June 8th 1972, Trang Bang village, South Vietnam. Villagers fleeing after napalm attack.
Watching yesterday’s press conference with Obama at the close of the G20 Summit in St Petersburgh I was struck by just how frighteningly good he is at persuasion. Unlike the wooden performance of Cameron who often sounds like he’s reciting a speech written for him off by heart, Obama’s conversational style sounds spontaneous and unrehearsed. He’s a superb actor with a presence designed to disarm and he masterfully kept the Syrian focus on an emotional and moral agenda, refusing to engage with more material questions about tactics or outcomes.
I wonder why it is, then, that while he’s stomping around up there on the moral high ground so beloved by American Presidents and other Western leaders, that no journalist thought to take advantage of his exposed position to take a determined shot at him by bringing up the question of US military use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam? Why, when he so righteously emphasises the atrocity of Syrian children attacked by chemical weapons, did no-one remind him of the countless Vietnamese children running for their lives from their napalmed villages with their skin hanging off? Why did no-one have the courage to remind him of the many Vietnamese children born in the last forty years horribly disfigured because of their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange? And why did no-one ask him why those parents are still trying to get compensation through US courts, not from the US military who sprayed the stuff all over their country, but from the US companies that manufactured it?
Napalm is nasty stuff. U.S. troops used it from about 1965 to 1972 in the Vietnam War; napalm is a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline. This mixture creates a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns up to ten minutes. The effects of napalm on the human body are unbearably painful and almost always cause death among its victims. “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can ever imagine” said Kim Phúc, a survivor from a napalm bombing. “Water boils at 212°F. Napalm generates temperatures 1,500°F to 2,200°F.” Kim Phúc sustained third degree burns to portions of her body. She was one of the only survivors of such extreme measures
Napalm was first used in flamethrowers for U.S. ground troops; they burned down sections of forest and bushes in hopes of eliminating any enemy guerrilla fighters. Later on in the war B-52 Bombers began dropping napalm bombs and other incendiary explosives. Air raids that used napalm were much more devastating than flamethrowers; a single bomb was capable of destroying areas up to 2,500 square yards. Throughout the duration of the war, 1965 – 1973, eight million tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam; this was more than three times the amount used in WWII.
Agent Orange, on the other hand, is more like the sarin claimed to have been used in Syria. It’s a toxic chemical herbicide that was used from about 1965 – 1970 in the Vietnam War. It was one of the main mixtures used during Operation Ranch Hand. Operation Ranch Hand was intended to deprive Vietnamese farmers and guerilla fighters of clean food and water in hopes they would relocate to areas more heavily controlled by the U.S. By the end of the operation over twenty million gallons of herbicides and defoliants were sprayed over forests and fields.
Agent Orange is fifty times more concentrated than normal agricultural herbicides; this extreme intensity completely destroyed all plants in the area. Agent Orange not only had devastating effects on agriculture but also on people and animals. The Vietnam Red Cross recorded over 4.8 million deaths and 400,000 children born with birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange.
The use of Agent Orange was later determined to be in violation of the Geneva Contract yet no-one launched a military strike at the US as a result of this violation. The would-be punishers remain unpunished for their crime.
The US lost the long ‘never ending’ war in Vietnam. There has been no victory in Iraq or Afghanistan. The ‘threat’ to American interests is not in doing nothing in Syria. When you count the cost to Americans in lives lost and billions wasted on losing them, the real threat to ordinary Americans lies in yet another futile flexing of their military muscle in the Middle East.