The politics of Agent Orange
The United States sprayed Vietnam with roughly 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant that contains dioxin. Laboratory tests on animals link dioxin to birth defects, cancer, infertility, and miscarriage as well as to damage to the liver and to the nervous and immune systems.77
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was responsible for the decision to use Agent Orange. Perhaps no other decision of the war cut deeper scars on the nation’s postwar nerves. Was it motivated by the insensitivity of male power? Let’s look.
Zumwalt was opposed to the Vietnam War. He was nevertheless put in charge of the in-country naval forces in Vietnam. After sending off hundreds of boys who were ambushed by Vietnamese soldiers hiding in the intense jungle cover, and seeing only their forms return in body bags, he learned that Agent Orange could destroy the jungle cover and reduce deaths from ambushes.78 At the time, the negative effects of Agent Orange were not revealed to him, but to this day, Zumwalt feels the decision saved more lives than it cost – despite what happened later.
Soon after Zumwalt s decision, his own son, Elmo, Jr., was exposed to the Agent Orange and contracted cancer. (A generation later, his grandson was born with multiple birth defects.) Elmo Jr.’s reaction? He bought insurance policies and struggled to stay alive for the three years it would take for the insurance benefits to kick in for his family.79 He then arranged to have his wife’s brother pull the plug once the three years were up. He wanted to give his wife his insurance benefits yet spare his wife the agony of pulling the plug. 5o be arranged for another man to live with that agony.
Did he blame his dad? No. He said, "Certainly thousands, including me, are alive today because of his decision to use Agent Orange."**0
When we think of the top military brass, we think of power; we rarely consider the internal hell experienced by the Zumwalts of the world who find themselves making decisions that cripple their sons and grandsons for a cause they oppose.
Throughout history we have assigned men to live with the hell of making decisions that killed one man so two could live. Few men consider it a feeling of power to explain that to the parents of the dead boy. And yet, just as God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son to prove his love for God, so Zumwalt experienced the powerlessness of sacrificing his son as he proved his love of country.
Isn’t part of being a man having the courage to voice opposition? Fart. Elmo did speak up. But having done so and last, he, like all the military, knew his obligation was to serve others – not to have power. He could become a hero, but only within a framework – the framework of serving.81
Today, Admiral Zumwalt is the special advisor to the secretary for veterans affairs, specializing in the issue of Agent Orange. After reviewing every study done on Agent Orange, Zumwalt listed twenty-seven illnesses for which Vietnam vets should be compensated because of the likelihood they were caused by Agent Orange.82 However, only three have received approval. Why?
Zumwalt explains that chemical companies are fearful of acknowledging dioxin as a cancer-producing agent in humans because it is present not only in Agent Orange but in many commercial products as well, and they are afraid of civilian lawsuits. There’s astonishing evidence, though, that the resistance runs much deeper than chemical companies.
In 1987, when the Center for Disease Control was conducting a study of the link between Agent Orange and various diseases, the study was suddenly cancelled, reportedly as a result of the White House strategy to deny federal liability. This was pan of a decade-long struggle in which veterans groups claimed everyone was trying to deny the connection for fear of liability’. The government and chemical companies denied that was the reason. Who’s right? Here is a clue.
Almost overnight the decade of deadlock was broken. A bill was signed into law to compensate Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.83 Stunningly, the vote in the House was 412 to 0.w Why? Saddam Hussein was threatening to use chemical or biological substances against U. S. troops. Suddenly the United States wanted to link Agent Orange to cancer and wanted to establish a precedent for guaranteed compensation because Saddam Hussein would be paying the bill. So the bill provided for new studies and guaranteed compensation.85 This reasoning was not kept a secret.
In brief, when it appeared that American companies or the American government might have to pay the bill, everything was done to avoid the connection between Agent Orange and cancer and thus avoid payments. When it appeared that Saddam Hussein might pay the bill, everything was done to make the connection and establish a precedent for guaranteed payments. Perhaps there is a no more poignant statement about our attitude toward men’s lives. (The turnabout was blatant enough to make a cynic blush.)
Who’s to blame? In the final analysis, the U. S. is us. When women request to use a chemical and it does damage (as with Thalidomide), we create the political atmosphere. to guarantee that women win their lawsuits. When men have no option but to be exposed to chemicals, we hesitate to compensate.
The women s movement has tagged the military as the “warrior elite.’’"6 The warrior elite, though, is less an elite class than a servant class, less an elite class than a dead class.
When Zumwalt wrote a book about his experience, he said, “There was one universal aspect of being a Vietnam veteran that 1 shared with all the others: our silence about serving in that war."87
My purpose in writing this book is, similarly, to bring men out of isolation – and, therefore, out of the drugs, divorce, depression, and suicide that are isolation’s false alternatives. Talk about learned helplessness. To this day, the military elite has done little to help itself.