Life is Precious

Jon Mitchell, Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military's Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange

Rowman & Littlefield, 320pp, £18.95, ISBN 9781538130339

reviewed by Venetia Welby

When monsters in horror movies roar grotesquely into view, it’s often the revelation that they’ve been there all along that’s the big scare. It’s a powerful trope: the axe murderer is locked in the house with you, the bomb is in the attic. We have always known that the US military does some dubious things to protect us. It has had to, we understand, for the safety and happiness of the free world; it has been constantly at war for peace for the best part of a century. Every so often, though, its monstrous identity is fully revealed. Too quickly, normality resumes, and the beast blends back into the shadows. The world moves on.

Jon Mitchell, a British investigative journalist in Japan, cuts an assured path through decades of disinformation, dissembling and spin to bring the abject evil of each military atrocity and its consequences into the full glare of the light. The result is devastating: a litany of war crimes, leaks of radiation and biochemical weapons, inept clean-ups, poisonings and cover-ups. Though some measures have been taken to safeguard the death march of such toxic effluence in the American homeland, in the Pacific it is limitless, allowed to fly free by the consent of Tokyo, itself bound by wartime guilt and complicity. Out here, ‘the Pentagon has taken advantage of geographical isolation and lack of oversight to pollute this region’s territories with zero regard for the environment or human health.’ Mitchell distils a decade of research into an intense and compelling account, drawing on over 10,000 pages grudgingly released by the US military, CIA and State Department through the Freedom of Information Act, and countless interviews with whistleblowers, base-workers and victims.

Mitchell begins with Japan’s World War Two crimes against humanity and its rotten post-war alliance with the US, guilty too of slaughtering civilians with weapons of mass destruction. Neither side wished to be held to account and so Japanese biochemical weapons were unsafely dumped and the vivisectionist scientists of Unit 731 freed, their obscene human data of great value to America. These war criminals were allowed to rise to power again, first in their study (not treatment) of hibakusha, later of Japanese fishermen exposed to radiation in the Marshall Islands. The cover-ups, Mitchell shows, began here, with censorship and denial of radiation sickness from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This extended to convincing averse Japanese civilians that nuclear power was a good idea, despite tectonic overactivity, despite the rapidly hidden yet continual instances of human error. In this silence, citing communism as a mortal threat, America exploited lands that had been brutally occupied by the Japanese, such as the Marshall Islands, Guam, Tinian, Saipan and Okinawa — ‘grey-zone areas’ where things could be done that were not permitted elsewhere.

No fewer than four chapters are devoted to the fate of Okinawa, long a prosperous independent nation before Japan annexed it in 1879. The Japanese discriminated against the Okinawans, treating them as second class citizens and allowing the island to be all but destroyed to protect the mainland in World War 2. Japan regained its independence in 1952, but Okinawa was subject to American occupation for a further 20 years. The US turned it into their military fortress. They stole land at gunpoint, created mock Vietnamese villages in the jungles for target practice, and stockpiled a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and more than 13,000 tons of lethal chemicals. These have proved impossible to dispose of safely and now pollute the sea and land where they were dumped, such as the 108 barrels of Agent Orange ingredients that were discovered under a soccer pitch near Kadena Airbase, severely endangering the health of the Okinawan and American children who played on it. When Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, Tokyo betrayed it by allowing the US bases to stay. Today it persists as a military colony: ’70 percent of US bases in Japan are crammed onto the small island, thirty-one facilities occupying some of its best farmland and prime real estate.’ 50,000 military-related personnel are on this one island, and more bases are being built, wrecking diverse ecosystems — the seagrass meadows, for example, that support the near-extinct dugong, a sacred marine mammal. Okinawa suffers unbearable noise pollution, chemical contamination, myriad sexual and violent crimes, and ongoing accidents with aircraft and trucks. In addition, the US has poisoned the water supply with fire-fighting chemicals it had known for 20 years were unsafe. ‘Today, this pollution jeopardizes the health of hundreds of thousands of Okinawan residents and the health of its own service members—not to mention the health of the millions of tourists who visit the island each year.’

