The Sounds of Peace: Reflections on the Legacy of Agent Orange

by Max Ediger,

MCC Vietnam, Quang Ngai, 1971-1976 

MCC Vietnam, Hanoi, 2007-2011

In 1971 and 1972, Quảng Ngãi was my home. Visiting this small provincial town in Central Việt Nam in 2010, thirty-eight years later, I had difficulty recognizing it. Almost all of the streets were now paved and the boundaries of the town had expanded considerably. The numerous refugee camps and strategic hamlets are gone, and new buildings including several large hotels have sprung up throughout the town. The small dirt path that once ran along the Trà Khúc River marking the northern boundary of the town is now a wide, tree-line boulevard with cafes, parks, and jogging paths.

 

Parts of the town were still recognizable to me but there was something about Quảng Ngãi that seemed strange and even eerie. I sat quietly looking out the window of my hotel room trying to identify the cause of this feeling of strangeness. Slowly it dawned on me. The strangeness was the silence. No, the town was not really silent. The trees near the small hotel were filled with a variety of birds singing their mating songs. Motorcycles roared by from time to time, people in the teashop across the road chatted and laughed and car horns occasionally punctuated the air with their blasts. The silence I was hearing was the absence of any sounds of war. When I lived in Quảng Ngãi in the 1970s, the sounds of war were a constant companion. Out-going artillery fired from the American base a few blocks from our house came at any time jarring us out of our sleep or interrupting a meal. Incoming rockets caused chaos in the streets as people raced from place to place to see if their children were safe. The concussions of B52 raids ripping the distant mountains apart shook the curtains in our house and knocked puffs of dust from the ceiling tiles. The gunfire, both distant and near, was almost as common to the people in Quảng Ngãi as was the chirping of birds in the trees. War planes of all types flew constantly over the town, rattling windows and sending the neighborhood dogs into a frenzy. All these sounds, and many more, were now gone from life here. What I was sensing as strange was the sounds of peace. What a beautiful sound for the people of Việt Nam. In Quảng Ngãi in 2010 it was clear that the people were thriving on this peace. There was a calm bustle about the city, people wore relaxed smiles, markets were bus, and above all, the explosive sounds of war no longer disturbed the physical and emotional lives of the children. Quảng Ngãi was a very poor province during the war, but now the economy is growing and, for at least most of the people, survival is no longer their main concern.

 

The sounds of peace are intoxicating. One has to wonder why the world has such a penchant for war. Better to listen to the wise words of Paul when he said, “…Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”  (2 Corinthians 13: 11)

 

And that brings me to the reason for my trip to Quảng Ngãi. There is a certain deception in the sounds of peace that now flood this provincial town and the surrounding orchards and rice paddies. While wars do, in time, come to an end and people move forward to rebuild their lives, the legacies of those wars remain and cannot nor should not be forgotten. In Quảng Ngãi the reminders of the war linger throughout the province, but usually in places hidden from the eyes of passing tourists. One of the most horrific legacies left behind is something called Agent Orange. First used in Việt Nam around 1961, it remains in the soil, water, fish, and, most sadly, in the bodies of many of the people.

 

Agent Orange is one of many herbicides sprayed by American planes over Vietnamese forests and fields. According to the website of Casper Platoon (http://www.

casperplatoon.com/AgentOrange.html), Agent Orange was developed in the early years of WWII to destroy rice crops in Japan; however, President Roosevelt and Admiral Leachy decided that this “heinous chemical” should not be used.

 

Then, in 1961, President Kennedy signed orders allowing Agent Orange to be used in Việt Nam to destroy crops and defoliate the jungle. From 1961 to 1970 over 21 million gallons of Agent Orange containing about 400 kilograms of dioxin were sprayed over vast areas of South Việt Nam. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science.

 

When the poison was sprayed over the forests and fields, any farmers in the area were also directly affected. They report that when the mist settled on them, their skin became very hot. They had to wash immediately and afterwards they suffered from serious skin problems. In Quảng Ngãi Province, some 27,000 gallons were used, destroying vast areas of plant life. In 1971, I remember driving our motorcycle through areas near the mountains where nothing green existed. All was barren. Even birds did not survive.

