For Me, A Night of Sadness, Anger and Partial Redemption

by Jack Dalton, disabled veteran of the American War on Vietnam

Wednesday, December 7, 2005, I went to Portland State University’s Multi-Cultural Center to hear a presentation by three people from Vietnam, who are a part of the group of Vietnamese seeking reparations from this country over its use of Agent Orange. It turned out to be a night I will never forget, for many reasons and on many levels.

Mrs. DANG THI HONG NHUT. 69; Mr. HO SY HAI, 61; Dr. NGUYEN TRONG NHAN, 75 were the three speakers at the presentation. A brief bio of each of them can be read here:

There was a forth man who was supposed to accompany these three on their presentation here in the U.S., bringing the issue of Agent Orange use in Vietnam, and its disastrous consequences on the Vietnamese people over the years, to us the American people.–Mr. NGUYEN MUOI — born August 10, 1983, suffers from spina bifida. His father, NGUYEN DINH THANH, born April 10, 1946, was a former soldier in the former South Vietnamese army (ARVN) who was exposed to toxic chemicals in approximately June 1970. Mr. THANH suffered from headaches, nausea and vomiting, colic, and dyspnea. Nguyen Muoi’s mother had two miscarriages in 1974 and 1976. His visa was denied by the U.S. government.

It was really difficult to sit thru the slide and film presentation, detailing exactly what the over 20 million gallons of Agent Orange has done to Vietnam; what it has, and is doing to the Vietnamese people right now, today. But sit thru it I did; mostly thru tear filled eyes. They were the tears of sadness that come with the realization of just exactly what this country has done to the Vietnamese people and their land.

It was very difficult to listen to Mrs. Dang Thi Hong Nhut when she was speaking. She talked of things I have first hand knowledge of—torture! She talked of the over 6 years she was held as a “prisoner” by U.S. and ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) during which she was tortured repeatedly. The torturing of those in captivity in Vietnam was not simply “bad apples” acting on their own in Vietnam any more than the torture of those in captivity in Iraq are a result of just a “few bad apples”–the entire apple barrel is rotten! Never again is here again! Actually, “never again” never went away.

Mr. Ho Sy Hai was a supply truck driver in the North Vietnamese Army. He was driving supplies from the North to the South thru Quang Tri Province in 1965 and 1966. I wondered, with deep anguish, if it was me and my friends who sprayed him with Agent Orange. I broke into tears again as I sat and listened to him…and struggled with my sense of responsibility that it may have been me who left him in the condition he is in with cancer—or the miscarriages his wife has had; or the three children he has that thru the father were crippled by Agent Orange? Who knows, that area was a madhouse. But then that’s what war is, one great big madhouse—Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” come to life. Great guilt, great sadness…

That guilt and sadness did not last long however, as it was replaced by anger:

Anger at having allowed myself to be so deceived, like so many others, into believing that the Vietnamese, in their own country, were our “enemies” and as such deserved anything we did to them—like chemical warfare. For that was, and is, what Agent Orange usage is–Chemical Warfare—think War Crime on a grand scale (as it is now in Iraq and Afghanistan with the use of Depleted Uranium—chemical/nuclear warfare).

Anger at learning this nation we call America, knew from day one what Agent Orange was and what it would do to human beings. We know this from the statement of Dr. James R. Clary (among many others), a former senior scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch (Air Force Armament Development Lab in Florida) who wrote:

“When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960’s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher concentration than the civilian version due to lower costs and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned.”“

The racism inherent in this quote characterizes the continued use of Agent Orange against the Vietnamese people and the failure to compensate them.” They didn’t care about the Vietnamese, and they sure didn’t care much about us either, as they knew we were all being poisoned at the same time. But then when I was in Vietnam my friends and I didn’t care about the Vietnamese either—would that that could be taken back! They didn’t care then, and the “they’s” today don’t care. We must make them care.

Two U.S. zoologists went to Vietnam in 1969 and then wrote:

“The chemical weapons of a technologically advanced society are being used massively for the first time in a guerilla war… [Our] military efforts are aimed at increasing the toll of fatalities, denying food to the enemy, and depriving him of the concealment provided by natural growth. This type of warfare is, therefore, enormously destructive, both on human life and the environment.”

Agent Orange was not the only chemical used on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people during the American War on Vietnam. Not by a long shot. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to start the destruction of Vietnam by chemicals. John F. Kennedy built on what Eisenhower started when in 1961/62 he signed off on Operation Ranch Hand. That took the chemical spraying of Vietnam to an all new level. It also included other “agents” such as Agent Blue; Agent Pink; Agent White; Agent Green. You could tell which was which from the color of the band around the 55 gallon drum (each with skull and cross-bones on it).

“Teams of international scientists working in Vietnam have now discovered that Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD which, 28 years after the fighting ended, remains in the soil, continuing to destroy the lives of those exposed to it. Evidence has also emerged that the US government not only knew that Agent Orange was contaminated, but was fully aware of the killing power of its contaminant dioxin, and yet still continued to use the herbicide in Vietnam for 10 years of the war and in concentrations that exceeded its own guidelines by 25 times. As well as spraying the North Vietnamese, the US doused its own troops stationed in the jungle, rather than lose tactical advantage by having them withdraw.” (Specter Orange; Guardian LTD; 3-29-03)

The greatest evil we do is to deny the evil we do:

When we as American’s fail, no, refuse to seriously look at, balance, weigh and judge those things our governing body does in our names we are complicit in all that is done. If what is done is wrong, illegal, criminal—we as a people, as a nation, are equally guilty of those crimes. Silence is acceptance; acquiesce; the greatest sedition after all, is silence is it not?

