It is, writes George Black in the New York Times, "one of the last untold stories of the American war in Southeast Asia." He's referring to the scope of the United States' secret and illegal spraying of Agent Orange—and the even more toxic Agent Purple—on Laos during the Vietnam War. A comprehensive review of Air Force records reveals for the first time that the US military sprayed at least 600,000 gallons of herbicides on Laos, particularly concentrated on portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Black's story, however, focuses more on the lingering impact on families in the villages along the trail, specifically on continuing birth defects in the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were exposed to the chemicals during the war.
Black follows along with members of a nongovernment organization called the War Legacies Project as they visit remote villages and catalog the problem. "Club feet are commonplace," he writes. "So are cleft lips, sometimes accompanied by cleft palate. There are disturbing clusters: five babies born with missing eyes in Nong District; a family with five deaf-mute siblings; an inordinate number of short legs, malformed legs and hip dysplasia." And on and on. The group has so far documented 517 such cases, but they haven't come close to visiting all the affected villages. The hope is that once the documentation is complete, the governments of the US and Laos will for the first time acknowledge the problem and begin to help. (Read the full story, which is accompanied by Christopher Anderson's photographs of young victims and explains why the Lao government hasn't pushed to raise the issue with the US.)