The Marshall Islands are another horror story. Some of them no longer exist; some will never be habitable again, so irradiated are they by the nuclear tests conducted here — the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs a day for 12 years. Mitchell counts the human cost:

All too often, children have borne the brunt of military contamination: the jellyfish babies and thyroid-sickened youngsters of the Marshall Islands, and the Okinawans exposed to CS gas in their classrooms, burnt while swimming and sickened by herbicide leaks into water supplies.

When fallout from America’s largest ever thermonuclear test, Castle Bravo on Bikini atoll, contaminated 20,000 crew aboard 850 Japanese fishing boats, the dying radio operator of the Lucky Dragon prayed that he be the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb. The H-bomb’s creator Edward Teller reacted, ‘It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman.’ Meanwhile, ‘on the island of Rongelap, four centimeters of radioactive coral powder fell; thinking it was snow, children played with it. The dust burned islanders’ feet and made them vomit; their fingernails and hair fell out.’ It took two days before they were moved from the island.

Again and again Mitchell shows that the only concern of the Pentagon is spin; there is no apparent shame over the victims, and fierce resistance to taking responsibility — which entails paying compensation. Those who dare question the US military, even its own sickened veterans, they have branded ‘anti-American’, ‘leftist’, ‘freeloaders’ or ‘commie-liners’. And there is no real recourse for the islanders whose lives and lands have been destroyed. They do not have the protection of full constitutional rights, even in American territories such as Guam which has been left, uncompensated, to deal with the horrific effects of fallout. There is no way to clean up that mess; we do not know how. Burying it under 60cm soil, as happened on toxic Johnston Island, is not going to cut it.

Mitchell quotes the Okinawan phrase, ‘Nuchi du takara’, meaning ‘life is precious’, at the beginning, and he repeats it at the end. Such a belief stands in chilling contrast to US military sentiment. In what might be seen as psychological projection, at every stonewalled investigation there’s a commander claiming the ‘Oriental’ does not value life as an American citizen does. When Vietnamese babies poisoned by the dioxin in Agent Orange were born horrendously deformed, ‘flapping, gasping fish that died almost immediately,’ the authorities blamed it on ‘a fictional venereal disease they dubbed “Okinawa bacteria”.’ American General William Westmoreland is quoted: ‘Life is cheap in the Orient. As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.’ Of the terror visited on the Marshall Islands, Henry Kissinger said, ‘There are only ninety thousand people out there. Who gives a damn?’

Mitchell’s work is balanced, irrefutably argued and scrupulously researched — a third of the book is taken up with references and internet links, ‘with the hope that all those who have been sickened and medical professionals might be able to better understand the scope of exposure.’ He documents the suffering of those at the very heart of the troubles: Nishie Yuki of Iheya Island, whose whole family died from drinking arsenic-laced well water, or sickened US ‘guinea pig’ Robert Celestial, who was given a cloth mask and ordered to transfer ‘postwar debris’ from Enewetak to Runit in the decimated Marshall Islands. It was nuclear waste. The concrete Runit Dome they dropped over it was meant to last 200,000 years. It is already leaking.

In Poisoning the Pacific, Mitchell delivers an indisputable truth, long-evaded, and his direct calls for accountability, transparency and human rights are beyond reasonable:

The right to a clean environment is fundamental—the right to know whether the land you live on in safe or whether it is poisoning the health of yourself and your children, the right to know if the air you’re breathing is free from radiation, nerve agent, or dioxin, the right to know if the water you’re swimming in, and drinking is exposing you to substances that cause cancer. The US military is violating these very basic human rights.

Though this dire trajectory has its roots in World War Two and the Cold War, Pacific islanders today are still condemned to live with active buried poisons and polluted by new toxic chemicals that are endemic to the bases. Mitchell makes the threat of future catastrophes appallingly clear. In a military culture of self-rule and denial at all costs, no progress can be made in redressing the wrongs of the past. No one can learn from buried mistakes — and generations are doomed to repeat them: the US attempt to decontaminate military equipment after relief operations in Fukushima was almost as reckless as the clean-up of the Bravo test some 60 years earlier. Mitchell effectively demonstrates that the Pentagon’s cult of secrecy cannot be allowed to continue, nor its practice of polluting others’ land beyond repair and poisoning those who live on it. The monster is lit up, centre stage. There are no shadows left to vanish it.
Venetia Welby 's new novel, Dreamtime, explores the future of Okinawa’s military occupation. It will be published by Quartet in April 2021.