Agent Orange Blues

Scorched Earth: Legacies of the Chemical Warfare in Vietnam
By Fred A. Wilcox
Seven Stories Press, 2011, 240 pages

In Review

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In 20 years at the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan has seen it all: twisted toes, missing limbs, mental disabilities, dysfunctional spinal cords. Her patients are children whom she suspects were poisoned by the dioxin that lingers in Vietnam’s soil and water more than three decades after American pilots sprayed the highly toxic Agent Orange herbicide over an area the size of Massachusetts.

Agent Orange has created “a burden for the economy and for society,” Tan says. The US officials who commissioned the wartime spraying “have to compensate, and they have to help us to solve this problem,” she demands.

Tan is one source for Wilcox’s clunky new book, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, the sequel to his 1983 book Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange, which profiled American war veterans who claimed to be suffering from the effects of wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

Scorched Earth chronicles Wilcox’s 2009 trip to Vietnam, in which the Ithaca College professor and his son, Brendan, meet Vietnamese who allegedly suffer from dioxin-related health complications. The trip is a platform for Wilcox to glorify the Vietnamese and to lambast chemical companies and US policymakers who, the author says, refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for causing the complications.

“For decades, the United States government appeared to be waiting for Vietnam veterans to die,” Wilcox writes. “Now, the chemical companies and the government are waiting for the Vietnamese to give up their campaign to secure justice for the victims of chemical warfare. This will never happen. We ignore their suffering at our own peril.”

Scorched Earth taps into a debate that many say is the last major impediment to warming US-Vietnam relations. Although the United States funds healthcare for disabled Vietnamese, American officials maintain there is no proven link between Agent Orange and health problems. Vietnam disagrees, saying Agent Orange has directly affected 4 million Vietnamese and indirectly affected 3 million more.

A main point of contention is how much the US should spend to address Vietnam’s dioxin legacy. Congress approved $15.5 million this year for dioxin cleanup and $3 million for “related health activities.” But according to the Associated Press, roughly four in five Vietnamese say the US isn’t doing enough to help people who suffer from dioxin-related illnesses. The US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin – a high-profile coalition of American and Vietnamese scientists, advocates, and policymakers – last year estimated the cost of addressing the dioxin legacy in Vietnam at $30 million per year through 2020.

Unfortunately, Wilcox’s book doesn’t provide an accessible overview of this highly nuanced policy debate. His hot-blooded commentary vilifies the lawyers, judges, US officials, and corporate spokespeople who challenge alleged links between Agent Orange and health problems. In one particularly aggressive passage, he claims that lawyers for chemical companies “appear to cast spells over the courtroom, forcing learned judges to follow the bouncing Orwellian ball.” Wilcox brags that his Waiting for an Army to Die is the “Bible” of a veterans’ advocacy group, and sure enough, portions of Scorched Earth read like an NGO’s promotional pamphlet.

Wilcox’s writing also reveals a naïve understanding of contemporary Vietnam. His descriptions of Vietnamese culture are saccharine and patronizing. (Example: “In Vietnam, you are expected to arrive on time for meetings, properly dressed, and fully prepared not to waste your own or anyone else’s time.”) Wilcox can be forgiven for misspelling the name of the traditional Vietnamese tunic known as the ao dai and for grossly overstating the value of the Vietnamese currency. (He says a 100,000 dong note is worth $12 rather than the correct $5.) But it’s harder to cut him slack for not clearly differentiating between the Vietnamese people and Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, which regularly imprisons political dissidents and human rights activists. And for a book that wades into such tricky political and historical terrain, the source documentation is thin. Chapters five and six, for example, are endnote-less.

In fairness, sections of Scorched Earth are emotionally resonant, and Wilcox offers some interesting background on Agent Orange and the war that killed about 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese. If you can wade through it, Scorched Earth may even inspire you to call your Senators, or at least to see the Vietnam War in a slightly different light.

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