By De Tran
New America Media
DANANG, Vietnam – The famed China Beach where war-weary GIs once went on R&R is now lined with luxury beachfront villas, five-star resorts, and even a golf course designed by the great Greg Norman.
Not far from this sun-drenched, white-sand stretch of paradise, I met a 57-year-old illiterate subsistence farmer and her 19-year-old severely deformed son, who share a one-room shack with a leaky roof and no running water. She was exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and she believes the defoliant caused her son’s birth defect.
A few dozen klicks away, in another hamlet outside of Danang, another farmer and his family care for their 15-year-old son, a severely disabled boy who’s believed to be another casualty of Agent Orange. During the war, the farmer was an artilleryman for the South Vietnamese army, and was exposed to the defoliant in the battlefields.
These two families – from opposite sides of the Vietnam War – represent one of the final dark vestiges of the war: Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used to clear jungles during the Vietnam War, is still leaving its pernicious effects on the people and the environment more than three decades after the guns went silent.
Every war leaves lasting scars that span generations. This year marks the 36th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, but the legacy of Agent Orange remains. Thousands of American GIs still receive disability payments for conditions related to dioxin. Millions of Vietnamese are believed to be effected by the traces of Agent Orange that remain in the numerous “hot spots” around Vietnam.
Some Vietnamese remember the spraying of Agent Orange like it was yesterday.
“The spray was white like the mist,” said one former soldier. “It felt a bit cool when it touched your skin… After an hour, all the trees in the jungle started to droop… Then there was nothing to eat.”
For the most part, Vietnam has moved on – most of its 89-million population were born after the war – yet, Agent Orange remains unresolved, an impasse made worse by the political differences of the three sides of that long-away conflict. Agent Orange is “the last thing for a full-circle normalization” between the two countries, said a former Vietnamese diplomat. “In Asia, you cannot go forward unless you address the past properly.”
The Dai Chanh hamlet, where Mrs. Trinh Thi Nam and her son live, is about 40 miles from Danang, a bustling modern city on Vietnam’s central coast. It’s a bucolic village with narrow dirt paths that weave their way through bamboo groves, palm trees and cassava plots. Banana, papaya and cashew trees, and tiny simple homes dot the verdant landscape. Water buffaloes graze by the lush rice paddies; here and there, a few white herons lull in the brilliant sunlight. But life is difficult here. The monsoon season brings devastating floods each year. (Flooding is so common here that the power outlets in homes are built 8 feet off the floor to avoid floodwater.)
During the war that tore apart both Vietnam and the United States, Mrs. Nam went into the mountains in the back of her home village to serve as a cook for the communist guerrillas there.
She had little choice in the matter, she said. Some villages were forced by the communists to follow them, while others were sympathetic to the American-backed forces. Such allegiance sometime depended on the location of the village. Such was the confusing nature of the war.
Her village, as with many in the region, was a Vietcong stronghold, so U.S. soldiers forced the villagers from their ancestral land under the Strategic Hamlet Program. They sprayed the village with Agent Orange to destroy the crops, making sure the villagers could not return. Sometime they had to destroy a village in order to save it. Many villagers headed for the mountains to fight against the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army.
While in the jungle, Mrs. Nam was exposed to Agent Orange, she said, as U.S. planes defoliated the tropical forest to deny the enemy of food sources and hiding places.
Shortly after she returned to her village, lesions broke out all over her body, a condition that continues to this day. Her chloracne is a definitive sign of poisoning from dioxin, a compound found in Agent Orange. She subsequently gave birth to a deformed boy, Luc, who’s been confined to his cot since birth with spina bifida. Luc, whose defect is believed to have been caused by Agent Orange. His father left after Luc was born, consigning mother and child to a life of extreme poverty.
Her day revolves around her son. The young man needs around-the-clock care, like a newborn. During my visit to the home, I watch as she feeds him, changes his soiled clothing and the straw mat on his bed. In the afternoon, she picks her son out of bed and cradles him while sitting on the floor to prevent him from getting bed sores. The picture of mother and child reminds one of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
In the still of the night, the future brings her nightmare. “I cannot sleep at night,” Mrs. Nam said, crying. “Tomorrow, when I’m old, when I’m sick, or if I die before him, who will feed him? Who will change him?”
