Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

In last month’s blitzkrieg tour of Central and Southeast Asia, two of the four stops Secretary Clinton made share the unfortunate bond of enduring an invasion by U.S. air and ground forces. In the space of a few days, Clinton visited both Vietnam and Afghanistan, thus physically linking what had once been, and then what has now become the United States’ longest war. One of the more insidious links that tie these conflicts together was highlighted in a few of the news stories about Clinton’s trip. That link, in a word, is agribusiness.

The big news of Clinton’s visit to Vietnam was her reproach of the government’s human rights record. As Jim Arkedis pointed out on ProgressiveFix, the Secretary of State’s mention of human rights was more a talking point than anything else — something to be noted before moving on to bigger priorities of security agreements and trade relations.

Clinton’s invocation of human rights in Vietnam is nonetheless noteworthy, not simply for what it says about Vietnam, but also for what it says about the status of the United States’ grim record of human rights atrocities in the region. The destructive legacy of the U.S. war in Vietnam is so vast that avoiding it would have left Clinton neck-deep in accusations of hypocrisy.

The State Department’s strategy for dealing with the sticky issue of human rights in the region was to beat us critics to the punch, underscoring U.S. efforts to ameliorate the effects of one of the nastiest and longest-lasting forms of devastation wreaked upon the Vietnamese during the war: the chemical dioxin, otherwise known as Agent Orange.

A Deadly Agent

Between 1961 and 1971, an estimated 3 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant that was primarily intended to make targets more visible, as well as destroy the agricultural infrastructure of the insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, as well as thousands of American soldiers, developed cancer and other illnesses as a result.

The damage of Agent Orange has been passed down to the children of these victims. At least 150,000 of them have been born with missing limbs, deformed faces, developmental disabilities, and other serious birth defects. Some areas around the military bases where dioxin was stored still have dangerous levels of Agent Orange in their soil, posing a continuing threat to the environment, animals, and people of those communities.

The use of this devastating weapon was made possible by a partnership between the U.S. government and U.S. chemical companies. During the Vietnam War, seven major U.S. chemical companies produced Agent Orange, including Dow Chemical Company, Thompson Chemicals Corp., and Monsanto Company, and sold it to the U.S. government for military uses. Despite the profits earned by these companies from their role in this massive and ongoing tragedy, Monsanto and others have managed to escape full accountability for the effects of their products.

In 1984, a class action lawsuit brought by U.S. veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange resulted in a $180 million settlement with the chemical companies in exchange for a no-fault finding and preemption of future suits from the claimants.

A Devastating Legacy

Two-and-a-half decades later, the U.S. government has finally re-opened the issue and for the first time, turned its attention to the people of Vietnam. Thanks to the leadership of Vietnam veteran and Democratic Rep. Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa, Congress held its first hearings on Agent Orange that focused on the Vietnamese victims in 2008. A second hearing was held in 2009 and a third on July 15, when, for the first time, the U.S. Congress heard testimony from a Vietnamese victim — Tran Thi Hoan, who was born without legs and a with a missing hand due to her mother’s exposure to dioxin. A week before this summer’s hearing, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Al Franken (D-MINN) visited Vietnam and toured Agent Orange treatment centers in and around the central coastal city of Da Nang.

In actual dollars, the results of such renewed attention have been relatively meager. Since 2007, Congress has earmarked $3 million annually for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. This is, in the words of Faleomavaega, “a pittance.” The Ford Foundation has developed a $300 million dollar clean-up plan underwritten mainly by the U.S. government. But, to nobody’s surprise, the check has yet to arrive.

The United States has failed to put its money where its mouth is. But at least it is admitting responsibility. Meanwhile, the corporations that lined their pockets at the expense of the Vietnamese people have not even done that much. Instead of conceding any wrongdoing and assuming economic responsibility, Monsanto places all the blame on the U.S. government.

This position was backed by the pro-corporate U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, when it ruled that the companies manufacturing Agent Orange were not responsible for its effects, since they were only carrying out the instructions of the government. This decision must have prompted champagne toasts from the thousands of executives whose companies contract with the Defense Department. In effect, the Supreme Court ruling sets the precedent that there can be no such thing as a corporate war crime, so long as the U.S. government legally underwrites the military-industrial complex.

