Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Agent Orange: A Half century Of Pain

Agent Orange.

One of the many terms associated with the Vietnam War that evoke strong and often angry reactions.
Why mention it now, and risk stirring those responses again?
Partly, it's the calendar: August 10 will mark fifty years since the first load of powerful defoliant was sprayed by US forces on the Vietnam landscape in 1961. It was the beginning of what was initially called Operation Hades, then was soon renamed and expanded into Operation Ranch Hand.

The name came from the color of the label on thebarrels; other defoliant ”Agents” used were coded Blue, White, Purple, Pink, and Green. But Agent Orange made up sixty per cent of the sprays.
The idea was that by withering the jungle, Agent Orange would deprive Ho Chi Minh's guerillas of cover. And by withering crops, it would help move rural farmers into towns under the control of the South Vietnamese government.
Over the ten years of Operation Ranch Hand, planes and trucks sprayed some 20 million gallons of such defoliants across parts of Vietnam that added up to an area as large as Massachusetts.

Yet Agent Orange is not only about the painful past. It remains a present specter hanging over many of those who served in the Vietnam War -- and the generations since.

Hundreds of thousands of US troops camped, marched and fought their way through areas heavily sprayed with it. Airmen and sailors handled thousands of barrels of it. And soon after their return home, many veterans began experiencing illnesses, often fatal, that they believed were related to that exposure.
They had good reason for their fears. Most of the defoliant chemicals were contaminated with dioxin, one of the most potent toxic chemicals around. Dioxin has been linked to diabetes, spina bifida and other birth defects, along with various cancers and nerve disorders.

In the US, dioxin made national news in 1978. The Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, New York was found to have been built on a toxic waste dump laced with dioxin.

Surveys showed that as many as half the children born in the neighborhood suffered birth defects or serious childhood illnesses and cancer. Afteryears of local denial, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency there. More than 800 houses were demolished and the families relocated. Love Canal resulted in creation of the federal Superfund program, aimed at cleaning up such toxic sites.

As Love Canal showed, the effects of Agent Orange use in Vietnam were not limited to those who had served there. Among their children, and now grandchildren, there have been higher rates of birth defects and other congenital conditions.
The struggle of these veterans and their families for recognition, treatment, and compensation for Agent Orange-related conditions has been a lengthy and often bitter one. Nor is it over.

But what about the people of Vietnam, who have had to live with the legacy of Agent Orange at close quarters?

Dioxin is a long-lasting toxin. After the rain washes it off the plants, it settles in the soil and the sediment of rivers. There it enters the food chain via fish and ducks, frequent items in the Vietnamese diet.
Their government estimates that up to five million of its people were exposed to long-lived toxic elements of Agent Orange, with up to three million suffering physical symptoms. Many are children and grandchildren of the war generation.

The Vietnam War ended thirty-six years ago. The U.S. Established diplomatic relations with Vietnam sixteen years ago. In 2010, trade between the two nations totaled nearly $19 billion dollars.
In this state of relative amity, Vietnamese support groups have visited the U.S., seeking help from private groups and Congress, and filing lawsuits against the manufacturers.

The lawsuits did not succeed. But their lobbying efforts may have begun to show results. In June, a joint U.S. And Vietnamese government cleanup project waslaunched at the site of the Da Nang airfield, where large quantities of Agent Orange were stored. Da Nang is one of dozens of "hot spots" in Vietnam where wartime toxic contamination lingers at high levels.
Such cleanup efforts have a long way to go -- as does the work of coping with the impact of Agent Orange on US veterans and families.
It has been fifty years since Operation Hades began. For both its American and Vietnamese victims, there has recently been some positive steps taken. But the story of Agent Orange is far from over.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A New Stage in Local Work Against Torture

I've mentioned here before, I think, about how I've been visiting and bearing witness at the monthly Johnston County Commission meetings here in North Carolina, for more than two years now.

Their Johnston County airport is home to Aero Contractors, of "torture taxi" infamy. More on Aero here.
(The company is still going strong BTW.)

This is a very conservative area, and the Commissioners are all Republicans, who usually run without opposition.
Well, something remarkable has happened there, and it came into clear focus during and after last Monday's meeting with the Johnston County Commissioners (JCC).