Doan Lien, the artilleryman served with the South Vietnamese army. He lost his left leg during a shelling in 1974. He was still in the hospital when South Vietnam fell to the communist, setting off a mass migration that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to the United States.
He believed he was exposed to Agent Orange by drinking the stream water in the jungle. His son, Doan Ngoc Tung, was born severely disabled. He can’t talk or understand words. He has no control of his bodily functions, much like a newborn baby. Lien feeds him by chewing the food first before spooning it to his son, like a bird feeding her chick. Tung is also susceptible to violent seizures.
“Ever since he was born, our lives have been an ocean of suffering,” said Lien’s brother, Le Thuyen.
Some families even blame themselves, seeing their children’s birth defects as karmic payback for the sins of their past.
During the height of the war, between 1962 and 1971, more than 20 million gallons of herbicide were sprayed over the rural areas and jungles of South Vietnam, according to the report “Addressing the Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam: Declaration and Plan of Action” published by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Operation Ranch Hand, whose motto was “Only you can prevent a forest,” stripped bare 5 million acres of forest and destroyed crops in another 500,000 acres, an area the size of Massachusetts.
At least 4.5 million Vietnamese and the 2.8 million U.S. military personnel who served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 may have been exposed to Agent Orange or other contaminated herbicides, the report said. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million Vietnamese adults and children —the best available estimates—have suffered adverse health effects, congenital and developmental defects.
Agent Orange and some of the other herbicides were contaminated with di¬oxin, a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant that has been linked to cancers, diabetes, and nerve and heart disease among people directly and indirectly exposed, and to spina bifida among their offspring. It is toxic over many decades and does not degrade easily.
The Dialogue Group estimates that will take $300 million in the next 10 years to clean up the environment, help the families of the victims, and install prevention programs.
“If we don’t do something about it, we might get a fourth generation,” said a former Vietnamese diplomat.
*** I left Vietnam in 1975, at age 12, during the final days of the war. I have since returned many times. I know that you can’t go home again, that you can’t step into the same river of life twice. Yet, every time I returned to my native land, the past floods back in a stream of scenes, scents and senses… The plumeria trees in the old schoolyard remind me of absent friends and teachers. The Continental Hotel sends me back to my first visit to Saigon as a child in the early ‘70s. The sea breeze of my hometown brings back a more simple childhood… Yesterday and tomorrow collide inside me; I am a native son to Vietnam’s past and an expatriate to its future.
When I returned for the first time in 1993, the former Saigon was a forlorn and poverty-stricken place, mired under the paralysis of state-controlled economy, made worse by a U.S.-led trade embargo.
Saigon’s main drag, the cosmopolitan Dong Khoi Street, was barely lit at night to save electricity. This street reflects the changing of Vietnam over the decades. It used to be called Rue Catinat under the French colonialists, then under the South Vietnamese government, it was called Duong Tu Do – or Freedom Street. When the communist overran Saigon in 1975, it became Dong Khoi Street – or General Uprising Street.
Today, Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores grace Saigon’s main drag, where shiny new Mercedes Benzes and Lexuses zip by regularly. Portraits of Colonel Sanders are everywhere; KFC and Pizza Hut are making the kids of an emerging Vietnamese middle class fat. Vietnam is having a love affair with all things Western, especially things American. It is obsessed with erecting golf courses and staging beauty pageants – symbols of nouveau riche and capitalist kitsch… The iPhone is a prized object and Bill Gates is a role model.
Yet, despite its looking ahead to the future, Vietnam is still haunted by the ghost of the war. The past and the future tend to intermingle in a country with a 4,000-year-old history.
Vietnam today is racing to raise itself from the ashes of that war and the trade embargo that followed. It is a vibrant and young country. About 70 percent of its 85-million population is under the age of 30, and thus, has no recollection of the Vietnam War.
*** Vietnam sits at a strategic corner of Southeast Asia, its geopolitical importance has invited repeated foreign invasions over the centuries. First the Chinese, then the Mongolians, then the French. After the defeat of the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was divided in two – the communist North and the American-backed Republic of South Vietnam.
