Agent Orange: A chemical cocktail that killed a countryside and scarred a people

Lily Bui writes: Mangroves are sturdy trees. Recognizable by their extensive root systems, these trees can thrive in muddy soil, sand, peat, even coral. They tolerate water much saltier than most other plants and survive flooding during severe storms. It is perhaps their sturdiness that led mangroves to be one of the most significant targets in the Vietnam War.

During the war, communist guerilla fighters would often take refuge in Vietnam’s thick jungles. Mangroves, among other types of flora, provided shelter from eyes in the sky seeking to deliver air strikes in strategic locations. So the U.S. military exposed guerillas by bombarding the trees themselves with huge amounts of defoliants, chemical herbicides that cause the leaves to fall off of plants. The most infamous defoliant was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripes marking the drums it was shipped in.

The defoliant is an equal mix of two herbicides, 2,4-diclorophenoxyacetic acide (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). When sprayed on foliage during the war, it quickly stripped off the leaves, revealing anyone and anything below the canopy, destroying crops, and clearing vegetation near U.S. bases. By the end of the campaign, U.S. military forces had sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on over 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops—an area the size of Massachusetts, and about 24 percent of South Vietnam. Some areas of Laos and Cambodia along the Vietnam border were also sprayed. This massive effort, known as Operation Ranch Hand, lasted from 1962 to 1971. [Continue reading…]

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