Arrogance and defoliants

I’ll have to think of something upbeat to write after this post ;) But I was so depressed and quietly outraged by this that I just had to say something (you can skip it if you want to!).

I was reading an article in Science last night about Agent Orange, and medical studies they’re doing to evaluate the effects of dioxins on GIs and Vietnamese populations that were exposed, along with their children and grandchildren. This is something we’re all familiar with, but as I was reading the article something else really struck me. At the time, of course, they didn’t know that Agent Orange contained dioxins, so none of this was foreseeable. But… then I realized what exactly we were doing with it. It was some statistics reported in the article that really drew my attention to the things that no-one ever talks about.


We sprayed 10% of another country with a defoliant. Ten percent! Just so we could see our enemies better. This is a country where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture to survive. 20,000 villages were directly sprayed, along with their fields and water supplies. With an herbicide. That’s 5 million people, directly sprayed, living in those villages. What did they live on after that, when everything around them withered away? What could they eat or drink, that wouldn’t be poisoned? What were we thinking?

The arrogance and inhumanity of this is breathtaking. No amount of soldiers saved from enemy fire could be worth that much disruption of native farming and village life. Just as we’ve seen in Iraq, the number of innocent people killed and affected in the countries we invade just doesn’t count compared to our own soldiers, in the eyes of the military and American people.

And there’s also some inner part of me that is just outraged about the forests, jungle, and river systems destroyed, defoliated, poisoned. All the birds, fish, plants, that special life killed in the name of war. It makes me wonder what these ecosystems look like now. Have they recovered? Will they ever recover? How did the birds and animals fare, when sprayed by herbicides and dioxins? Does anyone care? I’ve never, ever seen this even mentioned.

It makes me wonder if we would do this today. Almost immediately some inner voice pipes up and says, of course we would. Look at Iraq – absolutely trashed. Sure it’s not all our doing, but enough of it is. How long did it take before the Iraqi casualties began to be reported and debated alongside our own? How much infrastructure is nonfunctional, how many irreplaceable archaeological sites destroyed, how many millions lost their homes? How can anyone think this is worth it?

Sign me… baffled.

The Decline and Fall of …. which empire was that again?

About ten years ago I read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and was struck by certain similarities to a certain civilization we’re all familiar with. Check out this list of contributing factors hypothesized by Gibbon and other historians:

– Constant foreign invasions and overextension of the armies, resulting in a massive percentage of the tax base going to support the wars, a general reluctance on the part of the populace to serve in the legions, and the hiring of mercenaries to do some of the fighting

– The federal government taking local tax revenues to support the wars and reducing support for local government, resulting in less investment in infrastructure and social services

– Farmers being forced into bankruptcy and welfare due to taxation; the disappearance of the middle classes; starvation among the poor

– General hedonism among the upper classes, gluttony and drunkenness, moral and ethical decline, and materialism

– The rise of lawyers and litigation, placing a burden on government and the economy

– Inflation of currency and lack of manufacturing

– The emergence of Iran as a military threat (!) and being constantly embroiled in battles in the Middle East

– Environmental degradation caused by overpopulation, including deforestation, over-use of water resources, and extinction of species

Gee. Does any of this sound familiar?? It seem even more true than 10 years ago when I first read it. Maybe it’s time for us to take a fall; if the British survived it, so can we. Possibly a little more humble for it, let’s hope.

I can’t help wondering…

When did we start calling prisoners of war “detainees”?? It sounds so innocuous, like they’re just being held for a few hours, then let go. But this term is being applied to foreign citizens (or enemy combatants, maybe) held for multiple years without trial, our own citizens who disappear without access to basic rights, etc. I was driving home last night and heard a reporter on NPR using this term. It just seems Orwellian to me, and I wonder how the administration got the media to buy into it so thoroughly that even independent public radio uses it. Now that I think about it, even “enemy combatants” is just a way to avoid saying “prisoners of war” and having the Geneva Conventions applied. Sigh…