Spraying Agent Orange with Ernest Hemingway overlay.

Hemingway, Embellished Stories, and Agent Orange

Recalling Vietnam for future generations

By Robert McParland

Homecoming was at the center of the ancient story of Odysseus, and it is important in the stories of modern heroes as well. Yet, returning home is a difficult process for some modern-day veterans, as it was for the Greek hero. For some it is the process of a lifetime.

This story is familiar to James Smith, a noted psychotherapist who has often worked with returning veterans. He points out that men and women with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who served in Vietnam, have often chosen quiet places to reduce stimuli, and have retreated to non-stimulating, rural environments. Post traumatic stress disorder, in part, has to do with being keyed up, always on edge and on guard, Smith points out. So, former soldiers, who may be easily keyed up, may choose these quieter areas and natural settings to tamp down the stimulation.

Soldiers returning home have sometimes found home to be dull after the intensity of war, and yet they carry stories of experience.

The point of Hemingway’s World War I story still applies today

Smith also points out that soldiers returning home have sometimes found home to be dull after the intensity of war, and yet they carry stories of experience. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” we see this in Harold Krebs’ dismissal of “settling down” and becoming “really a credit to the community.” For Hemingway, war was where men lived fully. The true face of men going into action, he wrote, is different from any other face you will ever see. As therapists Daryl S. Paulson and Stanley C. Krippner point out, “Some veterans feel like they have lost everything of value and suffer a total alienation from friends, lovers, family and themselves.” And Frederic J. Svoboda, writing about “Soldier’s Home,” likewise, mentions that Vietnam veterans with whom he has spoken have found Krebs’ disillusioned homecoming “reflecting accurately their experiences.” The place that once was home seems pedestrian and alienating. It needs, instead, to be a place where stories are shared and heard.

Some veterans feel like they have lost everything of value and suffer a total alienation from friends, lovers, family and themselves.

If there is healing in sharing one’s story, how is a former soldier affected by Agent Orange to tell people his story and assert his sense of America? He is, at first, in a bind. Patriotic servicemen who once put their lives on the line, typically do not blame the government for their injuries. Nor would most who valiantly served ever want to. Yet, they rightfully seek their veterans benefits, and seek treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals. Many of these veterans have wondered if their communities would listen to their stories. In “Soldier’s Home,” World War I veteran Harold Krebs cannot easily tell his story to the people in his community, who are by now tired of stories of war. When he does tell someone about his experiences, he embellishes those experiences to get a reaction from people. Storytelling is important for Krebs, who needs to work through his memories. It is also valuable for our communities to remember. Social recognition of the valuable things that people have done on behalf of our communities and our nation is critical to the maintenance of individuals and our communities.

In Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” World War I veteran Harold Krebs cannot easily tell his story to the people in his community, who are by now tired of stories of war. When he does tell someone about his experiences, he embellishes those experiences to get a reaction from people. Storytelling is important for Krebs, who needs to work through his memories.

Howard Krebs’ situation is reflected in the experience of some Vietnam veterans. Upon returning from war, he goes unrecognized. His personal narrative is diminished because an audience does not hear his true voice. Krebs is bewildered. It is clear that he once liked the simplicity of a military life that was focused on survival and fighting an enemy. In such conditions, during war-time, he was able to trust his instincts and his choices. But life at home is less defined. Krebs cannot “get on” with the rest of life. He has experienced trauma. He has been present to too much violence, and he needs the healing space of a community. He feels the need to talk about his war-time experience. However, he is unable to tell his story. The possibility of being listened to has vanished. Interest in the war has eroded with time, and the citizens of his hometown have already heard many war stories. Krebs has to make up stories in order to be listened to. He exaggerates. He incorporates the experiences of other soldiers with his own experiences. The narrator tells us that Krebs’s “lies were not sensational at the pool room.” True memories become lost. Krebs cannot talk through his memories. Hemingway is making a point about authenticity here. Krebs needs to become whole again, but he is struggling with being an authentic, truth-telling individual. What we see here in this portrayal of Krebs is that, rather than isolation, there is a need for a soldier’s reintegration into society.

