Part of The Forgotten Crimes Series
To see an oppressive dictatorship make use of chemical weapons is harrowing enough yet it is even more so when you see a democratic country not only use it but seek to completely justify it. Lasting from 1962 until 1971, Operation Ranch Hand was a codename for the U.S chemical warfare program in South Vietnam aimed at depriving the insurgent Viet Cong of food and concealment.
The ecological impact of the operation was substantial. Some 20 million gallons of herbicide chemicals, enough to fill some 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools, was sprayed over the country as well as parts of Laos and Cambodia. This resulted in the destruction of roughly 3.1 million hectares of forests, an area equal in size to the country of Belgium.
Yet, even greater was the damage done to the country’s agriculture. The military wanted to starve out the Viet Cong, even if it meant millions of innocent Vietnamese becoming collateral. 10 million hectares of agricultural land were rendered unusable, contributing to famine and destroying large portions of the rural economy. Millions become displaced from their villages and forced into crippling poverty.
Resolutions were launched in the UN against the use of chemicals such as Agent Orange and Agent Blue in Vietnam. The U.S government managed to defeat the majority of these resolutions, justifying their use by categorizing the chemicals as herbicides and arguing that they did not directly target human beings.
Due to the lasting nature of these toxic compounds, rehabilitating many of the affected areas has proved to be extremely difficult (or impossible). Even today, carcinogenic dioxins such as TCDD and 2,4,5-T continue to make their way into the food chain, impacting not just the health of wildlife but also domestic animals and the humans who consume them. In some places, the concentration of TCDD levels remains millions of times above than what is considered safe for humans.
It is estimated today that up to 3 million Vietnamese, spanning four generations, suffer from birth defects or other health problems as a result of exposure to these chemicals. Many of them continue to live in absolute poverty. For its role, the U.S government continues to deny granting any compensation to Vietnamese victims, maintaining it cannot be proven their cancers or disabilities were caused by the chemicals despite numerous studies having shown otherwise.
Many Americans too suffered from exposure. In Vietnam, soldiers were lied to that the chemicals were completely harmless. Only after returning from the war, were many made aware of the damage that was done to their health. Among a significant portion of Vietnam war veterans, a substantially higher risk of cancer, nerve, skin, and respiratory has been documented as well as severe birth defects among their children. It is estimated as many as 300,000 veterans may have died from toxic exposure – almost 5 times the numbers who died in combat in the war.
For decades, veterans with Agent Orange-related diseases were denied compensation by the U.S government. Only in 1991, was their plight officially recognized as genuine. Yet even today many of the victims (or their surviving families) still remain uncompensated.