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Guardian Weekend – Spectre Orange

Nearly 30 years after the Vietnam war, a chemical weapon used by US troops is still exacting a hideous blow on each new generation. Report: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. Photographs: Jonathan Taylor.

Hong Hanh is falling to pieces. She has been poisoned by the most toxic molecule known to science; it was sprayed during a prolonged military campaign. The contamination persists. No redress has been offered, no compensation. The superpower that spread the toxin has done nothing to combat the medical and environmental catastrophe that is overwhelming her country. This is not northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1988. Nor the trenches of first world war France. Hong Hanh’s story, and that of many more like her, is quietly unfolding in Vietnam today. Her declining half-life is spent unseen, in her home, an unremarkable concrete box in Ho Chi Minh City, filled with photographs, family plaques and yellow enamel stars, a place where the best is made of the worst.

Hong Hanh is both surprising and terrifying. Here is a 19-year-old who lives in a l0-year-old’s body. She clatters around with disjointed spidery strides, which leave her soaked in sweat. When she cannot stop crying, soothing creams and iodine are rubbed into her back, which is a lunar collage of septic blisters and scabs. “My daughter is dying,” her mother says. “My youngest daughter is 11 and she has the same symptoms. What should we do? Their fingers and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not leprosy. The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons we were exposed to during the Vietnam war.”

There are an estimated 650,000 like Hong Hanh in Vietnam, suffering from an array of baffling chronic conditions. Another 500,000 have already died. The thread that weaves through all their case histories is defoliants deployed by the US military during the war. Some of the victims are veterans who were doused in these chemicals during the war, others are farmers who lived off land that was sprayed. The second generation are the sons and daughters of war veterans, or children born to parents who lived on contaminated land. Now there is a third generation, the grandchildren of the war and its victims.

This is a chain of events bitterly denied by the US government. Millions of litres of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam, but US government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless to humans and short-lived in the environment. US strategists argue that Agent Orange was a prototype smart weapon, a benign tactical herbicide that saved many hundreds of thousands of American lives by denying the North Vietnamese army the jungle cover that allowed it ruthlessly to strike and feint. New scientific research, however, confirms what the Vietnamese have been claiming for years. It also portrays the US government as one that has illicitly used weapons of mass destruction, stymied all independent efforts to assess the impact of their deployment, failed to acknowledge cold, hard evidence of maiming and slaughter, and pursued a policy of evasion and deception.

Teams of international scientists working in Vietnam have now discovered that Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD which, 28 years after the fighting ended, remains in the soil, continuing to destroy the lives of those exposed to it. Evidence has also emerged that the US government not only knew that Agent Orange was contaminated, but was fully aware of the killing power of its contaminant dioxin, and yet still continued to use the herbicide in Vietnam for 10 years of the war and in concentrations that exceeded its own guidelines by 25 times. As well as spraying the North Vietnamese, the US doused its own troops stationed in the jungle, rather than lose tactical advantage by having them withdraw.

On February 5, 2003, addressing the UN Security Council, secretary of state Colin Powell, clutched between his fingers a tiny phial, representing concentrated anthrax spores, enough to kill thousands, and only a tiny fraction of the amount he said Saddam Hussein had at his disposal.

The Vietnamese government has its own symbolic phial that it, too, flourishes, in scientific conferences that get little publicity. It contains 80g of TCCD, just enough of the super-toxin contained in Agent Orange to fill a child-size talcum powder container. If dropped into the water supply of a city the size of New York, it would kill the entire population. Ground-breaking research by a leading authority on Agent Orange reveals that the US sprayed 170kg of it over Vietnam.

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