Editorial: Time to Apologise to Vietnam?

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005

A recent government report acknowledged the devastating effect Agent Orange had on New Zealand soldiers serving in Vietnam. The Veterans Affair’s minister, George Hawkins, issued an apology on behalf of the government. It was long overdue. But it also raises the issue of when the NZ Government will issue an apology to the Vietnamese for the illegal invasion of their country and the deaths that ensued as a result. So far there has been no hint of an apology to the Vietnamese whose country, forests and peoples were the original subjects of the Agent Orange attacks.

NZ veterans had always claimed that exposure to the defoliant resulted in widespread illness in both themselves and their children as well as a disproportionately high death rate at an early age. During parliamentary committee hearings, the committee heard that of 814 members of the NZ Army’s 161 Battery, no fewer than 134 have already died since the war at an average age of 51 years and 9 months. In addition, offspring of soldiers affected can suffer from spina bifida, cleft lip or palate, acute myeloid leukaemia or cancer.

After years of denial and cover-up, the army itself finally admitted to the committee that its soldiers in the Phuoc Tuy province had been sprayed more than 350 times.

So far Ivan Watkins Dow (now called Dow AgroSciences) have denied making Agent Orange at its New Plymouth plant, though it agrees it made 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D there.

Meanwhile, millions in Vietnam subjected to this deadly spray among other atrocities receive no apology or recognition for the immoral conduct of this western crusade into their homeland. It was a crusade to defend capitalism and promote ‘western values’. While our veterans rightly seek accountability, justice is not a word that one hears being raised for Vietnamese subjected to this systematic violence.

The current Labour Government has generously apologised to Samoa for our inept governing of them after World War One, to Chinese immigrants subject to systemic racism last century and to gays subject to discrimination. It is imperative for the government to now deal fairly with the veterans’ illnesses in the light of the parliamentary report.

That leaves one outstanding issue: is it time also for the government to issue an unqualified apology to the people of Vietnam who were subjected to violence and death from New Zealand troops? Justice must be done to them too, and the beginning of that process is apology. While it may be still a subject of controversy, there is no doubt in most New Zealanders’ minds that we had no right to be in Vietnam. Thirty years after the Kirk Labour Government recognised this fact by withdrawing our troops immediately upon being elected (and two years before the US were driven out), we should now apologise for the damage we caused. To do anything less would be to lack moral fibre.

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