Scorched Earth

  • Fred A. Wilcox
  • Seven Stories Press
  • 240 pp.
  • October 17, 2011

Decades after the Vietnam War ended, the herbicide Agent Orange continues its poisonous effects on human lives.

Reviewed by John R. Wennersten 

In Scorched Earth, Fred Wilcox sets out to show what happens to human beings who are exposed over long periods to TCDD-dioxin, or Agent Orange, “the most toxic small molecule known to science.” This book examines its impact on the Vietnamese and on U.S. Army veterans who served during the Vietnam War (1959-75). Agent Orange was used to rid the Vietnamese countryside of ground cover; it caused a medical and genetic catastrophe. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but human suffering related to the effects of Agent Orange continues.

Agent Orange (dioxin) infects more than those of a single generation who were exposed to it. Dioxin causes congenital malformation and cancers of a wide variety, most notably liver cancer. Wilcox describes in graphic detail the monstrous-looking children he encounters in today’s Vietnam, with deformed heads, “boat feet” and distorted or shortened limbs. Wilcox also notes that many women have suffered reproductive complications and even sterility. Photos of fetuses in specimen bottles are most unsettling testimony to the power of dioxin. The narrative of this book and its accompanying photographs do not make for easy bed-time reading.

At the center of the ongoing controversy over the use of Agent Orange during the war are the two chemical giants Dow Chemical and Monsanto. Despite nearly a generation of litigation, these companies have been able to fend off suits by the governments of Vietnam, New Zealand and Korea for reparations to veterans and their families. The American cause fared a bit better, especially when it was publicized by Lt. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the son of the illustrious admiral who commanded all naval operations in South Vietnam during the war. Young Zumwalt swam in Vietnam’s rivers, ate foods from markets and drank water contaminated with Agent Orange. He ultimately died of dioxin-caused disease. His child has birth defects thought to be caused by Agent Orange effects.

While Dow and Monsanto entered into a settlement with American veterans in 1984, the money ran out in 1994. Wilcox notes: “Of the 2.4 million Americans who served in Vietnam, only about 60,000 ever received anything from the companies … Given how long it takes to get cancer from the chemicals, virtually none of the veterans who got cancer have received compensation from the companies.” Under this settlement, a totally disabled Vietnam veteran received $12,000 over a 10-year period. Meanwhile, the court awarded more than $13 million in attorneys’ fees.

The chemical companies did not reveal during the war what they knew about dioxin. It was not until 1970 that scientists gained access to spray zones, confirming that a major ecological disaster had occurred in Vietnam. Their successful efforts to convince the U.S. government to renounce first use of herbicides in future wars are detailed in David Zierier’s new book, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment (University of Georgia Press.)

The poisons left behind on the battlefields of war will harm Vietnam for generations. Children are still being born with bone deformities, bifidas (related to incomplete development of the neural tube), and urological and neurological maladies. Meanwhile, in many areas of Vietnam that were sprayed with Agent Orange, the mangrove forests and jungles are gone, “leaving a landscape that resembles the fields of Iowa rather than the wilds of Southeast Asia.”

In an age when thousands of untested chemicals enter the world marketplace each year causing unforeseen havoc to public health, we would do well to remember the victims of Agent Orange.  As Wilcox so eloquently puts it: “We ignore their suffering at our own peril.”

John R. Wennersten is an environmental affairs writer. His most recent book is Anacostia: The Death and Birth of an American River.

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