Weapons of lasting destruction

The disfiguring effects of the current war will be seen long after the smoke has cleared.

Demining specialists are fanning out across southern Lebanon, engaged in the dangerous work of locating and destroying thousands of unexploded “bomblets” left behind by Israeli bombing raids during the recent war with Hezbollah.

In Iraq and Serbia, health researchers are tracking the long-term medical impact of radioactive depleted uranium ordnance deployed by U.S. forces in conflicts in those nations, and throughout the world the mechanical pestilence of landmines—the malignant residue of armed conflict in Cambodia, Laos, the Congo, Rwanda, and more—waits for a comprehensive global cleanup effort or for the next unsuspecting footfall of a small child, farmworker, or laborer.

The end of a conflict can be only the beginning of the trauma for small nations emerging from war. Cluster bombs and landmines will continue their deadly work perhaps for decades, while the long-term effects of radioactive ordnance remains to be determined. Modern warfare often leaves a lethal legacy in nations that are least able to afford expensive, though life-saving, mitigation campaigns. While even the initial use of these indiscriminate weapons makes a mockery of just war principles, few military strategists ever bother to tabulate the moral and economic costs of the “long-term exposure” to noncombatants long after the dogs of war have been restrained.

Even as hard questions are finally asked about the staggering “start-up” costs of America’s military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, an older struggle to force the United States to accept responsibility for the unpaid invoice of another conflict continues. Between 1961 and 1972 in Operations Trail Dust and Ranch Hand, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces sprayed almost 20 million tons of herbicide in provinces all over Vietnam and in neighboring Cambodia and Laos, tracking the Ho Chi Minh supply trail into South Vietnam with more than 13 million tons of the best known of these deadly herbicides, Agent Orange.

The toxic dumping was meant to deprive the North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong of both food crops and jungle cover. Its relative success or failure is a matter for war historians to dispute. But dealing with the third or fourth generation of the operations’ victims unfortunately is a matter for Vietnam’s inadequate medical and social service institutions.

While the toxic properties of Agent Orange and other “jungle defoliants” were well known even in the early 1960s, the vast spraying campaign has turned much of Vietnam into a lab experiment gauging the long-term effects of dioxin exposure. Direct exposure to Agent Orange leads to cancer and disfiguring ailments among its victims and has proved wretchedly persistent, generating miscarriages and horrible birth defects and anomalies. There may be as many as 800,000 Vietnamese, including 150,000 children, who suffer from serious health problems or congenital deformities related to it. Agent Orange, deployed in response to a short-term military tactical challenge, is likely to plague generations of Vietnamese still unborn.

It has taken decades for the United States to acknowledge Agent Orange’s terrible toll on U.S. military personnel who sprayed the defoliant from airplanes, helicopters, and even from the backs of jeeps or on foot patrol. Perhaps that reluctance was related to an unwillingness to accept responsibility for Agent Orange’s defilement of Vietnam’s people and countryside. It will indeed prove a costly undertaking to detox the regions affected, if that is even possible. But what the U.S. could at least acknowledge is its debt to Southeast Asia’s human victims of Agent Orange and to put together a comprehensive response to their needs today.

As we conduct damage assessments of our latest campaigns in the war on terror, U.S. planners should be making contingencies for the hidden costs of this latest war, one we may not be able to clearly see today behind the choking black fires in Baghdad, but another tab we will surely be asked to pick up some day. Vietnam, it appears, is trying to teach us one final lesson; maybe we can learn this one.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the April 2007 (Volume 72, Number 4; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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