Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 9, 2021

The People vs Agent Orange

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Just by coincidence, the documentary “The People Vs. Agent Orange” that opened on March 6th in virtual theaters could have easily been released to coincide with International Women’s Day that is celebrated on March 8th. The film is a profile of two women who have dedicated their lives to terminating the use of a deadly chemical herbicide that cost the lives of both Americans and Vietnamese. You might rightly assume that the Americans were GI’s serving in Vietnam like Leo Cawley, an economist who hosted “Fearful Symmetry” on WBAI-FM in the late 80s—the best program on a network that has lost its way. Leo died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant, the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange when he was a marine in Vietnam.

But you didn’t have to be in Vietnam to get sick or die from Agent Orange. Unbelievably, after its use was banned in 1971, it eventually was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Western Oregon upon the soil that once held millions of trees. After they were cut down, Agent Orange was used to kill the weeds left behind as an aid to reforestation.

Around that time, a woman named Carol Van Strum moved close to the forest with her four young children in a kind of “back to nature” retreat so common in the 60s and 70s as people my age sought a healthy and more spiritual life. Not long after building a house and a barn for the animals she was raising, the children began to complain about various illnesses that remained a mystery. It was only after driving her car closer to the clear cut forest that she noticed a sickly odor. Suspecting the worst, she took samples from the soil and water, sent it off to a lab, and finally learned that entire area was drenched with Agent Orange, whose main toxin is called dioxin. The EPA, which tends to give back-handed support to corporations like Dow Chemical that manufacture it, categorizes it as a carcinogen. As soon as she discovered the source of her children’s ailments, as well as others living near the forest, she went on a crusade against the corporations and the “experts” who sanctioned the poisonous herbicide.

One of these experts was Mike Newton, a Professor of Forest Ecology at Oregon State University College in Corvallis, OR, who labeled Dioxin as harmless in an article titled “I’ve Had More Exposure To Agent Orange Than Anyone: Here’s What I Know” that can be read on the American Council on Science and Health website. There you will find other pearls of wisdom such as “Prominent Anti-GMO Activist Changed His Mind After Learning The Science” and “(Nuclear) power to the people!”.

The film’s other fearless heroine is Tran To Nga, who is a septuagenarian like Van Strum. She comes from a family that opposed both the French and American colonizers, first as leaders in the Viet Minh and then with the NLF. Nga was in the Vietnamese forests when American planes were showering them with Agent Orange. As a result, her first-born child died in infancy. Her health has been affected as well. Long after the war ended, her body contains traces of Dioxin that some scientists view as much of a threat to human health for generations as plutonium.

She is now suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her in Vietnam – a lawsuit she filed in 2014 against the corporations that produced and sold the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The suit includes U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer.

The film was co-directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. In the press notes, the directors state:

Documents are a leitmotif.  Storms, rain and flowing surface water are a recurring visual theme that evokes the lethal dioxin run-off and dioxin contamination.   Similar images tie together the contamination of Vietnam and America’s Pacific Northwest as helicopters spray the ancient mangrove forests of Vietnam and Oregon’s majestic conifers. The scenes of the deformed and handicapped Vietnamese child victims, difficult as they are to watch and as sensitively as we try to present them, are a stark testimony to the film’s core message. We chose not to shy away from images the world might rather not see. They are indelible evidence of corporate greed and man’s inhumanity to man.

I doubt I will see a documentary this year that is more powerful and more urgent than this one.

3 Comments »

  1. Antiwar veteran Michael Uhl wrote a book titled “The War I Survived Was Vietnam.” Michael helped spearhead a campaign to expose the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. In a review I wrote of this book for Counterpunch, I said,

    “An especially interesting subsection of the book is devoted to Agent Orange, including excerpts from the author and Tod Ensign’s impassioned and informative 1980 book, GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War: Agent Orange and Atomic Radiation. I especially recommend “The Ranch Hands: ‘Only We Can Prevent Forest Fires,’” an exposé of the origins and implementation of the campaign to poison by defoliation the Vietnamese countryside. The program, initiated by President Kennedy, was originally named Operation Hades but was ultimately christened the less diabolical but still macabre Operation Ranch Hand. The Air Force personnel who did the flying and spraying were call Ranch Hands. Uhl spoke at length with some of them at one of their annual conventions, and here we learn not only the complicated logistics of the program but also the almost unanimous lack of remorse by the perpetrators of what can only be called chemical warfare. Given the long-lasting and devastating human and environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange, this was far worse than anything the murderous Saddam Hussein did. What is more, most of the Ranch Hands seem unconcerned about their own exposure to Agent Orange; one of them, a colonel no less, actually drank the stuff to show critics it was harmless. We can only hope that he someday suffers the torments of those who have endured its pernicious agonies.”

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — March 10, 2021 @ 12:03 am

  2. From Today’s (3/16,2021) NYT.

    The war that keeps on giving.

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — March 16, 2021 @ 11:34 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: