Repairing a world shattered by Agent Orange

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Vietnam War looms large in America’s collective memory. Yet for most of us, that’s where the war remains: in memory. Not so for the Vietnamese.

Thirty-five years after its conclusion and 15 years since our countries re-established diplomatic ties, the daily lives of many Vietnamese are still shaped, quite directly, by our military’s policies and tactics. Thirty-five years later, Agent Orange continues to shatter real people every day.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used several dangerous chemical agents to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside. One of the chemicals was the notorious Agent Orange, a compound containing dioxin — a lethal poison that contributes to a host of deadly and debilitating diseases, the effects of which can linger decades after first deployed. It is unlikely that we understood its toxicity when we used it during the war.

Now we know. Far too many of our own veterans continue to suffer the impact of this deadly chemical, but in recent years the American government has begun to acknowledge and attempt to address the damage.

These efforts must be improved, but there can be no doubt that they dwarf the efforts made by the United States for Vietnamese victims. And for the Vietnamese, Agent Orange remains a regular fact of life.

I traveled recently to Vietnam as part of an interfaith delegation sponsored by the Ford Foundation with a diverse group of individuals dedicated to advocating for those still hurt by Agent Orange. Former congressman and CEO of Common Cause Bob Edgar led the group, which included the likes of Sister Maureen Fiedler, host of public radio’s “Interfaith Voices”; Paulette Peterson, a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Veterans Administration; and Susan Berresford, convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange.

We spoke with government officials, medical personnel and victims. We toured centers for disabled youth, homes in the impoverished countryside and an Agent Orange “hot spot” — the Da Nang Airport, where enormous deposits of the deadly compound left behind by American forces continue to wreak horrific damage on the health and environment of those who live nearby.

At rehabilitation centers we met children with frighteningly enlarged heads and teenagers confined to cribs, for fear their brittle bones would snap. We visited with the director of Saigon’s Disability Resource and Development Center, herself disabled by dioxin poisoning, and saw the nurturing environment she was able to create. We traveled to the homes of affected children living in rural communities — communities so poor that merely meeting a family’s basic needs is a constant struggle, with little left for children whose lives have been cruelly shaped by the toxins America left behind.

And at Da Nang Airport, we struggled to comprehend the sheer quantities of the Agent Orange deposits left behind. The site contains dioxin in amounts over 365,000 parts per thousand (ppt); in most industrialized nations the parallel contamination is less than 12 ppt.

The one thing standing between the people there and this deposit of poison? A concrete slab.

After years of using legalisms to deny our responsibility to America’s Vietnam veterans, the American people and government ultimately came to understand that an honorable nation may not turn its back on those who carry a burden we placed on their shoulders. Now we must finally come to a similar understanding regarding the Vietnamese.

There is but one moral response to the suffering we left behind 35 years ago: We must acknowledge our role in the devastation and turn our attention, our funds and our scientific knowhow toward healing lives and repairing the environment.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I’m taught to bear witness to the pain of this world, and then to take action to remedy that pain. It’s not enough to merely see it — I am compelled also to do whatever I can to bring peace and restoration.

We like to believe that when the troops come home, the war they fought has ended and we all get to move forward with our lives. But wars do not end simply because hostilities cease. So much is left behind, so much to rectify, so much to change.

On our trip we saw a great deal besides suffering in Vietnam. There also was so much beauty, from the vibrancy of Hanoi, to the striking blue waterways, to the emerald farmlands. We were warmly welcomed everywhere, and wherever we turned we found creative people applying themselves to resolve the problems before them.

Vietnam is a nation striving to move ahead, a nation committed to repairing its relationship with our own. We may not do any less than stand with Vietnam, and find solutions to the horrors caused by the poisons our war left behind.

This is my duty — as Jew, as a rabbi and as an American. Nothing less will do.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

(Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)