Agent Orange seems destined to take its place in the American consciousness alongside Hiroshima as an event whose symbolic importance after a war ultimately looms larger than its actual effect during it. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan did more than hasten the end of World War II; they forever ended our collective innocence. For a generation of American Vietnam veterans, Agent Orange has done the same.
This dioxin-tainted chemical defoliant arguably aided and protected our soldiers during the Vietnam War, reducing the number of direct casualties. But the after-effects of its use, real or perceived, have left an opposite and shattering legacy. It may have destroyed the health of countless soldiers, as well as that of their children; it most certainly has broken their faith in the justice, the goodness of our country.
The two books under review approach this issue from separate but ultimately interlinking perspectives. Elmo Zumwalts' book is a dual biography of a father and son whose lives became entwined, and eventually consumed, by the use and after-effects of Agent Orange.
Elmo Zumwalt Jr. was the head of inland naval operations during the height of the Vietnam War. As such, he ordered the spraying of Agent Orange along the river banks and naval outposts in Vietnam to help prevent ambushes against the light naval craft patrolling these waterways.
His son, Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III, against his father's hopes and wishes, volunteered and became the commander of one such craft, the "swift boats" of the admiral's brown-water navy. There he served for a year with uncommon heroism and survived without immediate injury. But, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, he was exposed on many occasions to areas heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.
A few years after returning from Vietnam, after happily marrying and completing law school, Zumwalt III's child, Elmo IV, was born with severe birth defects, resulting in a permanent learning disability. Shortly after, Lt. Zumwalt himself was found to have two rare and separate types of cancer.
The story of their lives to this point, and through their ongoing, courageous, incredibly painful struggle for survival, is told solely through a sequence of interviews with the Zumwalts, and with their families and friends. While thus forsaking the comfort of a conventional narrative, the simplicity of this approach has resulted in all the more affecting a story.
We feel as if we have opened a family photo album and caught people just as they are, or as they want to be seen not for the public, but for each other. The mutual love and respect within the Zumwalt family, and especially between father and son, is especially appealing--though ultimately haunting.
Love, duty, honor, courage are not just words to them, but the fundamentals of their lives. They are the living embodiment of American idealism and commitment.
Yet what can we feel when this man must accept that both his son and his grandson are "casualties of the war" that he helped lead? That the tragedies that overtook them are direct consequences of his own orders to use Agent Orange? In his own words, it is ". . . the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning, and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night." Yet--given the same circumstances of war--he admits that he would order the use of Agent Orange again.
What we feel is the same sense of outrage at wasted honor and wasted lives felt by an entire generation of Vietnam vets, more than 250,000 of whom have, at this point, joined in the class-action lawsuit against the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange. (They are enjoined by legal doctrine from suing the government directly.)
The story of this action is told in the second book under review, elegantly related by Peter H. Schuck, a professor at Yale Law School. It is an engrossing tale of naive, angry veterans, their crusading, often self-serving lawyers, well-heeled chemical companies, and both ineffective and brilliant judges--among the latter, most especially the boldly innovative Jack B. Weinstein, who ramrodded the ultimate $180 million out-of-court settlement of the case in favor of the veterans.
Schuck relates this complex drama with colorful, novelistic detail, while always keeping present the essential purpose of his book, which is a critical analysis of the evolution of tort (personal injury) law in times of mass toxic disasters (asbestos, Bhopal, etc., as well as Agent Orange) and the growing use of class-action lawsuits to deal with them.
As both these books make clear, Agent Orange (as with the Vietnam War itself) has become a sinkhole into which the lives and reputations of legions of loyal and dedicated Americans have disappeared. It will increasingly come to symbolize the futility of modern war, whether nuclear or "limited," the ineluctable outcome of which is to destroy equally on all sides, leaving no heroes and no victors--only victims.