Cannon Fodder: War and Cancer from Vietnam to Iraq

By Clare Bayard
Aug 30, 2012

The day after I returned home from helping my father through cancer surgery, an acquaintance of mine died from cancer. This shared experience, lives touched by cancer, is so common now it almost seems mundane to mention. But what kept me up all night last night was the U.S.military's body count.

On Saturday, my acquaintance Joshua Casteel passed away in New York while being treated for Stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to his spine, liver, and eventually his brain. I'd heard about his diagnosis last November, and it hit me like a brick. Joshua became a conscientious objector while interrogating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. I met Joshua in 2006, when he was an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He became a conscientious objector while interrogating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Joshua, also a writer and playwright, sought a path of returning himself to alignment with his values of peacemaking.

He, like tens of thousands of other members of the U.S. military, lived under clouds of smoke from the "burn pits" in Iraq. They were open-air combustion of hundreds of hydrocarbons, VOCs (the toxic chemicals you don't want in your house paint), and dioxins. Dioxins include the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, of which the U.S. government dumped 20 million gallons on Vietnam. 

Last Tuesday, a week after surgery for Stage 2 cancer, my father's tracheostomy was changed to a smaller tube that allowed him to speak. I was sitting in his recovery room at the hospital, reading book after book to keep myself distracted, putting it down when we'd chat. He'd been alternating dozing and watching soccer. Out of the silence he suddenly said, "You know the water that I drank within the first day of landing in country was the water I drank the whole time in Vietnam," he said. "Our water supply came from Agent Orange drainage." 

My father's health conditions began within a year of his return from Vietnam. He participated in an early VA study on Agent Orange that went nowhere. We're so lucky. Everyone in my small family has been affected by dioxin, and yet, it's all relative. I was born with all my organs, my spine fully developed and joints mostly functional, and without any of the debilitating illnesses that affect so many of my Vietnamese peersthe ones who managed to be born at all.  

And yet, I feel like I was waiting for years for a call from my mom telling me that my dad has cancer. Since I learned about Agent Orange, since I put his health conditions into that context, I had been waiting for that call I finally received last month. Fortunately, I was in New Orleans, which is a city so conversant in life and death. That place knows about raging against injustice and not letting bullshit slide, and also about holding what you love so close to you and fighting for what is valuable. New Orleans has taught me a lot about living fully forward despite- maybe due- to the imminence of change and death. I never really believed that Agent Orange was going to let us off the hook, considering how much of the war my father brought home in his body. 

Just few weeks ago, International Agent Orange Day (August 10th) came and went as usual, without much media attention. There was little discussion of the U.S. government's announcement that they would begin the first official Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam, mostly at old bases, after years of a joint campaign by Vietnamese and American victims. Nor was there much coverage of this week's joint symposium of the Veterans' Affairs and Defense Departments on "airborne hazards." 

veterans-march-on-agent-orange.jpg

'Human corpses' is embedded almost casually in that list. 

U.S. service members live for months underneath the black haze of burning carcasses and chemical wastes, soaked in jet fuel. They are given extra strength Motrin and told to suck it up if they seek treatment. For a year, my dad breathed and drank Agent Orange, often mixed with jet fuel. What of the people who don't leave after a month or a year, because that burn pit is in their backyard? Those who live in the 20% of the South Vietnamese forests that were blasted with dioxin for a decade? 

I hope there is future collective action by Iraqis, Afghans, Djiboutians, and other peoples living through the toxic legacies of current U.S militarism. And I hope it is  more successful than the class action lawsuits against Dow and Monsanto by Vietnamese survivors of Agent Orange that have been settled out of court or dismissed through the Supreme Court. May the companies that profited off manufacturing dioxins, depleted uranium munitions, and burn pits be held accountable and brought to compensate survivors. 

Still the best hopes are always at the grassroots. Veterans for Peace and the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange partner on a joint Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility campaign. The concession this month that the U.S. will finally begin remediation of identified hotspots is due in part to their years of pressure. In the post-9/11 wars generation, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War's Afghanistan War veterans committee are launching a joint reconciliation initiative, partly inspired by the alliance-building of Vietnam War survivors. 

War is ultimately about breaking peoples' bodies and control over our survival and destinies. Severing people from land, livelihoods, and home through making physical survival impossible. War travels through our bodies in so many ways. Our physiologies are shaped by injury, trauma, and poisoning. All of these are transmitted generationally. And what some of us inherit from parents also spreads horizontally through communities in the ways that war and trauma shape our cultures on the interpersonal as well as structural level. Ask my friend who lost someone a couple nights ago, yet another young veteran shooting himself rather than redeploy. Ask the parents of the children killed a few days ago in another drone stroke in Somalia.

War kills in so many ways. And it trickles down to all of us. This is why our fates are tied. When you make one life disposable, you risk all the lives of the rest, including your own.  Stand with people who are being targeted. Fight for their beautiful and valuable lives. This is how you stand for your own survival.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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