FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Agent Orange on Okinawa

by JON MITCHELL

“Without Okinawa, we cannot carry on the Vietnam war.”

— Admiral Ulysses Sharp, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces, December 1965.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the United States military transformed Okinawa into a forward operating base for its war in Vietnam. From mainland American ports, it transported supplies to the island it dubbed its “Keystone of the Pacific” before transferring them into smaller ships for the passage to South East Asia. But there is one vital ingredient of its war machine that the Pentagon denies ever passed through Okinawa – the defoliant, Agent Orange.

Given the fact that the military transported everything else through the island – from tanks and toilet paper to guard dogs and hundreds of thousands of GI’s – such a claim is implausible. Yet as recently as 2004, the US government has asserted that its records “contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa.”

Over the past few years, though, the cracks in that denial have started to show. In 2007, it came to light that the Department of Veterans Affairs – the US government body responsible for caring for sick soldiers – awarded compensation to a marine who had developed prostate cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in the northern jungles of the island. Then in 2009, the same department admitted that “herbicide agents were stored and later disposed in Okinawa” during Operation Red Hat – the 1971 US military project to remove its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons from Okinawa to Johnston Island.

Bolstering these official comments are the firsthand accounts of over twenty US veterans who have come forward to describe their experiences with Agent Orange on Okinawa. Longshoremen, forklift drivers, medics and marines, these former service members paint an alarming picture of the widespread use of the herbicide on ten American military installations stretching from the Yambaru jungles in the north to Naha Port in the south. Not only did these veterans help to unload and store the defoliant, they also sprayed it as a localized herbicide to keep down the vegetation around their bases’ runways and fences. “None of us gave Agent Orange the respect we should have,” says one supply yard worker who regularly used it without masks or gloves. “We didn’t know anything about its risks like we do today.”

Now, many of the US veterans who came into contact with Agent Orange on Okinawa are suffering from serious illnesses that the US government recognizes as the result of exposure to dioxins. In some cases, their sons and daughters were born with deformities consistent with Agent Orange poisoning. Despite this, none of these veterans exposed on Okinawa has been able to receive compensation – due solely to the fact that the Pentagon continues to deny that the defoliant was present on the island.

All of these veterans are painfully aware of the harm that Agent Orange may have caused Okinawan civilians at the time. Some of them express their concern at having bartered the defoliant with local farmers in exchange for food and beer, while others talk of seeing groups of school children walking close to base perimeters soon after spraying. “I wonder whether those kids are alive today,” one of the veterans told me. “Or whether the chemicals I was spraying damaged their health as much as it has mine.”

Agent Orange is far from a historical problem. Today in Vietnam, 50 years after the defoliant was first brought to the country, there are over twenty potential dioxin hotspots on the sites of former US bases where Agent Orange had been stored. Yet the people of Vietnam are better informed than those on Okinawa – the last American forces left Saigon in 1975 so Vietnam has been able to conduct extensive environmental testing on the land where the bases once stood. However, on modern day Okinawa, the US military continues to occupy approximately 20% of the island – and it has repeatedly refused requests to test the levels of pollution within its bases. Such a stance is particularly worrying given the military’s environmental track record on Okinawa which includes the irradiation of the entire Torishima Island through the use on depleted uranium ordnance in the 1990s and the discovery of lethal concentrations of arsenic and asbestos on land returned to civilian use in 2003.

Any discussion of American bases on Okinawa quickly becomes entangled with wider issues of imperialism, global security and legitimacy. But the question of whether Agent Orange was used on the island ought to transcend partisan maneuvering. The Pentagon’s increasingly unconvincing denials not only prevent veterans from receiving the medical care that they so desperately need, but they also endanger the health of both local Okinawans and American service members currently stationed on the island.

With the potential environmental and human impact so enormous, any delay by the US and Japanese governments to launch a comprehensive investigation into the issue is criminally negligent. It is time to reveal the full extent to which Okinawa has been suffering its own dioxin poisoning over the past 50 years.

JON MITCHELL lives in Japan. He can reahed at: jon.w.mitchell@gmail.com 

This essay first appeared in Japanese to coincide with the release of “Living The Silent Spring” – a new documentary detailing the damage military defoliants have caused to the children of both Vietnamese and American soldiers. A trailer for the film can be viewed here: http://cine.co.jp/chinmoku_haru/trailer.html

In August, 2011 – as a result of Jon Mitchell’s ( www.jonmitchellinjapan.com ) research into Agent Orange on Okinawa – the Japanese government asked the US Department of Defense to reinvestigate the presence of military herbicides on the island.

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 25, 2016
Mike Whitney
The Broken Chessboard: Brzezinski Gives up on Empire
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
The Louisiana Catastrophe Proves the Need for Universal, Single-Payer Disaster Insurance
John W. Whitehead
Another Brick in the Wall: Children of the American Police State
Lewis Evans
Genocide in Plain Sight: Shooting Bushmen From Helicopters in Botswana
Daniel Kovalik
Colombia: Peace in the Shadow of the Death Squads
Sam Husseini
How the Washington Post Sells the Politics of Fear
Ramzy Baroud
Punishing the Messenger: Israel’s War on NGOs Takes a Worrying Turn
Norman Pollack
Troglodyte Vs. Goebbelean Fascism: The 2016 Presidential Race
Simon Wood
Where are the Child Victims of the West?
Roseangela Hartford
The Hidden Homeless Population
Mark Weisbrot
Obama’s Campaign for TPP Could Drag Down the Democrats
Rick Sterling
Clintonites Prepare for War on Syria
Yves Engler
The Anti-Semitism Smear Against Canadian Greens
August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail