My father fought in the Vietnam
War. I lived in Japan from 1964-1967 as
he flew F-105s out of Thailand. I was
too young to realize that he might not come home. After he left the Air Force, he joined an Air
National Guard unit in New York. The war
continued, but I paid little attention to it.
My dad did not suffer from PTSD, so the war had no long-term effect on
my family. When the draft ended, I was
too young to be sweating it out. I
thought about joining the Air Force, but poor eyesight ended my dream of being
a pilot. After college, I got a job
teaching American History. I had a
strong belief in reading up on what I had to teach. It brought my first true knowledge of the
war. I included Agent Orange in my
Vietnam War unit. My reading on the war
caused me to teach the bad with the good.
As one of the vets in this documentary says: “America is not perfect, but there’s none
better.” I have continued to read
histories and novels about the war. And I
have watched and reviewed a lot of Vietnam War movies and documentaries. But I will never know everything I would like
to know. I learned some new things
“A Permanent Mark: Agent Orange in America and Vietnam” is a new film about the effects of the defoliant on American and Vietnamese veterans and their children. Director Holly Million was inspired by the death of her father-in-law, Bob Macher. Macher died of an illness traced to Agent Orange. Million’s mother Janet is the focus of the film, as are two veterans. The trio made a trip to Vietnam to meet with Vietnamese people who were also affected by Agent Orange. The documentary chronicles that trip and also deals with effects of the herbicide on the environment of Vietnam as well as on the people who served or lived there from 1961-1971.
During my early teaching years, the jury was still out as to whether veterans were truly impacted by Agent Orange. There were veterans in our faculty who were trying unsuccessfully to get compensation for its effect on their health. Those failures by veterans swayed the public to believe that their claims did not have merit. Would the military really harm its own personnel? It was hard to believe that. Now we know how naïve we were. And we should be ashamed.
Before reviewing the film, I feel it
is necessary to provide the background that the film does not have time
for. After all, Ms. Millions is not
doing a history of Agent Orange. Her
film is more personal than that. What
became known as “Agent Orange” was developed by chemists in the 1940s. It was crafted to be an herbicide and
defoliant. The formula included the very
toxic dioxin. This fact was kept from
the public and even the government and the generals. The Pentagon ended up buying more than 20
million gallons from Dow and Monsanto.
Those companies (as the documentary points out) covered up its harmful
effects to avoid regulation. It was
first used in the U.S. along railroad tracks and power lines to keep vegetation
away. The first military use was by the British in Southeast Asia during the
Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). The
Kennedy administration used that as precedent for its use in Vietnam. This began as early as 1961 and lasted until
1971. This herbicidal warfare was called
Operation Ranch Hand. The purpose was to
remove jungle havens from communist use.
More secretive was the spraying of crops to deprive the enemy of
rice. For this purpose, it was called
Agent Blue. It was usually sprayed from
helicopters or C-123 Providers. A total
of 6,542 missions were flown.
Eventually, 12% of South Vietnam was defoliated. It was not just a catastrophe for the
environment, but for society as well.
Many peasants became refugees as they could not subsist on rice crops
anymore. This facilitated the Saigon government’s strategy of shifting the
population to cities, away from the Viet Cong.
1966, there was increasing evidence of the harm created by Operation Ranch
Hand. The United Nations tried to pass
resolutions condemning its use. However,
the Department of Defense argued the British had established a precedent in
Malaya. It also claimed it was not
covered by the international prohibition against chemical and biological
weapons because it was a herbicide and was not aimed at civilians. By 1970, research and tests showed there was
a harm associated with its use. The
Nixon Administration was forced to admit it was dangerous. Finally, the DOD scaled back its use and in
1971 suspended Ranch Hand. Incredibly,
some units continued to use it against orders!
Although the DOD was willing to admit it was dangerous, it was not ready
to concede that it had had deleterious effects on American soldiers. It eventually admitted that, but it put in a
rule that those effects had to be proven to have begun within a year of discharge. Since most of the effects did not manifest
themselves until later in a veteran’s life, this left most of them
uncompensated. By 1993, only 486
veterans were receiving government help.
This was out of 39,419 claims!
Help came too late for so many
“A Permanent Mark” follows a typical documentary template. Janet Macher and the veterans are interviewed sans the questions. They are well-spoken and passionate about the subject, but they don’t come off as strident. They evince more of a weary, yet optimistic view. Million deftly intermixes their reminiscences with footage from the war. The footage complements the narrative well. And then the film moves on to their trip to Vietnam. Sadly, Janet’s husband had succumbed to his cancer by then. The Vietnam segments contrast the moon scape the defoliant created with the before and after lush greenery that Vietnam is known for. The beauty of the country is apparent and this is matched by the people the touring vets meet. There is a connection as the Americans and Vietnamese suffered from the effects of Agent Orange. They share the belief that the villain was the American government, but the documentary does not use its platform to argue against our involvement in Vietnam. It focuses more on accountability for the use of Agent Orange and the ethics of its use. When they visit Friendship Village (created by Vietnamese and American veterans as common ground) in Hanoi, there is no animosity between the old foes. A visit to an orphanage for children disabled by their genes is heartbreaking.
“A Permanent Mark” works on both a personal and educational level. It jerks tears effectively, but it also informs. I have to admit that after all my reading on the war, there were a few things I learned. All of them were distressing. I had only recently read about Agent Blue being used to kill off the peasants’ livelihoods. I did not know that some of that was done by spraying fields with hoses. The footage of soldiers doing this without protective gear was infuriating. Another eye-opener was that Agent Orange has resulted in birth defects and illnesses for the children of AMERICAN veterans. It is pretty widely known that it had this effect on South Vietnamese children, but the plight of American children has been overlooked. One veteran has a daughter who has undergone 19 surgeries because of a birth defect resulting from her father’s contact with dioxin. Try getting compensation for that. Until watching this film, I had never connected Agent Orange with female personnel, specifically the Donut Dollies. Try getting compensation after being a female noncombatant.
I have seen a lot of Vietnam War documentaries, but most of the stand-alones are aimed at chronicling the anti-war movement or describing how the war was wrong. Few call for action. And in most, we can sit in our living room and shake our head at mistakes made, but don’t feel a connection. “A Permanent Mark” is more topical because it is a call to action. We still have vets and their children that are suffering from something their government did and was reluctant to admit to. It’s not too late to do what’s right for the still living. But considering the plight of homeless vets, I’m not optimistic.
GRADE = A