For its part, since Vietnam, Monsanto has tried to change its image, no longer producing chemicals that help kill the enemy, but instead seeds and other agricultural products that help feed the world and turn fence-sitters to our side in sites of conflict. Figuring out how to help farmers in war-torn areas is a big part of this business, as are those sweet contracts with the U.S. Defense Department that flow from it.

Agribusiness and the Spoils of War

Herein lies the connection to the other big news story of Clinton’s trip. Last Tuesday, when she touched down in Kabul for a meeting of the 70 nations giving aid to Afghanistan, Clinton announced, in the voguish verbiage of today’s foreign policy establishment, a “surge” in civilian efforts. This is a fancy way of assuring the Afghans and the international community that the U.S. counterinsurgency war is about much more than drones and firefights. The United States, she insists, is committed to making Afghanistan a better place for the Afghan people. This policy is also about making profits better and better for Monsanto and other big agriculture companies.

As a prelude to Clinton’s trip to Kabul, NPR’s “Marketplace” aired a story highlighting one of the many promising aspects of the non-military side of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The story featured the National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team, which has been touted as one the wars “quiet successes.” The program is supposed to help Afghan farmers incorporate scientific and technological innovations into their farming practices to make them more efficient and sustainable.

Monsanto, which is suspected by some of being involved in a clandestine operation to eradicate the poppy crop in southern Afghanistan, is not surprisingly a key participant in the program. In addition to contracting with the U.S. government, it has hosted Afghan agriculture officials at its headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.

While Monsanto has kept a low profile in all of this, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is a friend of big-business agriculture, has been less than quiet about who stands to benefit from this kind of program. In his interview with NPR, he expounded on how U.S. agribusiness would eventually profit from the work of the Agricultural Development Teams:

If we can grow a middle class in Afghanistan and if we can create wealth and opportunities through agriculture, through their own exports, then eventually they will need more of our agricultural products. They may begin to consume more meat, for example. So that might increase beef exports, for example. So building a middle class through a strong agriculture helps our producers eventually by creating additional markets that don’t exist today.

I’m not sure quite where to start … with the absurdity of believing that the United States can whip up a middle class in Afghanistan, or with the audacity of presuming that corporate agribusiness should be profiting from the war there. Then again, the latter would be more the norm than the exception. Before leaving Iraq, Paul Bremer issued a directive that protects the intellectual property rights of genetically-modified seeds. With this protection, Monsanto and other big agri companies can go to Iraq, advertise the wonders of their seeds, and then charge expensive licensing and renewal fees, thus trapping farmers in an endless cycle of dependence and debt.

Over the years, Monsanto and big agribusiness have wised up to the mores of war profiteering. Vietnam taught them that they could get away with producing lethal chemicals, leaving them with only a small dent in their pockets and a somewhat larger scar on their reputations. Bringing local farmers from war zones into the agribusiness system of production and consumption, however, is good for business and, with the exception of ranting leftists, good for reputations. This is what, in the language of neoliberalism, we call a win-win situation.

Thanks to the over-reaching of Monsanto and the big-agri corporations through the World Trade Organization and other neoliberal institutions of international trade over the last decade, however, the circle of critics continues to grow and strengthen. Indian activist and philosopher, Vandana Shiva, who has led the fight against agribusiness’ destruction of local farming and the environment in India and elsewhere for over two decades, has now become a regular in the mainstream international press. In January, she even appeared on CNN to discuss the plight of Indian farmers who are deeply and forcibly indebted to agribusiness, thousands of whom have committed suicide out of desperation.

Shiva effectively challenges the notion that the big agricultural companies are spreading peace and prosperity around the world. “Pesticides,” she says, are “the real weapons of mass destruction.” They simply moved from the war industry into agriculture. There is no reason to believe that the outcome in Afghanistan will be any better for small farmers there than in India. Unfortunately, for all of their suffering, these individuals and their families will not be seen as victims of war crimes or human rights abuses.

Until we figure out a way to implement international accountability into the military-industrial complex, it is unlikely that Monsanto will ever promise compensation, let alone actually pay, Afghan farmers for the destruction of their poppy crop or for the thousands of individual economic, ecological, and human tragedies that will likely ensue from big agribusiness’s war in Afghanistan.

Hannah Gurman is an Assistant Professor at NYU’s Gallatin School. She teaches and researches widely on issues of U.S. foreign policy and American culture. Currently she’s researching the return of counterinsurgency in the American military establishment.