Agent Orange and Canada’s legacy in Vietnam

Posted on Nov 29, 2014

I’ve realized a number of times my reluctance to show footage of Agent Orange children, an ongoing, third generation issue for Vietnam. I know why. It’s a personal failure of courage and a fear of self. The most important impulse for me in writing All The Broken Things was to bring Orange, the four-year-old sister of the protagonist in the story—a severely disabled child due to her parent’s having been exposed to the chemical called euphemistically Agent Orange—directly into the geography of Canada.

I’d been constructing stories for a few years (Laikas 1, Song of Otto, Will You Staunch the Wound?, Yuri of the Park) which collide world event into the comfortable space of home, namely my neighbourhood in the west-end of Toronto. The deliberate strategy is to collapse time and space and make clear that we are global, responsible, and ethically culpable. War is not a distant media event. Canada allowed the company Chemtura to manufacture under contract to the US military a chemical that was known to be both mutagenic (it causes birth defects) and carcinogenic. This chemical, a defoliant, they also knew, would be sprayed over Vietnam to aid in visibility in the dense jungle areas where “the enemy” hid.

Canada participated in the war the Vietnamese call “The American War” (think about that for half a second) and our participation is still being felt forty-odd years later. There are still children born with severe birth defects because of this ten-year chemical spaying campaign. There are still children born whose parents must look after them for their entire lives. There will still be continued risk until the soil is cleaned.

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Yesterday, in a classroom of undergraduate students—students whose parents and grandparents come from all over the world—I was asked questions about how and why I represented Orange in the novel. I told them I had decided that it was important to me, by way of trying to awaken a sense of duty even for the few readers I might have, to bring this vision of a girl who is monstrous, a monstrous thing that Canada participated in creating, into this physical space, so that our gaze, however we may like it to feel innocent, or generative of activism, or pitiful, cannot stop there. Our gaze must be reflective. We did not just create this issue through an egregious war crime, we continue to BE THIS THING we created, and unless we look at it, and really see our reflection in it, it will remain some distant problem in some distant land. And we will continue to be monstrous. (Aside: Our monstrosity extends very directly into a genocidal pattern of behaviour with our first nations citizens — where we (a wealthy nation and a nation wealthy with WATER) allow water supplies to be contaminated with mercury, and other toxins).

Here is the video I showed this classroom of students. It was the mildest Agent Orange related video I could find, and the room was quiet for a minute after I showed it. One of the students expressed to me that he had directly felt his own culpability in the unfolding of event—his own culpability in failing to understand Orange’s humanity, and his own inability to see her full humanity. This made me inordinately happy. It is impossible to really, truly see, unless one is also responsible. We are, to a large extent, comprised of each other.