Sunday, January 12, 2014

Agent Orange

Nhan takes me to the War Remnents Museum in Saigon.  It is in a large building with a courtyard filled with US war planes and helicopters.    Although Nhan lives in Ho Chi Minh and was a child during the war, she has never been in the museum.  She reads each sign carefully and for a long time.  She has these experiences but they were not connected to the greater political and historical context of the war.  They were a family of 18 children running around trying to survive.

I can see that good fortune, for her, is based on hard work as well as paying respect to ones ancestors who can offer protection and good fortune.   Even the most simple home establishes a place to honor the ancestors and most have an outdoor spirit house for a daily offering of fruit, flower and incense.  Although I ask  for more information about the spirit houses, I could see that they were such a part of their life that my questions seemed foolish.  No one asked why.  It just was.  This was what would protect them.

If the last babies, born to Nhan's mother died, no one questioned why.  The country was suffering from severe drought and famine and  the country was recovering from war.  There was very little healthcare and so a baby born too early and with birth defects would have slipped away without understanding the lingering effects of the war.

In the museum there are rooms full of pictures of children who suffered from birth defects caused by Agent Orange.  Twenty-one million gallons were spread on southern and central Vietnam to defoliate the landscape where North Vietnam soldiers were hiding.  24% of South Vietnam, or an area the size of New Jersey was stripped of all crops and forests.  Two million acres of forests remain without trees today.

The spray, manufactured in the United States, was spread by plane, helicopter and by hand.  The barrels it cam in was later used for water barrels, showers, and barbecues.   It was made of Dioxin, a chemical that was known to cause birth defects.

The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that over 150,000 children were born withe birth defects. The chemical was also sprayed over Vietnam and Laos.  As I look at the pictures I feel, along with everyone else, deep waves of nausea and grief.  We walk quietly from room to room.

In Cambodia, I talked to a midwife and she told me about these births of conjoined twins and how they were her hardest births. I remember thinking that most people never see such a birth and I am amazed she delivered them at all.  I think this but the I am in the museum and in the Agent Orange Exhibit, I see all these conjoined babies and think of how she seemed to have no idea of its cause.

Service men, who worked around Agent Orange or sprayed it also had babies with birth defects, though it would take make years, many law suits and may public health studies to get the government to take responsibility and provide care.

Aschengrau and Monson of the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a study published in 1990 in the American Journal of Public Health on paternal military service and the risk of late pregnancy outcomes. The scientists reported that Vietnam veterans’ risk of fathering an infant with one or more major malformations was increased at a statistically significant level.

Although the US government has paid $47 million dollars for the victims of unexploded bombs, it has refused to help the many people who need health care and support due to disabilities caused by Agent Orange.  Somewhere in my country there are wealthy families who profited from their stock in Dow Chemical and other chemical companies who made Agent Orange.  Perhaps that wealth has been passed down to children and grandchildren.  

On the news, people range about unemployment benefits but no one talks about all the people who got a hand out from the US government by supplying chemicals that caused the death and disability of children in our country and SE Asia.  

The war in SE Asia was not fought for democracy.  If it was, we would have supported the elections called for by the treaty that divided North and South Vietnam.  We would not have placed a dictator in the place of democracy.  This belief in Democracy, even if some did not like the outcome, would have saved millions of lives.  We fought the war, not for political freedom but for the freedom, for some companies, to make money, regardless of its impact on others or the environment.    

The people in Vietnam, with disabilities caused by Agent Orange, are our spiritual children.  They are the legacy of my country and we have to make amends, both here and there.  The children of the people who owned the chemical companies enjoy fewer inheritance taxes than prior generations.   The money exists but it is concentrated in the same hands that fought so hard to send young boys to spray a chemical they new nothing about.  It is unlikely that the children of the chemical companies ever went to Vietnam.  

Today, women struggle to get pregnant, supporting a billion dollar fertility industry.  Babies are born premature and our schools struggle to care for an increasing number of children with learning disabilities.  In our hearts, we know we are being sprayed, with today's version of Dow Chemical.  We know but it is not easy to see and we do not know how to stop it.  Coal Companies, oil companies and chemical companies spill and toss things not good for any baby into the air.  

I sit at a table, in Vietnam, with mothers who gave birth during the war.  "It was not birth who killed our children. It was other things.  We were not afraid of birth."  


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