Governance in today’s world often resembles organized chaos, existing solely for the prevention of complete anarchy. Specific people, or groups, with destructive intentions take charge while others either applaud or shake their heads, wondering about the decisions of such leaders. Passively accepting defective, corrupt governance as if there were no other choice also causes much suffering and injustice. Citizens in a democracy must stay informed about the actions of their government or risk the costly consequences risked by such ignorance. 

During the 2019 Vietnam May Term, I witnessed the long-term effects of what happens when national leaders take actions that are harmful to citizens, and others. Such was the case for American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians who were exposed to the deadly chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. 

Molly Douma with Vietnamese schoolchildren.

From 1962 – 1971, the U.S. military sprayed vast amounts of Agent Orange across parts of Vietnam. The goal of the program, known as “Operation Ranch Hand,” was to kill off vegetation to make targeting the enemy easier. The real, long-term consequence of this operation, however, was that the chemical seeped into the water table and caused multiple generations of Vietnamese children to be born with various mental and physical disabilities. While the U. S. government has, in recent years, taken actions to assist with cleaning up the devastation caused by Agent Orange, it still insists that there’s no direct connection between the chemical and subsequent generations of children with birth defects. 

Vietnamese children who had been exposed to Agent Orange.

During our trip to Vietnam, our class visited a facility for children struggling with the mental and physical effects caused by Agent Orange. As I played hide-and-seek and catch with these loving and joyful children, it pained me to know that their learning challenges, and the ostracism they’ve suffered, was caused by a chemical introduced by my own government. One could only wonder: “What would have happened if the political leaders during the Vietnam War had been able to look into the smiling faces or hear the laughter of the children whose lives were going to harmed by Agent Orange? Would it have made a difference? Would there have been a different outcome?” 

Many politicians have had the luxury of being safely removed from conflict and the consequences of their decisions. That separation also allows them to ignore possibilities regarding the moral bankruptcy of their actions. The violent chaos that has engulfed the opening decades of the 21st century has proven that such separation, reinforced by indifference and ignorance, is neither workable nor safe. 

Nations of the 21st century need leaders who comprehend that their policies ultimately become personal. For a global superpower like the United States, having leadership with that kind of awareness is especially important, because as the children affected by Agent Orange taught me during the 2019 Vietnam May Term, we need to pursue what is good and what is just and demand the same from those who have been given the privilege to govern. 

Molly Douma, Class of 2022, in Vietnam last May.

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