 

No warnings were given that Agent Orange might have serious negative affects on people. Even the American soldiers given the duty to store and load it into the planes prior to a spraying mission were not warned to wear protective clothing. After returning to the States, many of them started having serious health problems. The U.S. military and government refused to admit that these problems were related to Agent Orange. American Veterans of the Việt Nam War and their families eventually filed a class action suit against the seven chemical companies that produced Agent Orange and other chemicals used in Việt Nam (Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Chemical, and T.H. Agriculture). The case was settled out of court in May 1984 for victims and families of those exposed to herbicides for $180,000,000 (the lawyers got a staggering 100 million dollars). The amount given to qualifying families was a pittance. For example, a woman whose husband suffered and eventually died, leaving her with three children, was given just over $3,000. Another veteran suffered with a brain tumor along with other herbicide related diseases for over three years. He was awarded $1,860.

 

This assistance was clearly not enough; however, it was at least something: no assistance has been given to the farmers of Việt Nam. In Quảng Ngãi alone some 100,000 people were exposed to the toxin and at least 16,432 have been seriously affected. Research suggests that from 3.2 to 4 million people were exposed in all of Việt Nam. The farmers and soldiers who were directly in the path of the spraying suffer from a variety of health issues such as cancer, skin disease, and other ailments. They are considered the first generation of Agent Orange victims. Their children, the second generation, have fared much worse. A very large percent of these children are born with severe deformities that make it impossible for them to live independent lives. Some have enlarged heads, stunted limbs, and blindness. A number seem completely normal at birth, but as they grow older their bones suddenly start growing in grotesque shapes until they are unable to move about on their own. In some cases, children are born and grow up in a normal way. They marry, but their children, the third generation, may have even worse deformities than the second generation. Medical evidence indicates that certain cancers (for example, soft tissue non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), diabetes (type II), and, in children, spina bifida and other birth defects, are all attributable to exposure to Agent Orange.

 

Often, the first generation victims die from their health problems, leaving a destitute mother or father to try to care for invalid children. When scientists were asked if they thought things would improve in the fourth generation, they admitted to being doubtful. The dioxins are in the soil and the water. They accumulate in fish and in the fatty tissue of cows and pigs. With the poisons in the food chain and possibly damaging the genetic makeup of the people, the problem may last far into the future. Again the voice of Cain becomes our own voice, “Am I my brothers/sisters keeper?”  (Genesis 4: 9) 

 

For helpful information about Agent Orange, go to http://www.vn-agentorange.org/index.html

An excellent short film on the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJxb7CY13uc

 

Peace Cranes

The purpose of my visit to Quảng Ngãi in 2010 was to meet some of the victims of Agent Orange and to discuss with them some ways we might be helpful as they try to cope with this difficult situation. I was accompanied on the trip by Ms. Đinh Thị Vinh, a longtime colleague of MCC Việt Nam.

 

We traveled by car west from Quảng Ngãi City with members of the Việt Nam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) into the foothills of the Trương Sơn Mountains. Our hosts in the VAVA were Vietnamese veterans of the war who are also victims of Agent Orange. The fields that once could grow no food because of the toxins were now filled with lush green rice paddies. The countryside was alive and thriving. Nature seems to have a way of healing itself much easier than humans can. Mountains that once were covered only with dead tree stumps now are covered with thick green forests. After the war ended in 1975, the government began a reforestation program to bring life back to these mountain areas. Those efforts were obviously successful, at least to a degree; nothing could quickly replace the old growth rainforests that were destroyed.

 

Before leaving Hà Nội for Quảng Ngãi, I had shared with Ms. Vinh that in 2008, members of the Turpin Mennonite Church in Oklahoma used a church curriculum that focused on “The Things that Make for Peace.” They learned of a tradition in Japan of folding origami peace cranes to remind us that peace takes patience and persistence.

 

The folding of origami cranes as a symbol of peace can be traced back to a young girl named Sadako Sasaki in Japan, who died of leukemia ten years after the atomic bombing.

Sadako was two years old when she was exposed to the A-bomb. She had no apparent injuries and grew into a strong and healthy girl; however, nine years later, in the fall of 1954, when she was in the sixth grade, she suddenly developed signs of an illness. In February of the following year she was diagnosed with leukemia and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. Believing that folding paper cranes would help her recover, she kept folding them to the end, but on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease, she passed away. Now, people all over the world fold peace cranes to symbolize their prayer for a true peace and for the healing of those who suffer from war.