The geopolitical landscape has changed since Saigon fell in April of 1975. The United States has become Vietnam’s most important trading partners. And the two former enemies increasingly have cooperated militarily to stem the growing Chinese influence in the region. The 1.2 million Vietnamese refugees living in the United States add to the inextricability between the two countries.
Yet, for all their shared history, the three factions of the war now approach the Agent Orange issue in three different courses.
In a way, it embodies the division, the disconnect and the confusion that was the Vietnam War.
Washington’s policy is hypocritical and cynical. While the Veterans Administration has long recognized Agent Orange as a cause of a whole host of illnesses among U.S. veterans, it denies the defoliants as the cause of birth defects and other illnesses among the Vietnamese.
The United States has helped Vietnam clean up the hot spots around the country, but it has agreed to provide humanitarian aid without admitting the effects of Agent Orange.
Furthermore, the United States has been using Agent Orange aid as a bargaining tool with Vietnam.
Vietnam, on the other hand, is using Agent Orange as propaganda. U.S. officials often complain that the Vietnamese government links too many illnesses to Agent Orange without evidence. “They made it sound as though Vietnam would be a Garden of Eden without Agent Orange, that there’d be no diseases,” one American diplomat said.
The one faction often neglected in the Agent Orange discussion is the South Vietnamese.
The current government places priority on helping those who served the communist side during the war. South Vietnamese veterans and their families are an afterthought. (An official in the Quang Nam province showed me a list of Agent Orange-related cases in his area. Ex-South Vietnamese soldiers are put in a category marked “Other.”)
This view doesn’t help mobilize support from the Vietnamese emigres overseas, especially in the United States.
The Vietnamese overseas community is divided – there are those who don’t want anything to do with the community government in their homeland, and there are those who would like to engage Hanoi to bring about changes to Vietnam.
Some Vietnamese in the United States deny linkage between Agent Orange and illnesses and birth defects. Some think of it as communist government propaganda. Most Vietnamese media outlets in the United States decline to run stories about Agent Orange. Even South Vietnamese veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange are reluctant to come forward.
“The Communist Party is stuck in a dead end economically, socially and politically,” Nguyen Tuong Tam, a San Jose journalist, wrote in a commentary. “To ease political and social pressure, the party came up with the issue of victims of defoliant – with an emotional name ‘Victims of Orange Dioxin’ – to throw off public opinions from inside and outside the country.
“In the many years since, the party had succeeded in mobilizing world opinion to support the call for victim reparation from the U.S. government. It has also succeeded in persuading many patriotic Vietnamese from inside and outside the country – regardless of political views – to help the people with birth defects, all of whom the party labels as victims of ‘dioxin orange.’”
During my trip to Vietnam for this story, I met many families with deformed children; some had more than one child with birth defects. The coincidences give plausibility that Agent Orange is the cause of these birth defects.
Despite their dire conditions, there is unconditional love the parents show toward their children. Despite their poverty and burden, there is uncommon grace.
Through their sufferings, they develop a fierce serenity that enables them to endure unspeakbable hardship and cruelty. Despite their sufferings, they see poetry in sunlight and raindrops, they see honor and dignity in their daily struggle. What I had thought would be a depressing story turned out to be life-reaffirming.
Agent Orange reconnects me to the pains of the war, a past I had sought to put behind in America. It revives long-suppressed memories of the Tet Offensive, of the deluge after the fall of Saigon, of the subsequent exodus. Agent Orange is a painful reiteration that wars are messy and their legacies long lasting, and that the victims are often the poor and the voiceless.
The world lately has been full of misery, from Katrina to the Haitian earthquake, from the Japanese tsunami to the massacre in Darfur… It’s understandable that the world has a severe case of sympathy fatigue, but the true measure of ourselves as Americans does not depend solely on our GDP and our great institutions, it also depends on how we resolve our past mistakes, on how we absolve our sins.
Correcting a wrong sometimes takes years to realize. Thirty-six years after the end of the Vietnam War seems like the right time to start.
This essay is part of the Vietnam Reporting Project, a journalism fellowship program created by the Renaissance Journalism Center and funded by the Ford Foundation. De Tran is publisher of VTimes, a Vietnamese-language newspaper in Silicon Valley. He is a former staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times.