Responsibility for the legacy of war

It was “a war that nobody won,” writes historian Stanley Karnow of the United States’ decades-long military engagement in Vietnam. Ultimately, “its legacy [is] still to be assessed…but whether a valid venture or a misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions.”

The legacy of the Vietnam War is often tallied with civilian and military casualties, the millions of dollars spent on weaponry and the years that were consumed by political turmoil and protests. While these numbers describe a portion of the past, other legacies of the war live on in the present.

The U.S. military used Agent Orange to clear vegetation from the countryside, giving the United States the upper hand. The toxic chemical was sprayed over 12 percent of Vietnam’s territory, not only affecting natural resources, but thousands of U.S. veterans and millions of Vietnamese people.

The human impact of Agent Orange was slowly revealed in subsequent years as those first exposed gave birth to children with physical and mental disabilities, traced back to initial chemical contact.  Studies have shown that dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange is the cause of birth defects, congenital diseases and susceptibility to cancer in the children of those who have been directly exposed. With at least 28 “hot spots” still remaining inside Vietnam today, this legacy will live on for quite some time.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was involved in Vietnam before, during, and after the war and advocated against U.S. military engagement in the 1960s and 70s, because of our peace position and  because it exacerbated the plight of the Vietnamese people. MCC continues to work with vulnerable populations in Vietnam, particularly those affected by exposure to Agent Orange.

MCC also supports U.S. policies that address the ongoing toxic legacy. The Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act (H.R. 334) would provide funding for environmental clean-up in Vietnam, as well as health care assistance for those affected by Agent Orange. This includes several generations of people in Vietnam and the descendants of U.S. veterans whose health claims have not been covered. The bill will require bipartisan support in the House and the Senate to be viable. Read more about the bill and MCC’s work in Vietnam.

Reluctant to acknowledge the unfortunate legacy of an unsuccessful war, Agent Orange is not a high priority for the U.S. government. But the families who have been affected can never forget its impact.

As people of faith, we long for the future realization of a new creation, a time when “the leaves of the tree [will be] for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (Revelation 22:2-3). But we cannot wait for the future to rectify the past. Addressing the present environmental degradation and health effects from the war is within our reach and should not be forgotten.


Charissa Zehr is legislative associate for international affairs for the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office. Story originally posted on Jul 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission from Peace Signs

1 Comment

  1. Mark Coztanzo

    As a ” peace” Catholic I say God bless the Mennonites for the commitment to justice/peace-.. this is an informative article!😇

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