A colleague who has been there often with me agreed that we seem to have reached a new stage there,
which should offer some new opportunities, and perhaps this "case study" could be of some use to other accountability workers in other parts of the country.

The nub of it is that after two-plus years of monthly visits and careful, polite but pointed colloquies, we appear to have established a high degree of rapport there. Such that when I came in last Monday, some of the commissioners smiled and called me by name, and made cordial small talk. And when the time came to speak, they were both interested and friendly. None seemed to bridle at my clear statements against torture and the JC connections to it.

At the end, it was as if we were leaving a party with old friends. (Actually, it was a bit dis-orienting.)

One Commissioner, who has in the past been very hostile, even said that he had decided the Afghan war was awful and the US should bring all the troops home now and that he was ready to "be a pacifist like Fager."

I think this comment was somewhat in jest (but not entirely: it was sparked by his mention of the awful killings in the wake of the Quran burning in Florida. He didn't seem able to decide which was more awful.) Yet this came from a former Commission Chairman who once told us torture was just fine (as long as the US did it), and that he loved to watch "24."

One other telling statement was from the current Chairman, that if "we gave them something they could do something about, they don't mind acting and doing."

I think this is important because they used to say they WOULDN'T do anything about this, period, no matter what. And while what the Chairman said could be partly another form of an old excuse, I think there's more involved: suppose some of them have heard our cries, and have come to feel that torture IS wrong, and something bad MIGHT be happening at their Johnston County airport?? What in practical terms could they do about it?

The answer is not as easy as it might seem from our perspective ("Investigate Aero!" has been our refrain.) That's because as a practical matter, the county airport largely runs itself, makes its own money. AND it deals with agencies (Aero/CIA) which dwarf the resources of the JCC, and could produce instant blowback if the JCC tried to mess with them directly.

So I sensed a certain subtext to the comment, almost a plea, maybe like this: "We really have much less power than you think, even in our own county; so what else might we do?"

Considering how effective the Torture Establishment has been in closing down the courts, stopping the White House from closing Gitmo or pursuing any accountability, etc., etc., such a sotto voce plea seems quite credible to me.

If some at JCC are starting to question the rightness of torture and Aero's involvement, they must also be feeling trapped: the power structure of which they are a relatively minor, low-level part, is committed, all the way to the top, to upholding the torture system. This is true informally as well as officially: the big local churches, the area banks, all their political cronies, the people they socialize with, have all accepted it. So if our two-plus years of preaching has sown any doubts, how do they get out of this web, this quicksand?

Please don't anybody think I am suggesting that we now give the JCC a pass because they have recently been cordial and friendly to me. Not at all. It's just that we're now at a place where it seems we could present ideas and get a real hearing, and have a real conversation about them. And we've been asked for some options to our traditional "investigate Aero" slogan; so let's step up. (And BTW, I'm still all FOR getting Aero investigated, one way or another.)

They have also shown that they can step outside the box, at least a little. Last month I was at the March JCC meeting, but did not get to speak, because the room and the hallway outside was jammed solid with NRA supporters, up in arms (figuratively, this time) because the JCC was considering a very minor restriction on how close to homes people could fire their weapons.

I stood outside and heard all the stuff about the Second Amendment and fighting crime and the first step toward tyranny, yada yada, some of it from some pretty creepy-looking folks. But after listening carefully and making some adjustments, the Commission faced them down and adopted the restriction unanimously.

During these two-plus years, the visits were often uncomfortable for me; the Commissioners were hostile for a long time. More than once I was angrily denounced by other local folks, and once came close to getting beat up.

That seems to have changed, at least with the Commission members. So in this more open environment, what else can we as accountability activists think of to suggest to them? It looks like a new opportunity is open. How do we make the most of it?

And are there other local authorities where some kind of ongoing witness of dialogue could be undertaken?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Visit To America

Last Monday night in SmithfIeld, North Carolina I spent two hours in the hallway outside the session of the Johnston County Commission. The chamber itself was packed, and the hall around it bulged with 50-75 more folks, mostly SRO.

I was there to talk about torture. Johnston County's airport is home to a notorious CIA front company that makes "torture taxi" flights. You remember, the ones where people are kidnapped and taken to very bad places and have evil things done to them for years, after which most are released without being charged with anything, all courtesy of us US taxpayers.

