Last Ghost: Scientific, Environmental, And Social Legacies Of Agent Orange In Vietnam

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In August of 2016, I attended the International Scientific Seminar on Agent Orange/Dioxin, held in Hanoi, at the invitation of veteran activist Phung Tuu Boi, who contributed a paper on his efforts in landscape restoration in the remote A Luoi Valley over the past 50 years. Boi and a handful of colleagues were among the first scientists to do research on the environmental impacts of the toxic defoliant following the war, but such concerns were later eclipsed by more urgent questions about human health impacts and remediating hotspots where people were exposed to dioxin during the war and for many years after it. As a landscape designer looking for perspective on postwar landscapes more broadly, I was particularly struck by the seminar’s dual themes of “environment” and “public health,” an attempt to approach the very charged questions of causality and responsibility from their two opposed domains (the natural and the social) and find the always elusive point of contact between them.

The scientific conference seemed to be symbolic of a larger political shift — that after decades of stalemate, American, Vietnamese, and other international authorities had finally found some common ground for productive dialogue and cooperation. The event was organized by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), an advocacy group notorious for its attempt in 2004 to sue U.S. chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange including Monsanto and Dow Chemical. The official excuse for inaction, in that case and in all those preceding it, was a supposed absence of definitive proof of Agent Orange’s harmful effects on human health, a problem that is easily exacerbated by a lack of transparency or scientific rigor, as well as propaganda, corruption, and even cases of fraud. In response to this inaction from the U.S. government responsible, VAVA members found it necessary to build a forum for investigators and activists to construct and compare their own evidence. Unsurprisingly, some of the most visible advocates for the consequences of Agent Orange are not expert scientists, but political organizers — which is not to say that there is no factual basis for the claims or that those working on Agent Orange are motivated by political reasons alone. The reality of a messy rather than objective science does, however, illuminate the problematic role that science as a discipline has played in politics, from the development of Agent Orange as a means of control over nature itself to contemporary environmental policies designed for the control of people and society.

Vo Funambulist 5
An Agent Orange landscape in transition: Former A So Special Forces base and Agent Orange Museum. / Photographs by Ylan Vo (2016).

The war between the United States and Vietnam, fought primarily between 1961 and 1975, remains the archetypal example of war-related environmental abuses that continue to impact natural ecologies and economies long after the conflict itself has ceased. Agent Orange was deployed as part of a broader strategy by the U.S. military to damage the environment its enemy depended on for cover and sustenance, and between 1965 and 1971, up to 12.1 million gallons (41 million liters) of the chemical were sprayed over the forests and farmland of South Vietnam. Though Agent Orange has in recent years become a subject of intense focus by the media, national governments, and humanitarian efforts, the language surrounding its effects — from the ongoing “contaminations” in the environment to the “deformities” in the human figure it causes — cannot adequately capture the full scope of what we talk about when we talk about Agent Orange. Our reliance on science has limited us to looking for particular material evidence, without recognizing the embedded roles of representation and the social as well.

Considering the popular story of Agent Orange as a phenomenon, there is a simultaneous reduction and amplification that occurs that links local and global scales, while also moving between the material and the representational. Building knowledge or evidence requires a reduction — narrowing of vision to an otherwise complex and difficult reality. This brings it needed measurement and materiality, but is amplified through the ability to generalize so a phenomenon becomes legible at social and political scales. Rather than only seeking certainty through science, we should examine from the perspective of the landscape for an expanded understanding of impacts and evidence.