IN THIS SUMMER of renewed registration for a possible military draft these two angry and revealing books remind us once again that ordinarily soldiers have always been the chief victims of stay-at-home warriors and far-from-the-field-of-battle commanders who often use them casually for political and military purposes too acrance for the young to comprehend.
To all the vexing questions about the overarmed sovereign state's misuse of its young men we must now add a new harmful technique, nuclear and herbicidal warfare. Ever since the Enola Gay dropped its lethal cargo over Japan in August 1945 the list of servicemen who came into contact with its consequences has grown so much that now we know that his country (and, we can safely presume, other countries attracted to such weaponry) has for decades practiced clandestine warfare on its unwitting military population. Recently, for instance, the Washington-based Committee for Veterans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki declared that 200 of its members -- once members of the occupation forces in the blasted Japanese cities -- complain of such serious health problems as leukemia, tumors and other malignancies, all of which they connect to the fact that one month after the bombings they were compelled to march into those urban graveyards.
Michael Uhl and Todd Ensign, authors of G.I. Guinea Pigs, are a Vietnam veteran and an attorney respectively. Both are active in Citizen Soldier, a New York group concerned with the effects of nuclear and herbicidal warfare on veterans. Howard L. Rosenberg, who wrote Atomic Soldiers, works for columnist Jack Anderson. Both books -- the former more emotional and personal, the latter more clinical and definitive -- are written in the form of a J'accuse with a withering litany of government guilt, duplicity, lack of attention to safety and above all the subordination of human beings to the insatiable needs of "defense."
The approach of both volumes is to tell their stories largely through the enlisted men who later succumbed to life-threatening diseases. These soldiers patroled the decimated streets of Hiroshima and Nagaski and observed atomic testing in Nevada deserts during the 1950s. To these have been added the Vietnam veterans who suffer the medical effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, properly TCDD, the dioxin that is one of the most toxic substances on earth. Taken together (and learning on New Yorker writerThomas Whiteside's pioneering work on the topic, their own extensive interviewing, and in Rosenberg's case, fortuitous unearthing of transcripts and memoranda from the Pentagon and Atomic Energy Commission), Uhi and Ensign sum up their grim conclusion: "America's [atomic] warriors . . . have been treated like so many no-deposit, no-return soda bottles; once the contents are consumed, the empties are thrown on the junk heap."
A typical victim described in both books is Russell Jack Dann, a onetime 82nd Airborne Division corporal who was "marched to a remote desert hilltop and orderd to watch while an atomic device more than three times the size of the bomb detonated in Hiroshima was detonated less than three miles away." He is now in a wheelchaiar in Albert, Lea, Minnesota, suffering from cancer. Other men are profiled, each with terminal illnessess, each denied compensation by the Veterans Administration and each arguing that his disease was caused by exposure to radiation. One of the few who may receive some governmental compensation, Orville E. Kelley -- who observed 22 atomic tests in the Marshall Islands and now has lymph cancer -- described fellow veterans exposed to atomic fallout as "radiation fodder."
Rosenberg's account points the finger of guilt at the A.E.C., whose commissioners, he charges, lied, denounced scientists critical of the misuse of safety levels of radiation and suppressed any research results counter to the prevailing Cold War hysteria. As a Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory report he unearthed declared, overriding the objection of Dr. Enrico Fermi, "This risk is not a probability that anyone will be killed or even hurt, but it does contain the probability that people will receive perhaps a little more radiation than medical authorities say is absolutely safe." In time, writes Rosenberg, the Atomic Energy Commission transferred "virtually all of its safety and health responsibilities to the Pentagon."
"All of the critical issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear power have their roots in the atomic tests in Nevada during the 1950s," according to Rosenberg. These include "the effects of fallout, the relation between low-level radiation exposure and cancer, the elitism that allowed a few men to make decisions that affect us all, the legal precedents surrounding government culpability and the moral questioned of whether the cost can be justified."
Even so, it was not until Vietnam veterans and their wives began complaining about Agent Orange did the news that something was very wrong begin to reach the front pages and television programs. Between 1962 and 1970 U.S. planes sprayed almost 12 million gallons of Agent Orange over millions of Vietnamese forests. Stillbirths, liver cancer and birth defects had begun to be noticed in Vietnam after the withdrawal of the Americans, but it only became new when many veterans charged publicly -- in the media and in courts -- that as a result they suffer from strange ailments, premature deaths, severe acne, numbing of limbs, unusual weight loss. More frightening, severe birth defects have started appearing in their children. In September 1978, Paul Reutershan, 28, of Lake Mohegan, New York, read the charges about Agent Orange in his hometown newspaper. He had been a helicopter pilot in Southeast Asia. When he learned the astounding news that he had incurale abdominal cancer, he traced his symptoms to dioxin exposure, "I got killed in Vietnam," he said in fury, "I just didn't know it at the time." Before he died he, his sister Joan Dziedzic and Frank McCarthy, another Vietnam veteran, organized Agent Orange Victims International to save past and future victims.
Meanwhile a legal and moral struggle is now underway, on the one hand against the Dow Chemical Company (which denies any relationship between dioxin and illnesses and deformities) and on the other against the VA, which insists that no veterans are victims of herbicides.
Whatever the outcome, the three authors have broadened and deepened this crucial debate.