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US-Vietnam Agent Orange clean-up sets a model

On Thursday, the US and Vietnam start cleaning up dioxin from Agent Orange. This reconciliation, 37 years after the war, may set a precedent in the ethics of dealing with the aftereffects of war.

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    US Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam in this 1966 file photo.
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For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States will start to clean up the herbicide Agent Orange used to defoliate forests during that guerrilla conflict.

The cleanup, which begins Thursday at the former US military base of Da Nang, is a step forward in the ethics of modern warfare. It sets a precedent for how former foes can reconcile by taking responsibility for a war’s aftereffects on health and the environment.

It also points to the need for the US to make sure it doesn’t leave any ecodisasters in Iraq and Afghanistan – such as open burn pits – when leaving the military bases in those war zones.

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In Vietnam, the US plans to spend $49 million to clean up several “hot spots” where the chemical dioxin in Agent Orange remains a health hazard by seeping into soils and watersheds. Between 1962 and 1971, the American military dumped about 20 million gallons of herbicides on jungles and mangroves to expose communist fighters. The area exposed is estimated to be the size of Massachusetts. In the initial cleanup, millions of tons of soil will be removed to get rid of the toxin. Private donors are being sought to help pay for what may eventually be a $450 million price tag for helping Vietnam end the problem.

The US effort is the result of steady reconciliation with Vietnam since 1996 when the two countries began formal ties. They are now fast removing many irritants, such as their long dispute over the harmful legacy of Agent Orange.

“We had a complicated relationship, but we’re not bound by that history,” said US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a visit to Hanoi in June.

One reason for drawing closer is that China threatens hostility over competing claims by several nations to islands in the South China Sea. The US is also eager to gain naval ship access to Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic port in Vietnam that could help the US defend allies in Asia.

The Pentagon has long struggled with cleaning up its pollutants, especially within the US. It has had a testy relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency in the work to remove hazardous materials at some 900 abandoned bases or facilities that manufactured products for the military.

The US has also begun similar work in Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos, to remove thousands of unexploded bombs dropped on that country in an attempt to cut North Vietnam’s supply lines. Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first US secretary of State to visit Laos in 56 years.

The ultimate cost of any war is difficult to calculate. Even 37 years after the US left a crumbling South Vietnam, costs over America’s use of Agent Orange are still being added. Such delayed expenses from a war should give pause to any country before it enters a conflict.

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