Thursday, October 20, 2011

Waiting For An Army To Die - Redux
"Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam"
by Fred A. Wilcox
Seven Stories Press (2011)

"Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange"
by Fred A. Wilcox
Seven Stories Press, Second Edition (2011)

Fifty years ago, while President Kennedy deliberated waging a sweeping herbicide warfare campaign in Vietnam, Rachel Carson may well have been scrutinizing the galley proofs of "Silent Spring," a book Kennedy would soon read and respect. The biologist painstakingly amassed evidence that widespread aerial spraying with toxic insecticides and herbicides constituted a "peacetime" war on nature and human health.

Her electrifying treatise nailed the agricultural industrial complex - pesticide industries and the gaggle of research scientists, government bureaucrats and Congressionals tethered to the industry - for collusion in a chemical assault on nature and public health.

A firestorm ensued. The industry threatened to sue Carson's publisher; their hacks peddled sexist depictions of Carson and satires of "Silent Spring." A tempest of Congressional hearings and citizen lawsuits over DDT pesticide excoriated the pesticide industry and government complicity, provoked immense national debate and launched the modern environmental movement. As Fred Wilcox bitingly observes, though, in "Waiting for an Army to Die," this domestic outbreak of public debate, regulatory action and civic activism against our pesticide-drenched model of agriculture did not stymie the executive decision to wage and sustain massive chemical warfare in Vietnam for nearly ten years.

The most hazardous of the chemicals sprayed in Vietnam was Agent Orange, an equal mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, contaminated during the manufacturing process with the dioxin TCDD, arguably the most toxic small molecule known. First researched for use as warfare agents in World War II, the herbicides were given a post-war makeover for domestic use on brush and weeds in forests, agriculture, pasturelands and suburban yards. In 1961, they became the dominant weapon of choice to defoliate rainforest, mangroves and food crops over one-seventh of the land area of South Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. Wartime herbicide production spurred an accelerated manufacturing process, a haste which increased industry profits - while it also knowingly magnified the dioxin content and herbicide toxicity in Agent Orange manyfold.

In "Waiting for an Army to Die," the author forcefully illustrates that wartime and peacetime uses of herbicides are two sides of the same coin. He recounts the stories of Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and also of Oregon mothers, Arizona potters, and others living near sprayed public lands, all of whom were suffering from a plague of cancers, nervous system effects, miscarriages and birth disorders of their children. In this eminently compassionate and politically astute book, reissued with a new introduction 22 years after the first edition, Wilcox takes us inside the tragic, yet gutsy lives of young, working-class vets who were left to die by "government stonewalling, bureaucratic shell games and the contempt of multinational corporations." Their resolve to win just, respectful medical treatment and disability payment from the Veterans Administration (VA) in the face of stigmatization as neurotic, substance-abusing, mental cases is nothing short of heroic.

"Waiting for an Army to Die" is an unblinking high beam focused on the VA's heartless, obstacle-laden treatment of Vietnam veterans. But Wilcox also highlights a few noble people within an otherwise obstructive medical system, whose stories of courage and altruism relieve the callous betrayal of these veterans poisoned by their country. ("Sprayed and Betrayed" as the vets put it). One is a lower-level employee, Maude DeVictor, in the Benefits Division of the Chicago VA regional. On her own initiative, she collected personal data from clients seeking benefits - Vietnam vets, their wives and their widows - about their exposure to Agent Orange, health effects and reproductive history. When directed by her supervisor to cease her data collection, she turned the results over to the local media. DeVictor's pluck in the face of a punitive bureaucracy is one of numerous chinks in the VA's armored resistance to acknowledging the toxicity of Agent Orange and to undertaking independent scientific studies of Agent Orange exposure illnesses.

The other human face of this ruinous chemical warfare on a rural country's ecosystem and people is that of more than three million Vietnamese war victims of Agent Orange and the three generations of children born since with horrific birth defects and disabilities. Wilcox tells their tragic yet dogged story in a newly published companion book, "Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam." Again, with compassion and an unflinching investigation into the multigenerational Agent Orange victims, he constructs a cogent moral case for compensation by the United States. Read separately, but more so together, the books' core contribution is that they do not let us leave the toxic legacy of the Vietnam War behind us as we wage new wars with new chemicals.


No comments:

Post a Comment