This issue will not go away. It is, in its own right, the “elephant in the room” that is becoming a legacy of Vietnam and the U.S. military servicemen who fought there.
Agent Orange is easily the biggest killer of Vietnam veterans. More have died and are currently suffering from the effects of this powerful chemical that was used during the Vietnam War in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the effort to deny the enemy both food sources and cover. It may have been partly successful, but its lingering negative health consequences are lifelong.
The decision at the time to use Agent Orange for the stated purposes was not unlike the common decision-making that has governed so much of our scientific, technological, business, and even political decisions for most of the 20th and now 21st centuries. The ethic used in this decision-making process, which is still most commonly used today, is known as the utilitarian ethic.
The basic premise of the utilitarian ethic is to achieve, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” but in practice it usually means, “the ends justify the means.”
Agent Orange was a means to an end.
The ends for which chemical companies produced Agent Orange was quite simply and recognizably profit. Agent Orange was immensely profitable. The ends that the government and the Pentagon pursued were arguably related to gaining logistical and military advantage against the enemy. Again, Agent Orange was the means to achieve these desired ends.
This utilitarian principle made it possible, even seemingly reasonable, to spray Agent Orange liberally over much of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
But the problem is that this “ends justify the means” principle often overshadows a more important requirement, that is, both ends and means must be morally good. Through chemistry, a very powerful and effective means for defoliating massive areas and rendering them worthless in food production or for providing natural cover for enemy movements was created. Agent Orange made a profit for the manufacturer, and fulfilled the military’s stated needs, too. But, it seems clear that either there were no studies done by the chemical companies, by the government, or the Pentagon, to look into the possible or potentially negative effects on human beings; or, if there were studies done that showed serious negative health effects on human beings, they were ignored, or shunted aside in order to achieve the immediate needs of the chemical companies for profits, and the immediate military needs.
The utilitarian rationale the chemical companies would have used would have been the “greater good” of the profit to the company and its shareholders. The rationale for the government and the Pentagon would have been, the “greater good” of denying the enemy the food and cover they needed, and thereby, ending the war more quickly, saving more military lives.
But there is problem with reality, and that is that all of our decisions and actions have consequences. Those consequences are real and the responsibility for them belongs to the decision makers and actors. If they knew that there were potential harmful effect on human health and kept that from the knowledge of those who would be loading it, spraying it and being sprayed by it, that is a violation of the ethical “principle of autonomy” which requires full knowledge of all possible harms be made available to the users, so that protective means might be found to alleviate the majority of those harms.
The reality is that the “unseen” very real consequences of the negative effects of Agent Orange have come home to roost and it is time that the chemical companies, the government, the military, and the VA take responsibility for the care of those who have been negatively affected by the consequences of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Vietnam military veterans in the Navy, the Air Force, the Army and the Marine Corps, handled, sprayed, or had Agent Orange sprayed on them during that war.
Thousands have died from its effects, many thousands are still suffering from it.
It took decades for the VA to recognize some 15 illnesses, diseases, and conditions that are directly related to Agent Orange. There are many more that are still being looked into. But, it took the VA even longer to recognize that one of the most “unseen” and pernicious realities of Agent Orange is that it has been found to be absorbed into the very DNA and can be passed on to one’s children. Many children of Vietnam Veterans have suffered this reality. For example, children born with spina bifida to biological fathers who are Vietnam veterans are now recognized as eligible for VA benefits.
Sadly, the many recognized and still unrecognized effects of Agent Orange are now showing up in Vietnam veterans grandchildren.
This phenomenon of birth defects and genetically passed on illnesses is affecting children in Vietnam even more than with our veterans. Those who are suffering the effects of Agent Orange, now generationally, should not have to beg for the medical care that is due them as a result of their service to this nation.
We were sent. We obeyed.
The largest majority of us conducted ourselves honorably and courageously, in the manner of the highest codes of military service. We earned the right to be properly cared for if our injuries and our health are directly related to our service. This demands that a higher ethic be pursued than the utilitarian ethic.
The higher good that the chemical companies and the VA (government) must pursue now is to take responsibility for the decisions that were made at that time, no matter what the reasons, seen or unseen, and ensure that those who have been affected negatively by those decisions are properly and respectfully cared for now, and for the rest of their lives, if necessary. Human beings, especially those who answered the specific call to serve, either voluntarily, or by the draft at that time, are of higher importance than profits and military temporary military ends.
If the chemical companies and the government (VA) do not do this, they will be showing that we who served were used as just another means to their materialistic, or short-sighted ends.
Those decisions made back in the 60s concerning Agent Orange and its uses are now affecting multiple generations. It makes no difference if the consequences were seen or unseen, they are real. They are connected directly to those decisions. Thousands have died and many thousands continue to suffer in succeeding generations.
As was said before, this issue will not go away. Those who are responsible for those decisions back then are now morally responsible for the negative health effects that those decisions brought about. It is the duty of government, and We The People, to be responsible to those they send in harm’s way to defend this nation.
It’s critical to the survival of our veterans, their children, and their descendants.
The Veterans Site is happy that now, 50 years after the war, the Blue Water Navy guys have finally been recognized and approved for VA coverage for health benefits related to Agent Orange.
This is the right direction. This issue will not go away!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.