It is way past time for the silence on what this nation did to the Vietnamese people during the American War on Vietnam to end; and end it must! In the process of poisoning the Vietnamese people, their land, their water, we also poisoned ourselves. This is always the result of being, or rather “allowing” ourselves to be lied and deceived into war. That is true about the invasion and occupation of Iraq today, just as it was and is true about American War on Vietnam. Both were based on lies and deceptions on a grand scale. No one wins in war—everyone loses, and the cost is always very high and it always last for decades.

35 years ago, Daniel Ellsberg, in the “Pentagon Papers” told us the event that led to full blown war on Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in fact did not occur! Ellsberg was attacked by government and media pundits over this (sound familiar?). Some of us knew he was right. Today, we have absolute proof of the deception; just as we have the proof of the foreknowledge of what Agent Orange (dioxin) would do to the people who come in contact with it—like thru massive aerial spraying.

My thoughts on our national and individual responsibility

Maybe my own Agent Orange caused myriad diseases and illnesses are simply the dues to be paid for being so willing, at that time, to be deceived and sound the horn of “American Exceptionalism” and volunteer to go to Vietnam. So many contaminated; so many of my friends now dead from Agent Orange. As I wrote in a letter to my girlfriend while on my way to Vietnam: “…I’m going…to kill a commie for Christ…” and went on to say, “…don’t want them here, so I’ll help take them out there…”

I’m not making this up; I was a real gung-ho flag waver then. She gave the letter to her father who gave it to one of the editors of the Oakland Tribune (I’m originally from the S.F/Oakland Bay Area), who printed it on the front of the society page (1965)—Local Marine Supports Vietnam War, or something to that effect. This also has a today’s “familiar ring” (Iraq) does it not, soldiers in support of the war they are in? That letter still haunts me today.

Today I know this: what Agent Orange is doing to the Vietnamese people concerns me a lot more than what it has and is doing to me personally. That stems from a sense of responsibility and a little guilt. This nation’s refusal to acknowledge the horrendous ongoing problems Vietnam is faced with, that the people are faced with due to the years of massive Agent Orange usage is way above just an outrage. It’s a continuation of that which has yet to end—the American War on Vietnam! To bring it to an end, we must of necessity as a nation, face what we have done, accept the responsibility for our actions, and then do something to address that responsibility, in real terms–reparations to the people of Vietnam. In the name of our common humanity alone, this is demanded. Nothing less is acceptable, period, end of story on that point!

Consequences, there are always consequences and dues to be paid; action-reaction ‘kinda’ thing. This has nothing to do with forgiveness and everything to do with consequences of actions, whether intentional or not. It’s about assuming and accepting responsibility for our actions, pure and simple.

We must do this, supporting Vietnamese reparations; not seeking forgiveness–No, No. If seeking forgiveness from them is behind the support, wrong reason. We must do this because as a nation, as a ‘people’ what we did to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people was WRONG! It was, and is, by all international standards, and common human decency, a war crime. That’s what chemical warfare is, and that’s what Agent Orange use is, chemical warfare. And not living up to our responsibilities to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people who have, and are suffering so greatly, is an obscene act of betrayal. And maybe in the process of standing with them in this fight for justice, we can get justice for Agent Orange contaminated veterans in this country. It is after all the very same fight against the same government is it not?

30 years ago they were promised $3 billion by our government to help Vietnam clean up the mess we created—to this day the people of Vietnam have not seen one penny of that money. What does that say about us? Why do we continue to sit back and watch our nation’s government fail to fulfill the pledge that was made to the people of Vietnam? The broken promises to us here, the U.S. veterans of that war by this nation are for another essay.
The Vietnamese have appealed a recent Federal Courts denial of their claim. That appeal should be heard sometime in March 2006. We cannot let these people be forgotten when they go back to Vietnam, to hold their ‘breath and wait’ for justice; while they attend the sick, the dying, the deformed and crippled from Agent Orange contamination—that which we as a nation did to them. This is our responsibility and we cannot turn away or walk away from this, period!

When we left Vietnam we left it a killing field—those not poisoned by Agent Orange get blown up by all the unexploded U.S. ordinance and land mines, what a legacy.

What the evening meant to me personally

Two men met each other that night, one, a former North Vietnamese soldier, the other a ‘former’ U.S. Marine. In 1965/66 they fought as enemies. 40 years later they met in Portland, OR. and came away from that not as enemies, but as two men who were born in the same year, hurt and damaged by the same war, in the same places at the same time, who tightly held each other–and I wept.

I went there seeking forgiveness for that which I would not forgive myself; I came away, not with forgiveness, but with something much, much more. Something I could not put into words if I tried—and I have tried. I’ll simply say that when I left that night, it was with something in me that I had left in Vietnam many years ago—I think it was a part of my soul. And it was, in part, given back to me by a man I once considered an enemy, thru his embrace. I will never forget Mr. Ho Sy Hai. I will never again fail to focus on the Vietnamese when discussing Agent Orange as I have done in the past.

Closing Questions

Invading Army’s all have said the same thing about the people in the country they have invaded—they are the enemy, usually in very racist terms. Today this is being repeated in Iraq. How absurd! We that went to Vietnam were betrayed by those who sent us by their lies and deceptions, as was the nation. Those who have been sent to Iraq have been betrayed by those who sent them, much as we were…

When will we ever keep “never again” from continuing to happen again? When will this nation be willing to accept responsibility for its actions—or better stated when we will as individuals be willing to accept the responsibility for those things done in our names?

We had best answer those questions real soon as “never again” is still with us.

Jack Dalton is a disabled veteran of the American War on Vietnam. He is an independent writer and political activist who is widely published on the internet. He was also a contributing writer in the recently published, Neo-Connded!Again! Published by IHS Press. His blog is Jack’s Straight-Speak and his email address is: