November 2, 2011

Agent Orange and Atoning for our Ancestor’s Mistakes

After showing a class of Santa Barbara High School history students this video —which conceals nothing of the horror Vietnamese families and American Veterans still suffer four generations after 20 million gallons of Agent Orange was senselessly sprayed on Vietnam -- I inquire of them: 

“How many of you think that the chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange [Monsanto, Dow, among them] should pay for all the medical costs associated with Agent Orange birth defects throughout Vietnam and the United States?”

The majority of hands go up in assent.

I explain that there was a class action suit in the 1980’s and settlement for American veterans serving in the War from 1961-1972. The Settlement Fund closed in 1997 after it distributed $197 million in payment to about 52,000 American veterans and their families. The average payment was $3800.

Obviously, this doesn’t come anywhere close to redressing the injuries of everyone affected. For the Vietnamese, our chemical warfare has turned into a genetic plague:  the last victim of Agent Orange has yet to be born.

I ask another question of the class:

“How many of you think that the Vietnamese government should pay for the medical expenses to their afflicted people, and the American government should pay for the medical costs to ours?”

A few hands rise and grumbling remarks represent the diversity of student thought.

“Why should the Vietnamese pay anything? This wasn’t their fault.”

“Well, why should our government have to pay anything now? This happened 40 years ago and we can’t afford healthcare for regular people here today.” 

“Because we’re the idiots who dropped the chemicals.”

“I didn’t drop no chemicals on nobody.”

I decide to complicate the question of responsibility, compassion and care: 

“How many of you would agree that our government should pay for the health expenses to everyone –in Vietnam and the U.S.-- afflicted with Agent Orange-related disabilities if it meant that you personally had to pay more taxes?”

No hands are raised. Students look around at each other nervously.

A clarifying question from a bold student breaks the silence: “How much more in taxes?”

The room erupts with emotional opinion, everyone talking over one another. I catch snippets of their heated remarks:

“That’s so selfish, to worry about your taxes when innocent children are suffering from our stupid war!”

“Our taxes don’t give me free healthcare, now. Why should I pay more for someone I don’t even know?” 

“Maybe if we have had to pay the true cost of wars, we’d think twice before getting into them all over the world.”

“What’s done is done. The best we can do now is educate ourselves so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.”

I hush the class and asked the level-headed young man to repeat himself for the benefit of all the students.

He elaborates: “We can’t possibly undo all the damage we caused by the Vietnam War. Even if we paid for everyone’s health problems now, what about their children, and their children’s children? You can try to help in your own personal way, by volunteering or donating or whatever. But the best thing to do is make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Students volunteer at Friendship Village, Vietnam

And how do we make sure we learn history’s lessons? We bear witness to the horror, we heighten our sensitivity to the inhumanity, and be willing to speak up when we see it happening again.

The resident classroom teacher elaborates my point with an apt analogy to this racially-mixed group:

“Learning history’s lessons is like fighting racism. If you’ve had a terrible experience with it, or know someone who has, then the injustice becomes part of your story to tell other people. You then become the walking testimonial of that pain: “Here’s how bad it can get if we fail to do XYZ.” You must be willing to engage with those who suffer, and speak about it every chance you get. Over time, things change, because almost everyone comes to agree that it’s too horrible to go on like that anymore.”

And, paradoxically, if you’re willing to stretch your comfort zone and engage with the suffering of others in a constructive way, you’ll find a refreshed appreciation for your own life, your own health and your own challenges.

Including taxes.

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