Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam

A Book Review

The present struggle is directly aimed at the peaceful and happy life of our future generations on this planet.

— Dr. Nguyen Trong Nhan

The widespread employment of the defoliant and herbicide Agent Orange (AO) by the U.S. military during its barbarous war against the peoples of Vietnam should by all accounts be considered one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century.  The mass ecocidal-herbicidal campaign to utilize dioxin-containing AO against the tropical environment of Vietnam, begun in 1961 by the liberal-imperialist Kennedy administration, greatly helped facilitate the murder of between 2 and 5 million Vietnamese that was prosecuted by U.S. forces in their war.

Continuing in the traditions practiced previously by Indochina’s French administrators of violently defending colonial relations—and, indeed, vastly extending the scope of these traditions—the U.S. military came to subject the Vietnamese people to a “chemical holocaust,” as writes Fred A. Wilcox, journalist and author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam. According to Vietnamese government statistics cited by Wilcox, 3 million Vietnamese are presently suffering from the effects of toxic weapons used by the U.S. in its neo-colonial war, with 500,000 of this total number being children.  150,000 of these minors today suffer specifically from the effects of exposure to AO 40 to 50 years ago, given the biologically persistent properties of dioxin.  As a means of considering and reflecting on these negating realities, Wilcox’s Scorched Earth is an important work, one that resists forgetting—instead attempting adequately to respond to the “call to all humans for help” made by Nguyen Quynh Loc on behalf of his children and all others victimized by AO and war.

As Wilcox reviews, the historical mass-utilization of AO aimed to suppress the Vietcong armed resistance both directly through the eradication of tropical forests that effectively served as a refuge for VC soldiers as well as indirectly by destroying agricultural communities that were suspected of nourishing the VC effort.  The AO defoliation campaign, estimated to have eradicated at least 3 million acres of vegetation, comprised a true scorched earth strategy.  Wilcox quotes Dr. Arthur Westing, one of the world’s foremost chemical experts on the TCCD-dioxin found in AO, as summarizing the general U.S. approach in the war as being characterized by “long term systematic fury inflicted… upon the environment of an enemy dependent for its survival upon a rural natural-resource-based economy.”  It is important not to forget that this highly destructive aspect of the larger counter-insurgency strategy in Vietnam was merely a complement to the mass terror-bombing campaigns carried out by the U.S.—with several hundreds of times the order of magnitude of the Hiroshima bombs being dropped in incendiary and napalm forms on Vietnam, in accordance with Henry Kissinger’s maxim of “anything that flies on anything that moves.” ((Quoted in Noam Chomsky, “‘Losing’ the World: Amercan Decline in Perspective,” Truthout, 15 February 2012.))

As is to be expected, the herbicide strategy directly destroyed the lives and livelihoods of those deemed to be potential VC supporters by bringing about widespread hunger in rural regions and provoking severe erosion and flooding-events through its devastation of forests.  In part, this dual AO-bombing strategy sought forcibly to depopulate rural regions in its mass-displacement of agriculturalists who then fled to Vietnam’s cities—a vision for which the reactionary public intellectual Samuel P. Huntington famously served as an apologist, thus fulfilling his role as Geheimrat, or adviser of the sovereign, as write Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, or “expert in legitimation,” as Antonio Gramsci or Edward Said might call him. ((Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (London: Penguin, 2006).)) The “moonscapes” or “parking lot[s]” to which Wilcox likens much of the land of Vietnam ravaged by U.S. imperial administration might serve as a symbol of the overall effects of the mad war on Vietnam’s resident peoples and ecology.

To begin to understand the devastating effects of dioxin exposure on humans, it is necessary to consider some basic biology, which Wilcox provides to us.  Through experimentation on Rhesus monkeys and other animals, scientists have determined the TCCD-dioxin to be carcinogenic and fetotoxic, in addition to being possibly mutagenic, meaning that it induces mutations in DNA.  Among other effects, it acts on animals by inhibiting mitosis, or cell division.  Dioxin has been observed to remain concentrated within fatty tissues for decades—indeed, it is unknown how long it will persist in human tissues.  The toxin is also transplacental, such that it passes from mother to developing fetus.  These considerations thus help explain the emergence of the various disabilities and birth defects seen in children of Vietnamese parents who were exposed to AO by U.S. forces: lack of limbs or eyes, hydrocephaly (large head), musculoskeletal inhibition, severe intellectual impairment, and other neurological effects, to give only a few examples.

Basic reflection on these realities demonstrate the extreme hardships impelled by imperial power relations.  The photographs taken by Wilcox’s son Brendan as printed in the book are a testament to the irrevocable fate to which the U.S. has subjected these children and their families, as to its generalized destruction of the lives of millions of people in Vietnam, as in many other of the world’s societies.  The anecdotal stories Wilcox shares about the means that Vietnamese fighters took to protect themselves from the effects of AO following suspected exposure by spraying—that is, taking baths and eating green beans due to their belief in the antitoxic properties of the latter—similarly well-illustrates the extreme power inequalities represented in the Vietnam War, like other colonial wars.

