MITCH MOXLEY, MAISSONEUVE MAGAZINE
Trinh Minh Lam still remembers the first time he was sprayed with Agent Orange. Marching near the Cambodian border in the summer of 1967, an American warplane flew overhead, and then a mysterious garlic-smelling fog descended. Within days, the surrounding jungle’s leaves wilted and died, turning lush foliage into a barren landscape. On the long march to battles in the south, Trinh, now nearly blind and fighting liver disease, consumed food and water tainted by the fog. “Only after reunification did we learn about Agent Orange,” he says. “Then we were sick.”
Between 1962 and 1971 (during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations), under the code name Operation Ranch Hand, US forces sprayed some 45 million litres of herbicides over a total area of 5 million acres of South Vietnamese jungle, including a half-million acres used for crops. Named after the coloured stripes on their shipping barrels, the chemicals Agents Blue, White, Purple, Pink, Green and Orange had a singular purpose: to destroy the plant life that provided cover and food supplies for Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers. Some areas in southern and central Vietnam were so heavily defoliated that what was once triple-canopy jungle is now barely more than grass and shrubs. About 65 percent of the herbicides used were Agent Orange, a variety favoured for its effectiveness; Agent Orange is made with equal parts of 2,4,5–T and 2,4–D chemicals and it contains a highly toxic and resilient contaminant known as TCDD, a dioxin by-product of the herbicide’s chemical creation.