Sunday, August 12, 2012

Masako Sakata explores the legacies of Agent Orange: Living the Silent Spring

Masako Sakata: "Agent Orange is an indictment of US foreign policy and corporate greed,
as well as being a celebration of love’s ability to face enormous adversity."

Following the death of her husband, photographer Greg Davis, from liver cancer at age 54, Masako Sakata studied videography, aiming to produce an investigative documentary about the toxic chemical. She suspected that exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam during the 1970's caused her husband's illness.

In her first documentary, Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem, Sakata focused on the "forgotten victims of Agent Orange" and showed "how the toxic chemical erodes the human body from generation to generation, and how the Vietnamese have struggled, both in desperation and with affection, to support the victims."

Her 2011 film, Living the Silent Spring, follows the journey of an American second generation victim of Agent Orange, Heather Bowser, as she travels to Vietnam, and explores the lives of other American victims.

From August 10, 1961 to 1971, the US military sprayed 20 million gallons (80 million liters) of Agent Orange and related chemical weapons throughout Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) during its war in southeast Asia. The environmental warfare campaign, called "Operation Ranch Hand," destroyed 500,000 acres of farmland and 5 million acres of forest in Vietnam alone.

The destruction of farmland resulted in widespread famine and the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. Agent Orange also contaminated the watershed as well as vegetation and soil. Dioxin, a carcinogenic toxin in the herbicide accumulated at the bottom of lakes and rivers, thereby entering the Vietnamese food supply through fish as well as through food crops.

Different sources estimate that between three and five million Vietnamese people suffer from diseases and disorders caused by Agent Orange. This includes 500,000 second and third generation children born with birth defects. Thousands of US soldiers and their children have also endured disorders caused by the toxin.

Attempts were made during the Vietnam War to stop the US use of Agent Orange. In 1966, Hungary introduced a resolution to the United Nations charging that the U.S. was violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which regulates the use of chemical and biological weapons, by using Agent Orange and tear gas in Vietnam. Washington denied the charge on the grounds that only anti-personnel weapons are covered by the protocol.

In 1991, after much lobbying by Vietnam War veterans and their families, Congress authorized some assistance to Americans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

In 2004, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin sued Dow Chemical and other manufacturers. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009, accepting a federal appeals court 2003 ruling in New York that dismissed the case on the "government contractor defense," which protects military contractors from legal liability.
Over the past five years, despite Washington's claim that the link between dioxin exposure and disease is "uncertain," Congress appropriated about $49 million for environmental remediation and about $11 million to help people living with disabilities in Vietnam regardless of cause.

Last week, Washington announced it had awarded contracts to two U.S. companies to decontaminate Da Nang, a dioxin "hot spot" (former air base where American soldiers mixed, stored and loaded Agent Orange onto planes and helicopters). Some Vietnamese commentators have said this is "...too little...too late." Some children of American Vietnam vets have taken an even stronger view, commenting that this is a "classic example" of U.S. military industrial pattern of profiting from a U.S.-created cycle destruction and "reconstruction," as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Astonishingly, Hanoi has welcomed Dow and Monsanto, the two largest manufacturers of Agent Orange, to do business in Vietnam. Both companies profited from the production of the chemical weapon, yet have not have assisted in decontamination or compensated victims. In February, Monsanto announced it plans to introduce GMO crops (seeds are manufactured to be used with Round-Up, a toxic herbicide, or 2-4,D, a component of Agent Orange) into Vietnam.

However in May of this year, the Vietnamese government revealed profound domestic tensions towards these companies when it called for Dow (a multi-million dollar Olympics sponsor) to quit the games because of its participation in the production of Agent Orange. Thanh Nien News, a newspaper published in Ho Chi Minh City, quoted Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Rinh, former deputy defense minister, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange, and a sitting legislator: “My ultimate goal is to push the government to get both Dow and Monsanto out of Vietnam.”

Between 1,000,000 and 2,500,000 Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.

Roger Pulvers' "Remembering Victims of Agent Orange in the Shadow of 9/11," published on September 4, 2011 at The Asia-Pacific Journal, and introduced by filmmaker John Junkerman (who edited Living in the Silent Spring) provides deep, sensitive contexts to the film:
I worked as the editor of the film, Living the Silent Spring, which Pulvers discusses in his essay. The film’s director, Masako Sakata, had been struck by the fact that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared at virtually the same time that the US military began spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam. Though Carson died soon after her book came out, her outrage at the irresponsible use of potent chemicals and her pleas for environmental and biological wisdom seemed to be a warning that went unheeded about the dangers of Agent Orange.

We were in the studio editing the film on March 11, when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. As the extent of the Fukushima nuclear disaster became known, and it became clear that the area around the plant would be contaminated with radiation for many decades to come, Carson’s description of chemicals as the “sinister partners of radiation”—and the film we were working on—took on a new resonance...

Living the Silent Spring takes up the Agent Orange story from both sides. Sakata returns to some of the villages she visited for her earlier film so that we may see how the children genetically maimed by their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange have fared. But this time she also introduces us to a number of Americans who have equally suffered — bringing home the message that, in war, we are all victims.

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