Viet Nam’s Reality A Warning

To the Editors:

Most days Viet Nam shocks me. After the nightmare
that was September 11, many Vietnamese, even strangers, came up to me to express their sincere sympathy. Students, teachers, and new friends held Vietnamese newspapers with grainy photos of the former World Trade Center, and said, as if someone had died, “I’m so sorry.” Weeks later when I’m finally able to write this I’m again struck by the seemingly divine forgiveness in the fact that that so many Vietnamese have compassion for a country that, besides killing more than two million of its citizens, dumped more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange on about 4.5 million acres of countryside. A 1996 Report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine suggested that Agent Orange can cause cancers of the brain, bladder and gastrointestinal system, and that there is “sufficient evidence of an association” between the chemical and lymph node cancer, the skin disease chloracne and connective tissue cancer. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs goes even further to link Agent Orange with military service-related disabilities.
Veterans may now receive compensation for up to ten equally horrific diseases, including Hodgkin’s Disease, which can start from almost any organ in the body and then spread to the liver, bone marrow and spleen, multiple myeloma, prostrate, and lung and other respiratory cancers. It must have come as a great surprise to soldiers on both sides that in defense of their country they came into contact with a defoliant so toxic as to worm insidiously through their bodies, spreading cancer at every turn.
Last week on a ferry across the Mekong Delta I saw
the disastrous effects of Agent Orange handed down from
one generation to the next. A young boy, I guessed he was
about 12 years old, walked slowly from truck to tourist van to car, offering his face as an unspoken, but sorrowful plea for charity. Living in Ho Chi Minh City where scores of amputees, burn victims and other assorted legacies of war snake their way through the city begging for small change, I had almost gotten used to the sight. But something about this boy caught me off-guard. His face was so badly burned that it was stretched taut, locking his lips in a permanent “O,” as if he would spend his life forever gasping for air. I was so shocked and distracted by his features I forgot all about the ice-cold Pepsi and mineral water he was hawking. No more than 12 years old, he was much too young to be a direct participant in “the war,” the thirty-year period starting in 1945 in which Viet Nam fought off three imperialist powers — Japan, France and finally the United States. It seemed safe to assume that his deformity had been passed on to him by his parents. What struck me is the magnitude of pity I felt for this boy.
First, regardless of the leader his parents supported, the use of chemical warfare seems ethically indefensible. Chemically maiming an enemy’s population will produce both physical scars as well as scars of the psyche for generations to come.
Second, as disturbing as his defects were, I was equally mortified by my own response to him. Though he stood outside our minibus for about one minute, my head recoiled after a brief glance. Heeding the wisdom of polite society, I knew enough not to stare. Yet I wonder the implications of not staring, of glossing over uncomfortable situations to paint rosy pictures of the larger world. In the United States it is relatively easy to avoid the painful reminder of the Viet Nam War. Veterans who suffer from violent war-related trauma are cloistered in VA hospitals. For those with more subtle shock, etiquette dictates that we should never raise the subject. To honor the dead, we have a sober granite memorial in our nation’s capital. If one wants to take an orderly, even logical approach to reacting to this painful period in our past, this is possible. One can be certain that even the most heated political debate about the conflict, which cost the U.S. 57,000 lives, compared with over two million Vietnamese dead, will not bring further bloodshed.
In Ho Chi Minh City one is constantly barraged by both the ideological reasons for preserving Viet Nam’s national identity and the haunting phsyical reminder of war, the quadruply-padded amputees who pull themselves by their elbows through the grimy streets of former Saigon. Every day here I see examples of humanity at its lowest: blind men with useless eyes rolled back into their head, being led around by children or grandchildren, dependent on strangers’ charity; prostitutes working the corner near our guest house, an entire class of society introduced to serve the American GIs 40 years ago and who remain today as a thriving social evil; swarms of children six and seven years old selling lotto tickets for a dime a ticket, taking a small percentage of that as commission. This is the winning side, remember.
I write these words not to limit myself to the particular circumstances which affect Viet Nam, but rather as a call for renewed caution as the United States moves to respond to the events of Sept. 11. I know that the young boy bears the legacy of a conflict he knew no part of, but will continue to haunt him, and his country, for years to come. Much has been written about the appropriate American response to what we have unironically called an “American” tragedy. If we continue to envision the attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon as a strictly “American” catastrophe then we blind ourselves to the physical and psychic wounds that result when we meet terror with more terror. The attack was not just an attack on the American way of life, or even on freedom or democracy, but it was as much a reminder of the unintended consequences when we use any means necessary to protect those symbols of America. The United States is in a position to break the cycle of terror. Let us hope that we continue to imagine our enemy, consider the faces of the future amputees and proceed with the utmost restraint.

–Ben Gleason
College senior

October 5
October 12

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