Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Ecological Price of War

By Joseph Farley 

 When most people think of Agent Orange they think of the Vietnam War, or Vietnam War movies. They picture choppers spraying herbicides all over the lush green Vietnamese jungle. The military hoped it would kill off vegetation and help smoke out the guerillas from their network of jungle forests and elaborate tunnels and funnel them into the American troop laden areas. This wasn’t very successful; however, it was successful at seriously damaging Vietnam's ecology, as well as many of our own soldiers' health.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the U.S. Air Force to conduct Operation Ranch Hand, a herbicide program with the intent on starving out the guerillas that made fighting in Vietnam so difficult. During the war the United States used over 20 million tons of Agent Orange in Vietnam. This toxic chemical would have long term effects in both the place it was used and the places where it was produced. The obvious damage was to the people, the crops, and the overall health of the land in Vietnam, long term effects of which are still around today. These are war crimes, as chemical war was against international law at the time of their spraying, according to the Geneva Protocol.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the United States Congress took some responsibility and allocated $32 million to aid in the cleanup of Vietnam, mainly the Da Nang airfield base. This cleanup is on going.

Overlooked are the serious health effects the spraying had on our own country. Seemingly healthy young soldiers would return home and many were diagnosed with strange chemically induced type cancers. For example, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was a real problem for many of our service men and women coming home.

These herbicides also did a lot of damage in the areas they were made, producing a toxic by product, dioxin. Factories in Newark, NJ, along the Passaic River, produced much of the Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. These dioxins made their way into the Passaic River and have been making their way up and down the river with the tides for decades since. Recently, a major cleanup was done in Lyndhurst, with much of the dioxins being located in the sediment and soil on the edge of the river, only feet away from an active park. The site was cleaned and capped, with more work to be done, but there is only so much that can be done once these chemicals have been leaked in massive quantities.

War always has a price, and multiple ecosystems have been writing the checks ever since Operation Ranch Hand.

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