Rather than be a work that examines horror triumphant, Scorched Earth also examines the litigation efforts undertaken by Agent Orange victims against Dow Chemical and other manufacturers of AO in 1984 and 2004.  The proceedings of the two cases as related by Wilcox are at once disconcerting and typical of established power.  The same Judge Weinstein who presided over both cases practiced legal positivism in denying the plaintiffs’ claims regarding the willfull destruction of human life resulting from AO exposure, perpetuating the reactionary view that the U.S. government was unaware of its effects on humans at the time of its employment, and did not in any case intend directly to harm individuals by using it as an herbicide.  A similarly absurd argument is one advanced by the chemical companies’ legal defense, which claimed that the plaintiffs’ claims, if taken seriously in a court of law, would “risk a stark lack of respect for the Executive Branch” and potentially set a precedent for interfering with its war-making capacities.

Wilcox rightly likens the outcome of this attempt at legalistic redress as being governed by a “Realm” of power, a disorienting and Kafka-esque “magic show” in which dominant social forces hold sway.  As Kafka himself might argue, the fate of the Vietnamese litigants subjected to dioxin poisoning serves as yet another example of the radical inadequacy of approaches that would pursue struggles for justice within established institutions.  It should be evident that the millions of cases of Agent Orange victims to begin with are themselves embodied condemnations of established society, responsible as it is for the “bourgeois-democratic holocaust” that was Vietnam. ((Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1984).))  Justice for these persons and all others similarly brutalized by imperial violence cannot be achieved within existing social relations: Wilcox’s elucidation of the juridical proceedings should be seen as confirming this.

This is not to say that Wilcox himself presents his testimony on the Vietnam War within a frame that is expressly anti-racist or revolutionary—however much his findings could be seen to serve these ends.  He invokes the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson to argue against the absurdities of the chemical companies’ legal defense, likening the hegemony of these corporations to that of kings.  Beyond this, Wilcox questionably claims that the US and its allied South Vietnamese military “intended to warn” rural Vietnamese of their plans for mass-application of AO to the environment—as though this postulated intention, never actualized in reality, lessened the actual crime, if it can be said to have existed at all in the first place.  Furthermore, the listing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is glaringly absent from a brief list Wilcox assembles of the usage of chemical and other non-conventional weapons throughout history.  Imperial Japan, Saddam’s Iraq, and Nazi Germany are listed, but the advent of direct employment of nuclear arms against persons is strangely overlooked.  Moreover, Wilcox’s closing words in the book—that we onlookers “ignore” the ongoing suffering of Vietnamese “at our own peril”—seem puzzling: Is the legacy of chemical warfare in Vietnam really about us?  These lapses aside, Wilcox’s book importantly represents a broadside against prejudice, egotistical narcissism, and self-induced blindness.

Representative in this sense is Wilcox’s quoting of Professor Ken Herrmann, an ex-veteran who has dedicated time to researching the effects of AO in Vietnam, as posing the question of why the unavoidably monstrous ongoing legacy of the U.S. military’s crimes in Vietnam does not “haunt the conscience of America.”  Part of the reason for this disconcerting suspension of mind may be due to a lack of awareness, one that Wilcox hence has crucially and helpfully addressed with Scorched Earth.  Yet this absence of awareness is likely associated more broadly with prevailing society’s tendency to render invisible the lived experiences of those persons who suffer the myriad ill-effects of imperialist power-arrangements—the dismissal of the interests of those Chomsky terms “unpeople,” who are even preconsciously denied interests altogether. ((Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 133.))

The task of overcoming the “bourgeois coldness” Adorno observes as perpetuating life-negating political projects is a decidedly pressing one, given the various threats to life contemporarily observed around the planet, from the endless massacres in Afghanistan to Israel’s continuous bombings of Gaza and the plight of malnourished and ill children or those subjected to radioactive exposure, whether from depleted-uranium rounds, as in Fallujah, or from the melted-down nuclear reactors of Fukushima. ((Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (trans. Henry W. Pickford, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 201.))  In his comment that the fate of Vietnam is the “toxic mirror into which avaricious corporations do not want ordinary people throughout the world to look,” Wilcox points to the potential collective power of the now subordinated multitudes, hence perhaps pointing to a future possibility that could dismantle imperial rule and so finally succeed in preventing the recurrence of anything resembling the genocidal Vietnam War.

Thus, Wilcox is mistaken to claim that “all we [observers] can do is promise that we will tell [other] people” about the tragic realities of Vietnam.  Documentation and bearing witness—“lend[ing] suffering a voice,” as Adorno advocates—surely are important projects for the present and likely futures, but they are not all. ((Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (trans. E.B. Ashton, London: Routledge, 1973), 17-18.))  We observers of the myriad negations perpetrated and overseen by constituted power can, instead of mere spectators, be subjects and agents—actors who rather than resign themselves to world-destructiveness rebel against it, seeking to overturn it.  Against the catastrophe that “just goes on,” in the words of Walter Benjamin, and the “normality” of “death”—the reign of genocidal-imperial racism and environmental devastation, or capitalism—a conscious humanity must labor, abolishing the institutions and ideologies that perpetuate brutality and unreason. ((Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940 (trans. Edmund Jephcott et al., Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003), 184; Adorno, Minima Moralia, §33.))

Javier Sethness is an educator, translator, and libertarian socialist. He the author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism, and he is currently finishing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. Read other articles by Javier, or visit Javier's website.