 

I suggested to Ms. Vinh that I might give some of these peace cranes made by the Turpin Church to the victims of Agent Orange in Quảng Ngãi. She enthusiastically agreed. But as I sat with these new friends and heard their stories, I began to feel uncomfortable. Amidst all of their serious needs, how would they feel if the gift I gave them was a simple small paper crane?  They needed food, health care, ease for their suffering and a recognition by the U.S. companies that there is a responsibility for producing poisons that so negatively affect human beings. 

 

As I hesitated, Ms. Vinh leaned over and said, “Why don’t you give one of the cranes to them now?” A bit self-consciously, I reached into my bag and took out one of the cranes. I explained the meaning of the crane and that people in a small rural church halfway around the world had folded these cranes to express their own dreams of peace. I further explained that this is a symbol that is meant to bring us together and that every time they look at it they can be reminded that they have friends in far-away Oklahoma.

 

The response was immediate. The crane was received gently and with deep interest.

 

“This is a symbol of unity,” one man said. “Together, if we unite, we can build a better world.” 

 

“I’m not sure we can take on the world,” I replied. “But at least between you and my home community we can come together.” 

 

“We have to build a better world,” he repeated. “This symbol can help us do that.”

 

So, the simple cranes folded by a small Mennonite congregation have begun their journey of peace. More will be scattered to many part of Asia and each time their story and their dreams will be shared. Even though they are small and seem powerless, they carry a very powerful and important message, like that given to the prophet Elijah:

 

“The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (1 Kings 19: 11-13)

 

We live in a very conflicted world and yearn for a sense of peace and security. The massive military machines of our world are paraded before us with the promise that they will make us safe and secure. But peace is not in them. Politicians shout out their ideologies, promising that they have the answers to our yearnings. But peace is not in their shouts and empty promises. Then peace comes to us in the form of a small, simple crane, folded with caring hands and strengthened with hearts that wish to share God’s peace with others. Our hope lies in these small things, for God can work through them in ways we cannot even imagine.

 

 

It's Time to Build a New World

Mr. Hùynh Văn Thiết is 86 years old now. From 1962 until 1969 he served in the North Vietnamese army and led patrols along the east side of the Trương Sơn mountain range where the Ho Chi Minh Trail served as a link between the North and South. Many times planes flew over his unit, spraying the mountains with Agent Orange and other herbicides. The people tried to protect themselves from the poisons with plastic sheets, but still the toxins entered their lungs and blood stream. Today, Mr. Thiết suffers from severe pain in his bones, his teeth have fallen out, and heart problems burden him.

 

Mr. Thiết’s wife also worked in the resistance, and after being arrested she spent seven years in prison. Three of those years were spent in the infamous prison on Côn Đảo Island. The French built the Côn Đảo Island prison in 1861 to hold political prisoners, and during the American period it continued to be used for the same purpose. An American company helped expand the prison by building what came to be known as tiger cages, in which prisoners were shackled in tight spaces without room to move about. Many were tortured, and it is estimated that from 1861 until the war ended in 1975 as many as 20,000 people died in the prison. The money for these cages came from the U.S. Food for Peace program. Ironically, part of the construction consortium, Brown and Root, is today the Halliburton subsidiary that built the “isolation cells” in Guantánamo Bay.

 

Mr. Thiết’s wife did not spent time in the tiger cages, but was shackled for long periods of time to an iron bar and was not allowed up for restroom visits, baths, or exercise. In 1975, as the war came to an end, she finally had freedom to return to her home.

 

The couple had seven children. One died at birth, and another is suffering from the probable affects of Agent Orange. Their grandson, Hùynh Tan Bi lives with them now. He is the third generation of Agent Orange victims, and the entire right side of his body is slowly deteriorating. For years he tried to go to school and loved math, but finally had to quit his studies because he could no longer manage sufficiently. A war which ended more than thirty years ago has destroyed the future of this young man.

 

Human rights groups and lawyers in the United States have helped Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange file a class action law suit against the U.S. companies that produce the dioxins (once again, they are Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Chemical, and T.H. Agriculture). The courts have consistently thrown the case out. On March 2, 2010, the US Supreme Court threw out the case without offering any explanation or statement. The argument of the courts is that there is no scientific proof that the health problems and deformities are really the result of the toxins, despite research and facts that have proved Agent Orange used during the war is related to cancer, diabetes, and fetal deformities. The fact that these problems are rampant in areas known to have been sprayed with Agent Orange is considered circumstantial. Thus, the victims receive no help from the U.S. government or companies in dealing with their serious problems, and, sadly, not even an apology for the horrific environmental destruction and human suffering these poisons have caused. 

