Special to The Japan Times

In the lead-up this week to the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, it is important to keep in mind this: Dates take on a mythical significance that may mask reality.

Sept. 11, Dec. 7, July 4 ... celebration of sacrifice adopts a spiritual and patriotic voice, while the tragedies engendered by the loss of life persist in the bodies and memories of others for decades to come. On this coming 9/11 anniversary, what came to mind was not a legacy of terror at the hands of fanatics, but that of sustained war and its aftermath. That is why a single date masks the true tragedies of loss.

A new documentary comes as a reminder of such tragedies. Titled "Living the Silent Spring," the film made by Masako Sakata opens on Sept. 24 at Tokyo's Iwanami Hall for a four-week run.

Prior to the release of Sakata's earlier documentary "Agent Orange — a personal requiem," I wrote about that powerful work in a December 2006 Counterpoint headlined "Ongoing Vietnam tragedy revives ghosts of a Christmas past" (

Now, with "Living the Silent Spring," Sakata has returned to the subject of that deadly defoliant sprayed over the land of Vietnam for a decade from 1961 to strip its forests so that they couldn't provide cover from the air for enemy troop movements.

The toxic chemicals in Agent Orange, which included dioxin, were 25 times more potent than those used in herbicides employed in the United States. Dioxin accumulates in the body and remains in nature for years. It is responsible for an estimated 3 million victims in Vietnam — some of them third-generation sufferers of birth defects and a variety of chronic health problems.

The U.S. has consistently turned its back on the Vietnamese victims its criminal war in that country created. It was only in 1991, 16 years after hostilities ended, that Congress authorized assistance to U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

Significantly, however, the legislation specified that conclusive links between exposure to Agent Orange and subsequent illness and death were "presumptive." This insipidly coy use of words allowed Americans to legally avoid responsibility for the fate of the Vietnamese.

How would Americans react were a foreign government to proclaim the perpetration of 9/11 by radical Islamists "presumptive"?

"Living the Silent Spring" takes up the Agent Orange story from both sides. Sakata returns to some of the villages she visited for her earlier film so that we may see how the children genetically maimed by their parents' exposure to Agent Orange have fared. But this time she also introduces us to a number of Americans who have equally suffered — bringing home the message that, in war, we are all victims.

The story of Heather Bowser begins not in Canfield, Ohio, where she lives with her husband and two children, but with her father, who was stationed in Vietnam in 1968-'69. He returned to the U.S. with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and struggled for the rest of his life with alcoholism and persistent thoughts of suicide.

Heather was born in 1972 missing a leg, a toe and several fingers. Her father said, "I didn't realize I was taking my children to war."


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