Agent Orange Causes Blindness

Agent Orange, the herbicide used as a weapon by US military forces in Vietnam for nearly a decade to defoliate vast stretches of inhabited forest and jungle in an effort to deprive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces of both cover and a supportive populace, has long been known to have caused a large number of serious and debilitating diseases, many of them passed on to children of those exposed. But now it also appears to cause a peculiar blindness among American journalists.

This is demonstrably the case at the New York Times, where a report in Saturday's edition on new Agent Orange links being found to Parkinson's Disease and ischemic heart disease noted that it could lead to many more Vietnam War Era veterans being eligible for disability benefits and treatment, but completely failed to mention the significance of the discovery for the millions of Vietnamese who were also exposed to the chemical-and for their descendants.

The new link was announced in a report by a 14-member committee of the Institute of Medicine, which had been asked to determine what conditions might be traced to exposure to the chemical that had been "used to clear stretches of the jungle" in Vietnam. As the article noted, since 1994, the Institute of Medicine has to date found 17 medical conditions that can be traced to exposure to Agent Orange, "13 of which qualify veterans for service-connected disability benefits."

There's a lot wrong with this article, as written by Times, reporter Janie Lorber (though admittedly we can't know what is her responsibility and what is the handiwork of the newspaper's editors).

For starters, the benign-sounding description of how Agent Orange was used-"to clear stretches of the jungle"-makes it sound like the kind of thing President George W. Bush used to do when he was down at his "ranch" in Crawford, TX "clearing brush," or like grounds-keeping work at the local golf course. In fact, what the US military was doing was defoliating vast tracts of inhabited forest in South Vietnam, in an effort both to make it hard for enemy troops to hide, and to drive peasants into strategic hamlets where they could be controlled, and prevented from providing assistance to Vietnamese fighters. There was no effort made to keep the defoliant away from people-civilians or enemy fighters-indeed, people were, at least indirectly, the targets. It would, indeed, have made no sense to defoliate areas where there were no people.

It is certainly true that the Defense Department showed absolutely no concern about sending American troops out into the sprayed areas, where hundreds of thousands or soldiers and marines were exposed to the residue of the spraying, and it is true that the Defense Department and the US government spent millions of dollars after the war battling efforts by desperately ill veterans in a futile effort to deny legal responsibility for their ailments, and to deny any link between those ailments and Agent Orange. (A friend, the late Dorothy Thompson, was one of the lead attorneys in the successful fight to win compensation from the government for veterans who suffered from Agent Orange-related disease.)

But how can any honest journalist or news organization write about this sordid chapter in America's criminal use of chemical weapons without even mentioning its impact on the enemy, or on huge numbers of wholly innocent civilians?

To this day, the US has refused to accept any responsibility for the victims in Vietnam of its chemical warfare in that country, despite the fact that millions have suffered and continue to suffer from the results, including innocent children born long after the war was over, and of course many older people who have long since died of their diseases.

It is no surprise, of course, that the US government would decline to accept responsibility for its actions, or even to discuss the issue. The Vietnam War was the first war in which the US clearly was defeated, and there is no desire to even think about it, much less about the evils which were done by America in the fighting of it. And as a federal agency, it's perhaps understandable, though still inexcusable, that the Institute of Medicine panel examining Agent Orange's impacts would fail to note its impact on the people of Vietnam, and focus instead only on veterans.

But the media, and particularly the New York Times, have no excuse whatsoever -even if the Institute of Medicine report is incomplete--for failing to mention the obvious point that, as bad as Agent Orange was for the troops who dispensed it, and who had to fight in areas where it had been used, it was far, far worse for the people upon whom it was actually dispensed.

Unless, of course, the problem is that the Times and its reporters and editors are also victims of the chemical, and it is also causing journalistic blind spots.

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