My time in Viet Nam this winter brought me up to date on Agent Orange, a legacy from the Viet Nam war we hear little about any more. According to the Government of Viet Nam more than four million Vietnamese were affected by Agent Orange. The consequence of this poison spraying during the 1960s now can be traced into the 4th generation. Curbing its effects has required special medical programs, and new Peace Villages to treat residual effects including physical deformities like improperly formed arms, legs, or fingers and cancer such as leukemia.
The use of Agent Orange by the US Forces in Viet Nam was the result of strategic thinking including “ethical” reflection that its use would make the war winnable faster and thus would save lives. Those expectations turned out to be wrong. The war was not won. It was not fast. And, American fighters, Vietnamese fighters, civilians and their descendants continue to get sick and die because of it. Agent Orange lingers on reminding the third and fourth generation of the sins of their ancestors. The invention and use of chemical warfare in the 20th century was for a time thought to be a game changer in war making.
In 2003 the US government went into Iraq in part because of that country’s use of chemical weapons on Kurd population centers. The US wanted to eradicate Iraqi chemical weapons. It turned out that chemical weapons could not be found in Iraq (presumably destroyed). Technically Agent Orange is a herbicidal weapon and does not fall under international agreements related to chemical weapons despite the fact that it has created more death and destruction in the last 50 years than mustard gases or nerve agents still in storage at military sites.
Two weeks ago during Holy Week as I watched Predators and Reapers at Creech AFB in Nevada practice touch down and take off, my mind stretched back 40 years to my own days as a civilian volunteer in Viet Nam when for a time I was in denial. I refused to believe that the US would spray chemicals from the air to destroy crops, vegetation and people. I was wrong then and could kick myself for being such a slow learner. I missed it because I thought war strategists would have more concern for civilian victims.
The movement of digitally guided, unmanned systems on the ground, at sea, in the air and space are here for the duration. The technology, like the chemistry of Agent Orange is widely available and components can now or soon will be cobbled together from off the shelf. The players and advocates at the center of the movement are not yet sure of where it is going but I do know that split second decision making, often by young soldiers or civilians, will determine life and death for people. In each major transformation, nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, gunpowder, bows and arrows and others, new development has made war faster, and more deadly than the previous stage of military evolution. The digital age will further enlarge the distance between combatants and victims. There will be human, environmental and probably security costs, now only imagined in science fiction, 40 years down the road.
Today my gut still doesn’t want to believe that this generation of robotic warfare which is at the heart of the US Defence “transformation” is as dangerous as my brain knows it to be. After all I am typing this on a computer and I get really irritated when my internet connection goes down which happens here about once a week. Later, in May, I expect to visit Pakistan where some of the effects of digital warfare and this generation’s “saving lives” technology is being played out among the people.. My brain and my gut may get coordinated as I talk to victims, their families and their leaders who care about them.
In this age of globalization the Government of Viet Nam has welcomed relationships with the US and seeks cooperation to deal with the legacy of Agent Orange. But it can’t deny the agony that the US spraying of Agent Orange has caused Vietnamese people particularly in the South. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City two months ago there were murals and displays that drew attention to the use and continuing effects of Agent Orange. At the Khe Sanh war memorial I saw additional material and in conversations I learned that it was a sizable and continuing health problem. Already in 1966 the North Vietnamese government charged that defoliants like Agent Orange caused congenital deformities in babies. Three years later in 1969 studies at US National Institutes of Health confirmed those findings. And yet the US continued to spray Agent Orange for two more years.
The debilitating health effects of Agent Orange have been carefully documented by Vietnamese scientists and their findings have been supplemented by scientific study elsewhere. The contaminant, dioxin, found in Agent Orange is a carcinogen associated with soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). A link has also been found between exposure to dioxin and diabetes. The US Veterans Administration includes these and other diseases on its web site as presumptive to Agent Orange exposure. Studies of US veterans have found a link between dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to science, and acute myelogenous leukemia in their children. Scientific studies of the effect of dioxin continue.
From 1962-1971, approximately 18 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed on millions of acres in Viet Nam to destroy jungle so that enemy forces could be identified, and to eradicate crops that may support them. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Operation Ranch Hand,” code name for the Agent Orange project, an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese have died or been disabled from defoliants, primarily Agent Orange. Another 500,000 children have been born with birth defects.
As I have studied digitally networked warfare I notice that there are very few people thinking about where this will lead us, in this case all of us in the world. I can understand why any military would want to find the perfect weapon, a weapon that assures victory, kills fewer people particularly your own, does less collateral damage, and maybe even makes fewer people mad. When gun powder was discovered and perfected those who owned it thought they had the perfect weapon. It didn’t work out because over several centuries everyone had gun powder. Today centuries of change are telescoped into a few weeks because of the pace of invention and change.
According to the Bible, the legacy of sins like Agent Orange which are now in the 4th generation can not be expunged, forgiven or made right by human or divine effort until the 7th generation. The people who produced, purchased, shipped, paid for, and flew the C-123 air crafts to apply Agent Orange may or may not have anticipated this generation’s damage and pain that their work had caused. Probably no one warned them. The inventions related to digital warfare arising from a “transformed defence” that integrates the heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, remind me of my loss of innocence over Agent Orange. Now I think I need to participate in a gigantic global effort to place controls on these new magic bullets.
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