 

U.S. statements claim that the chemicals used were not purposefully aimed at humans and that they are only herbicides. Researchers, however, point out that dioxins were sprayed directly over at least 3,000 villages, affecting more than three million people, most of them innocent farmers, women, and children. And, as one purpose of the spraying was to destroy food crops, the target was, obviously, humans.

 

VAVA tries to assist those most seriously affected, but is unable to deal completely with such a large issue. That is why they want the U.S. government and the companies that produced the poisons to help take responsibility. It is not a matter of blame or pointing to winners and losers, but rather taking unified responsibility to help care for those who continue to suffer so terribly from the war. Mr. Phan Thanh Long, Deputy Chairman of the Quảng Ngãi Provincial VAVA, expressed deep disappointment at the Supreme Court’s decision. “Taking the issue to the U.S. courts was not about finding winners and losers. We are not interested in simply proving who is right and who is wrong. What we want is that all people, including the US government and the companies, recognize the pain of the victims of Agent Orange and join together with us to help them.”

 

When I gave Hùynh Văn Thiết, his wife and Hùynh Tan Bi each an origami peace crane, they accepted them with warm smiles. I asked them what they would say to the American people if they had an opportunity to go to America. Looking carefully at the peace crane in his hand, Hùynh Văn Thiết said, “We need solidarity now after all of these bad things. With solidarity we can live better lives. I don‘t want solidarity just with Americans but with the entire world.”

 

There is no anger in the voice or the eyes of Hùynh Văn Thiết, his wife or his grandson. Their dream of solidarity and unity with the world is an honest one. How will we respond to that dream?  “How good it is for brothers and sisters to live together in unity.”  (Psalms 133: 1)

 

 

A Handshake Across the Oceans

What message do the members of the VAVA have for Americans?  “In the past, the war made us angry and we had to fight. We didn’t understand much about America and the American people then. Now we understand more and we want to cooperate with you so all people can experience peace. When you bring this peace crane to us, we have a new idea for peace. Like this small bird, we must fly forward into a time of cooperation and friendship and not go backwards to relive things that will destroy our friendship. Tell your friends in America that it would be good if they would write their names on the birds they fold. Then we can say we have a friend in America with this name.”

 

Despite all of their difficulties, most of the victims of Agent Orange seem to always have a positive outlook on life. As we traveled around Quảng Ngãi with our friends from VAVA there was always friendly chatter and laughter. They do not show any anger, only a desire to help those villagers who are suffering the most. Their hope is reflected in their final words to me. “We hope that Obama will help the world see that America really wants to help the disadvantaged, like the victims of Agent Orange. For this to happen, we need to meet more and to hear each other’s stories. Now, you and us are friends, and we hope you will bring these stories to other people in America.”

 

Can hope survive amidst so much pain?  I asked Mr. Đao Đình Hùng, deputy chairperson of VAVA Quảng Ngãi, this question as we sat in the small VAVA office in Quảng Ngãi. A large map on one wall showed colored markings where deadly herbicides had been sprayed during the war. Almost the entire area of South Việt Nam is colored by these markings. Another wall is covered with photos of the victims of Agent Orange. Many are just young children, the third generation to suffer. It takes courage to look at the photos. The sad eyes of people whose future has been taken away from them by a war which happened long before they were born stare back, begging for understanding and compassion. For some, even the slightest movement is impossible since their bones have deformed so much that their limbs have become useless. As I looked at the photos, I felt an anger rising up inside me. An anger that human beings seem to put so much energy and resources into producing these deadly poisons and then close their eyes and hearts when called upon to help take responsibility. Really, can there be any hope when billions are spent on weapons to destroy and movements for healing and peace struggle to do their work with only a pittance to cover the costs?

 

“For the future I have hope for many things,” said Mr. Hung. “One is that this issue will go back to the courts in the U.S. to raise awareness in America of the suffering of these Agent Orange victims. We need the American government and the companies to recognize the pain of the people here and help us care for them.” 

