Agent Orange

Forty-two years after the end of the Vietnam War, or as it is called in Vietnam, the American War, the American government has finally offered to clean up (if it can) the area around Danang airport, where the defoliating poisons were mixed and stored.
At this moment there is no commitment to extend the work into the agricultural and forest areas affected. According to American records 20,000,000 gallons of the poison, mixed at thirteen times more than the recommended strength in America to make it more lethal, were sprayed in 6,542 flying missions between 1961 and 1971. According to Vietnam sources approximately one million locals have been affected. Deformed and stillborn are still occurring. Up to now America has denied any responsibility. The infamous Agent Orange.

The apparent change of heart announced last week (still without accepting responsibility for creating the tragedy – the spokesman referred to only “out past mutual tragedy”) has been greeted by many Australians, I sense, as ‘good, a bit late, but better late than never’. No word has yet crept into the public realm suggesting a closer look. Why, for example, now? As in so many things, and certainly in politics, domestic or foreign, timing is everything. ‘When’ something is done is critical in determining exactly ‘what’ is being done, and what is the real purpose for doing something ‘then’ rather than some other time. Why now after 42 years?

As soon as you ask that question, the answer is obvious. It is now a mere few months since President Obama announced in Darwin the new American policy, to stay the power it has been in the Asia-Pacific; in other words, and no-one has doubted its meaning, to ‘contain’ China – without that word being used. America is not withdrawing, nor sharing the region with anyone else. The wisdom of that policy has quickly become a matter of serious thought.

Within a matter of months, Australia has agreed to America having land and water facilities in and around Darwin – an agreement already in operation. It is about to be provided facilities in and around Perth for its largest ships; and, most contentiously of all, its use of the Cocos Is. for its ‘drone’ unmanned aircraft is likely to be settled in the near future, despite the clear global antipathy to that silent killer. Governments can move quickly when they want to.

In addition America has recently expressed varying degrees of ‘sympathy’ with the several countries in the Asian and S.E. Asian region which have a range of differences of opinion with China, not least on mining rights in certain waters and on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

It is obviously now the right time, according to an American calculus, to make closer relations with those strategically significant nations: voila Vietnam. It needs no change of heart, simply conceiving a cool tactical move. The particular American proposal has an additional advantage. A real value-added trump. Once America ‘clears’ Danang it will be difficult for Vietnam to turn down an offer to extend the cleansing exercise elsewhere, with the simple cost of American rights to the use of the Danang airport. If successful, a clever set of exchanges indeed.

That’s politics. Don’t think of change of heart, or of altruism. It is a nasty game; but in this instance , it is also a disastrous blunder by America for the future of world peace. It is not merely escalating anxieties, suspicions and frictions, it is galloping at them. The very speed of America’s move during this year is enough to raise the temperature of many international relations in the region. A combination of pride and paranoia can appear, too easily, as a ‘decent gesture’, a value that unfortunately has little traction in the international lexicon.

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Discussion is always welcome.

Don Miller
Director, MCI
August 14, 2012



It is often amusing and more often distressing to see the great American consensus at work. A bit-performer in maintaining that comforting and loyalist consensus – on most everything – is the ‘liberal’ New York Times.

I thought that today having read its obituary of Gore Vidal – among many other things, America’s undoubtedly greatest essayist – (reprinted in The Age,(Melb), August 2, 2012).

Having referred to his well known public spats with the likes of Norman Mailer, Al Capote and William Buckley Jnr., the obituary continues:
“Some of his political positions were similarly quarrelsome and provocative. Vidal was an unspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians”.

“Quarrelsome and provocative”! Is that the appropriate language to describe criticism of a nation which almost the entire world agrees has been frequently ‘immoral’ and ‘guilty of war crimes’? How bold can you get? How clever to sound almost liberal and mildly chastising while being effectively reactionary and intolerant of any view outside the myopic domestic mainstream?

For some reason that language reminds me of another but different occasion. After 9/11 the London Review of Books invited its regular reviewers to write a short piece on their reactions to that tragic event. Between thirty and forty articles appeared in the next issue; many expressing an opinion, among other things, that it would be a good time for America and the West generally to look at themselves and their behaviour in the Middle East over the last millennium.

In the following issue of the LRB one of the many letters published including one from a New Yorker which said that the next time he was in London he intends to enter the office of the LRB and thump on its desk a bag of his shit. That poor man had obviously been provoked.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre for Ideas