(Oh, did you think that unpleasantness was all over with, Citizen? Sorry; the company's still in business in this dawning spring of 2011-- in fact it's growing. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.)

Anyway, I've been visiting the Commission's monthly meetings for more than two years. They have a public comments at the close of their sessions, and I take my turn, to remind them about the company, and urge them to take action to end their county's complicity with war crimes.

Very politely, of course; but persistently. So far, they have declined to heed this advice; but they listen, and I'm still trying. That makes me perhaps an optimist or perhaps a fool. (We report, you decide.)

Most Commission meetings deal with humdrum zoning changes--a convenience store here, a used car dealer there-- and the typical turnout is no threat to American Idol TV ratings.

Last Monday night was different. The TV news truck outside was my second clue; the jammed parking lot was the first. I figured they hadn't all come to listen to me. And once I saw the abundance of NRA caps and tee shirts, I hoped not, and
began to think that perhaps mailing in this month's comments might be the better part of valor. But I stayed, waiting to see.

The crowd had gathered because the Commission was considering a rather minimalist ordinance aimed at slightly reining in the wild shooting that goes on in many places in this once almost entirely rural, gun-oriented county. Their uncaged, free range shooting tradition is becoming a problem because a steady stream of suburbanites is moving in, spilling over from the nearby Triangle region.

Along with these newcomers have come plenty of reports about stray bullets crashing through windows, semi-automatic bursts splitting the night, and other unsettling and dangerous incidents, producing hundreds of alarmed calls to the Sheriff's office. But deputies say they had no regulatory leg to stand on.

So the County Commissioners had to do something. Now, they are all conservative Republicans, who are not about to take anybody's guns away. In fact, everybody who spoke Monday swore fealty to the Second Amendment, sacred gun rights and yada yada. Besides which, the county attorney read out a long list of exceptions just added to the ordinance, which to this layperson's ear made it sound as if its mild restrictions only applied during weeks without a Tuesday in them.

Still, amid this overwhelmingly unsympathetic crowd, the ordinance did have a few fans. Early on a young woman spoke passionately of how her husband was killed by somebody's accidental gunshot about a year ago; "my little boy will never know his daddy." Then there were locals who didn't appreciate having to offer kevlar along with baked beans at backyard barbecues. Another couple described the young hotshots who blew thru many of the big clips at a homemade "range" right next door every weekend, waving the guns in all directions.

All three of these speakers, even the bereaved widow, were avowedly "pro-gun," probably loved the cowboy president from Texas. None of which carried any weight with the crowd in the hallway.

One opponent told the Board he had been a scout in Iraq, was wounded in combat there, and warned that the Commission mustn't get in the way of the needed gun training for the 1 per cent like him who make life safe for the rest of us. (You got that? He got a round of applause.)

He was countered by a Korean veteran who also loves his guns, yet dared to speak up in favor of the ordinance after his grown daughter acquired an unplanned bullet hole in her new porch. He spoke firmly, while many in the crowd murmured their unease.

And right behind him was a hardliner who said a flat NO! to any new gun regulations at all, period. (LOUD applause.)

And on it went, till the Commission Chairman patiently said the Commissioners had heard enough and were ready to vote.

They didn't waste time either: the ordinance passed unanimously.

At this the crowd surged from the room, into the hallway and out the door, with much talk about running against the commissioners (who are usually re-elected without opposition). This was my opportunity to slip in behind them and get a seat, torture updates in hand, ready for my cameo.

But when the smoke has just about cleared, the Clerk spots me and says the Board had adjourned the meeting, and I notice that at least three of the seven Commissioners are halfway out the door.

Several others are quite apologetic when they see me, saying they were looking for me but didn't see me. No surprise, given the wall-to-wall crush. After an evening like this one, I might have offered a spell of almost-comic relief, with my novel focus on rendition, torture, and other easy-to-ignore matters.

But I say, no problem. And I mean it quite sincerely. They saw that I came; I'll put the updates in the mail, and be back next month, God (and the NRA) willing.

Am I sorry that the now-vanishing defenders of the iconic gun rights missed the chance to hear me expounding, however briefly, on some other human rights?

Only the tiniest bit. Call me chicken if you want, but hey -- kevlar just makes me look fat. Or fatter. Whatever.