 

This is a hand of friendship being stretched across the ocean with the hopes that we will grasp it in true humility and offer ourselves as partners in healing. A handshake requires two hands:  One offered and one accepting. Sometimes both hands are offering and accepting at the same time.

 

 

When Victims Become Healers

On August 10, 1961, U.S. forces started their toxic chemical spraying in Việt Nam. Forests and crop fields were left bare and desolate by herbicides with such colorful names as Agent Orange, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, and Agent White. Almost 50 years later, the land is producing again. Fields of rice wave in the afternoon breezes and hillsides are again covered with trees giving cover to animals and insects that for so many years had no place to forage for food. It is easy to forget that, within the beauty of nature regaining its presence in Quảng Ngãi Province, the poisons remain. Some streams with crystal-clear water support no fish and many fields of rice are thin and yellowish in color. Most sadly, children continue to be born with severe mental and physical disabilities. For those of us living half-a-world away it may be easy to pick up a good book or turn on a television show and pretend that the war in Việt Nam never happened, but for the people of Việt Nam, the reminders of those tragic years of unnecessary violence are always in front of them, not just in their memories but in the lives of the many people suffering the effects of unexploded ordinance and herbicide poisons.

 

How do we bring healing and happiness into this sorrow?  Perhaps we cannot. The healing and happiness that is so vital to all of us may, instead, come from the victims themselves.

 

Mr. Hồ Quy Cây is now 72 years old. He joined the North Vietnamese army in 1953 and moved North according to the requirements of the Geneva Agreements of 1954 to await the elections which were to reunify the country in 1956. When these elections were prevented, with U.S. support, the war began.

 

In 1961, Mr. Cây went back south, where he lived in the forested mountain areas as a soldier. He met his wife there and they were married in 1969. Both Mr. Cay and his wife were affected directly by the spraying of Agent Orange. As the years went by, they had six children together. Four of these children suffered serious mental and physical damage, probably the result of Agent Orange poisoning. Three of the children died and the fourth, now 33 years old, has the mind of a small child and requires constant care.

 

Mr. Cây himself suffers severe health problems which are almost certainly toxin related. Recently he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The U.S. Institute of Medicine has determined that respiratory cancers as well as Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, prostate cancer, and type 2 diabetes can be the result of exposure to Agent Orange. When the Quảng Ngãi Việt Nam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) was established in 2005, he was invited to head the office and its activities. Despite health problems and responsibilities to care for his own daughter, Mr. Cây accepted the invitation. He says that despite being old he took on this responsibility because he has empathy for the victims of Agent Orange and wants to help them in some way. Almost all of the VAVA staff in Quảng Ngãi are retired army officers and most suffer the effects of toxin poisoning.

 

Every afternoon after work Mr. Cây returns home to take his daughter for a ride around the city. Only after having this time together with her father will she sleep at night. If he works late, she waits until he returns home to spend time with her.

 

All day, Mr. Cây’s wife is busy taking care of their daughter: washing, feeding, and keeping her occupied. They have tried many ways to help her. “We have taken her to Hà Nội for operations and brought her to many different hospitals,” he said. “But nothing seems to help her.”

 

Regardless of the difficulties Mr. Cây and his family face, he remains dedicated to helping other victims of Agent Orange and of building bridges across the oceans for friendship and solidarity with people in America. He seeks not only healing for his daughter and other people who have lost their mental and physical capacities because of the war, but he also seeks healing of the relationship between the people of Việt Nam and the United States. Even though Mr. Cây is a victim of Agent Orange, he works as a healer.

 

We tend to feel sorry for victims. The word itself suggests powerlessness and even hopelessness. Victims are people we need to help and to save. This concept was recently challenged by a friend in India, who said, “We must see in the victims the power to bring reconciliation and healing.”  Mr. Cây and many other victims of Agent Orange are good examples of this. If we allow them to, they can help bring healing to us and to our world. We must go to the victims to find our own healing. As we share with them in their healing process, we too are healed, and as we are healed, the world experiences healing. Is this not what the cross calls us to? 

 

On August 10 of each year, the day that herbicide spraying was first used against the people of Việt Nam, the victims of Agent Orange/dioxin hold Memorial Day celebrations throughout the country. Art exhibits, drama performances, and music concerts bring laughter and joy to communities. Through this celebration, we can go to the victims themselves to seek the power and vision needed for healing to come to this world. I invite you to join with them, and allow the victims to become our healers.

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