Monday, June 15, 2009

Friendship and the Sad Days of Summer Snow

“If you want to scare the vampires you simply drag them into the light.” Michael Franti.

Heading out of Vietnam I passed a beautiful tile mosaic wall dedicated to next years’ 1000 year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. The city breathes with old and new. It’s perhaps this long continuum that adds to its strength and resilience. No where was this more evident in the efforts of the Friendship Village - a home for the vets and their offspring whose neurological systems and DNA flow with the chemical known as Agent Orange.

I was torn about going to the Village. I had seen the film produced by a Japan filmmaker that she dedicated to her husband - a Vietnam Vet who was caught up in the blanketing of miles of Vietnam with Agent Orange and had succumbed to Cancer. I was against the war and its crimes but felt I might not have any more juice or understanding, especially when it comes to the poisoning of children. I have filled up on both love and horrors these past few weeks. I began to think I might be feeling a little numb? Was there something to be gained by seeing the victims in order to understand the impact of war on people?

Meeting with Director of Village and head of the Victims of Agent Orange Association
The children, often with deformed faces, missing limbs etc - birth defects as a result of their parents exposure to the Toxin - remains the vestiges of a war that lives on in the bodies of its victims and is passed to the next generation. From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed Vietnam with Agent Orange, which contained large quantities of Dioxin, allegedly in order to defoliate the trees for military objectives. Dioxin according to the World Health Organization is a carcinogen (causes cancer) and is identified by the American Academy of Medicine as a teratogen (causes birth defects). Between 2.5 and 4.8 million people were exposed to Agent Orange. 1.4 billion hectares of land and forest - approximately 12 percent of the land area of Vietnam - were sprayed. The countless birth defects and injuries are staggering.

But how often we don’t want to face the sad history of our use of violence and our historical efforts from Wounded Knee to Korea and onto Vietnam, to wipe out mass groups of people through massacres, carpet bombing and chemical weapons (depleted uranium weapons in Iraq) in the name of peace and progress. But as we walked into the first classroom my apprehension slipped away and I knew why I was here. I quickly got down to the side of their table and began to talk with them, touch and play. I remembered what I had learned from Fred Donaldson’s Creative Play class. Don’t touch the heads and get down to their space. It was transformative and their smiles infectious. I was so grateful I came.

It is important to experience the casualties of war if only to put a human face on it. These children have been medically linked to Agent Orange decades later. According to the World Health Organization, only 1 - 4 parts per trillion (PPT) of Dioxin in breast milk can cause severe deformities in fetuses and even death. But up to 1450 PPT are found in maternal milk in Vietnam. Dr. Jeanne Stellman, an agent orange expert, says that "this is the largest unstudied environmental disaster in the world (except for natural disasters)."

The US courts threw out the Agent Orange case brought by some fellow Guild lawyers and friends Jeanne Mirer and Jonathan Moore on behalf of some victims of Agent Orange and their association. The court concluded that Agent Orange did not constitute a poison weapon prohibited by the Hague Convention of 1907. The Supreme Court refused to review it.

US veterans had successfully sued the chemical companies Dow and Monsanto (now bringing us GMO Food) who settled out of court for $180 million. Later the vets received $1.52 billion per year in benefits from Congress. Despite promises from Nixon of unconditional aid and clear liability, no assistance has been made for the children or the other victims in Vietnam. Will we ever truly heal until something is done and ackowledged?

The U.S. government and the chemical companies knew that Agent Orange, when produced rapidly at high temperatures, would contain large quantities of Dioxin. They also knew that the Bionetics Study, commissioned by the government in 1963, showed that even low levels of Dioxin produced significant deformities in unborn offspring of laboratory animals. The report was suppressed, Agent Orange continued to be sprayed until after the report was leaked in 1969. Furthermore the Eco-damage wiped out significant forests, made species extinct and still contaminates parts of Vietnam. No US funds have been paid to clean up the mess.

In order to continue the struggle to Congress to get some funds for the victims and their families a Court of Conscience was called in Paris in May by our group IADL and the findings are astonishing and stark reminder that the breadth of destruction left by acts of war go far beyond the “target..” You can read the decision of the International Judges at our site at On my visit to this Friendship Village I learned that this fellow I met ( pictured below ) had had several children but they all died as infants (an all too common event for parents exposed to Agent Orange). He had been in the areas blanketed with Agent Orange during the war. The Village lets him come for rest and to work with him, as he has difficulty with mental functioning. 

Can we even imagine such a trauma to a family? Today I had my new grandson’s 1st birthday party.....Unimaginable.

I recall vividly in 1971 on the steps of the Capital, Peter Paul and Mary singing that deep refrain “when will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?” It pains me that forty years later we still are duped into believing that war is an answer for anything. I think of the millions of Iraqi families scarred for life and for generations.

In the end it is the smiles, songs and faces of the children from Friendship Village that will stick with me forever.
We are creative beings with unlimited potential but we cannot be silent in the face of those who cling to the past ways of relating and solving problems. I hope all of you reading will find a small way to let your congressperson know that they should support a Victim Fund for Agent Orange victims in Vietnam and you can make a donate to Friendship House ( But also find something in your life that supports a move to peace in our world. On March 18, 2002, Vietnam Friendship Village Founder George Mizo died at his home in the village of Hofen, Germany. His wife Rosi and son Michael sent out a message of love for George: "Peace is giving something to life...Your spirit is living in our hearts and in the Vietnam Friendship Village. --With love, Rosi and Michael Mizo, Hildegard Hohn, and all the people you have touched with your life."

Eric Sirotkin
Ashland Oregon

PS - Thanks Marjorie Cohen, one of the Judges of the Court, from some of the stats above. Read her full article on Agent Orange on our site also at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this beautiful and moving reflection. It truly makes one think about the devastation caused by the U.S. in a direct way, and challenges us to take action to right this injustice.

    Beyond a doubt, American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is causing similar long-lasting harm.