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Looking into a mirror at the war criminals

I was at the light rail train station, handing out leaflets opposing the plan to bomb Syria. Most people agreed; it’s such a poor idea. One man vociferously disagreed. “Bomb the sh_t out of them. You see those bodies? All contorted? Naw, we need to bomb ‘em.”

This is the American way. Good-hearted people are led to believe that we have two choices when it comes to ghastly offensive behavior: cowardly shirking or violent attack. We either man up or we take it like little girls.

Of course the problem with that thinking is that we then begin to commit our own crimes that require others to man up and teach us a lesson.

Chemical weapons? They are a crime and need to be opposed and stopped. But not repeat NOT by yet more violence and not by the nation that has used more chemical weapons than any other nation since World War I. Yes, that would be us, US, USA. “During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20 million U.S. gallons of material containing chemical herbicides and defoliants mixed with jet fuel in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, as part of Operation Ranch Hand.” Twenty million gallons of chemicals all over farmers and rural dwellers, killing approximately 400,000 Vietnamese and producing a half million Vietnamese babies with birth defects, according to the Red Cross of Vietnam.

I’ve met some of these survivors, now in their 40s and 50s. Their lives were ruined by our chemical warfare. Some can’t walk. Some can’t hold things. Some can’t think. And some even passed along birth defects to yet another generation. Agent Orange persists in the environment.

And I’ve tended to a dying victim, my former brother-in-law, who was in combat in Vietnam and said the barrels of the chemicals were often stored right in the mess hall. He was never shot, never wounded, but was killed in Vietnam and never knew it until he came back, married my sister, fathered two children, and those girls found him writhing on the floor in convulsions one day.

He had Agent Orange cancer, inoperable tumors up and down his spine, in his brain, and in his lungs. I read his medical chart that hung on the end of his bed at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, a chart which began with the words, “This poor man...” and went on to describe more than 40 central nervous system tumors. We moved him home to hospice and I helped feed him morphine for three days until he died, hanging on in pain and with a death rattle that got him into Fathers Day, 1995, when he gave up the ghost. He was 46. Thanks to Senator Paul Wellstone, my sister got Agent Orange victim benefits that stopped the bank from taking their little home and the funeral and burial at Fort Snelling was paid for. I spoke at his service and burned sweetgrass — Tim was Blackfoot.

So before the US unilaterally attacks anyone else for their crimes, let’s square up with the Vietnamese. We owe them so much. Not a single Vietnamese sailed a single sampan up the Mississippi to attack Americans. The Vietnamese shot exactly zero bullets at the US or at Americans until we invaded. No Vietnamese bombs ever shot at, let alone hit, the U.S. But we engaged in massive chemical warfare against them. And, as usual, it was based on a pack of lies.

On the Grand Karmic Credit Card of the Universe, our nation has done good and bad, and we need to work off that Agent Orange karma before we launch more violence, before we prematurely start blowing up things without proof of responsibility. Is the Assad regime culpable? Likely. But are the violent insurgents also possible perps? You mean the jihadis who behead, who cut out the hearts of Syrian troops and eat them on CNN? The ones John Kerry and John McCain like so much? You think?

There are nonviolent ways to resolve this. The list of alternatives is long and we have tried exactly zero of them in any serious fashion. We’ve invested so very much of our money, our thought, and our intentions toward violence that we seem incapacitated when it comes to imagining any paths that don’t start and end either with shriveling retreat or destructive attack. We are thinking like 12 year-old boys, not mature adults. Time to really man up and devise a nonviolent approach.

Tom H. Hastings teaches in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University.



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