Where Agent Orange fits into the story

There is also a need to be clear about the story of Vietnam – a story of honorable service and hidden struggle. The United States military sprayed defoliants on Vietnam to kill vegetation that could be used as cover by the enemy. The name Agent Orange came from the 55-gallon orange-striped barrels in which the defoliant was transported. Agent Orange was a reddish-brown liquid, a mixture of equal parts of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. The 2,4,5-T used to produce Agent Orange was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD), an extremely toxic dioxin compound. In the air, it appeared as a white mist. Operation Hades, also known as Operation Ranch Hand, started on January 13, 1962. It was directed at Viet Cong guerillas. On the Ca Mau Peninsula, aircraft sprayed nine-thousand acres of mangrove, defoliating 95 percent of the area. Over the next nine years, twelve-million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam. Agent Orange was used heavily between January 1965 and April 1970. Super Orange was used in 1968 and 1969. U.S. Air Force C-123K Provider aircraft typically carried the herbicide. Regular spraying through 1968 killed vegetation, but the white mist also drifted across troops and anyone else in the area.

In 1967, some military officials became aware of potential health problems as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. In 1967, Yale University experiments with Agent Orange showed no definite conclusions, but they suggested that Agent Orange “might be harmful.”

This use of Agent Orange had unintended consequences. Agent Orange affected servicemen who were exposed to it. Some veterans experienced mood swings. Others developed skin rashes, such as chloracne. Physicians found high levels of dioxin in their blood. The most affected were I Corps and virtually all of III Corps, areas that saw heavy spraying. There was “mist drift,” and soldiers encountered the effects of heat and humidity. Helicopter-spray operations held a risk for crews handling materials. During transit, barrels of defoliant could fall off a truck. Re-use of any barrel was a shortsighted move because residue could be a serious problem.

In 1967, some military officials became aware of potential health problems as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. In 1967, Yale University experiments with Agent Orange showed no definite conclusions, but they suggested that Agent Orange “might be harmful.”

Dr. James Clary, an Air Force scientist in Vietnam, said that the Air Force knew Agent Orange was hazardous to health. The vietnamfriendship.org web site shows a quote from a letter Clary wrote to a member of Congress in 1988, saying, “When we [military scientists] initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned.”

American servicemen who had put their lives on the line now faced another problem when they came home. Over the years, some of them became ill. They needed to talk about it and they needed treatment. The chemical companies claimed that there was no incontrovertible scientific proof of a link between Agent Orange and an array of diseases that are claimed to have been caused by exposure. But given the prevalence of the diseases and the proof of possible contamination this seemed to some veterans like an attempt to deny responsibility and to try to not pay out any more money for apparent negligence. Indeed, the companies had been ordered by the Pentagon to make Agent Orange. The companies claimed that if there was any compensation to be given to Vietnam it should come from negotiations between the governments of Vietnam and the United States.

American servicemen who had put their lives on the line now faced another problem when they came home. Over the years, some of them became ill. They needed to talk about it and they needed treatment. The chemical companies claimed that there was no incontrovertible scientific proof of a link between Agent Orange and an array of diseases that are claimed to have been caused by exposure

Citizens can’t sue the U.S. government. The companies who made Agent Orange were another matter. Government contractors are usually shielded from lawsuits. However, in 1978, a lawsuit was filed against the makers of Agent Orange. In 1984, seven American chemical companies settled a class action suit by Vietnam veterans who claimed Agent Orange caused cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. The companies’ lawyers answered that chemical executives could not possibly have intended to commit war crimes when they supplied Agent Orange in the 1960s. However, the companies collectively paid $180 million. By 1997, the last of these payments had been made, with 291,000 people receiving benefits.

This was supposed to be the final word in the courts about Agent Orange. But later there were nine other cases in district court in Brooklyn, filed by veterans who said they fell ill after the settlement fund was completed. A 1994 out-of-court settlement covered soldiers who had become ill before that year. In 2003, a Supreme Court ruling provided for those who had become ill afterward.

The experience of Vietnam and the story of Agent Orange is now “history” for our youth. They live in a post-modern age of immediacy in which, for some, history seems hardly to matter. Yet, they are the ones who need to carry on the story of the commitment of their elders. Vietnam veterans are a repository of history who must share their stories with this younger generation. For story is what has bound culture from the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey to the present, and the story of a Vietnam veteran is a story of America and a story of life.

See our Agent Orange and Veterans Health Issues page.

 

Robert McParlandRobert McParland has worked as a journalist and as an educator – and believes that it’s very important for Vietnam veterans to tell their stories.