Philip Jones Griffiths’ haunting images will sear a space in that part of your memory bank reserved for nightmares and denial. They are powerful and gruesome reminders of what the United States did to Vietnamese citizens and its own soldiers for a war that has become a symbol of arrogance, ignorance and failure. They capture the long-term consequences of chemical warfare; the herbicide known as Agent Orange has bequeathed a legacy of deformed and scarred children and fetuses.
The massive spraying of this toxic defoliant over large swaths of southern Vietnam was aimed at exposing communist guerrillas to the firepower of the U.S. military and destroying food crops, but now is best known for its deadly side effects. The dioxin in Agent Orange is a weapon of mass destruction, a ticking genetic time bomb that has seeped into those who thought they survived the war. The casualties of war are thus still being counted almost three decades after the U.S. surrender and almost all await some form of humanitarian assistance.
In February 2004, Vietnamese victims of this eco-cide sued for compensation, the first Agent Orange claim filed in Vietnam. After looking at these images taken by Griffiths over the past two decades, one can scarcely believe that it took so long for someone to demand accountability. Chemical firms in the U.S. paid out $180 million in compensation to families of affected veterans although admitting no legal liability. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms that liver cancer is one of the effects of Agent Orange, part of the deadly progression of dioxin.
These phantasmagoric photos prod our consciences and forces us to see what we would rather avoid. In an era when the causes of democracy and human rights are again being invoked to ratify use of U.S. military might, these pictures serve as a sobering reminder about the unintended consequences of saving nations.
The spraying program was initially called “Operation Hades,” and the sprayers decorated their planes with the slogan “Only we can prevent forests!” The forests remain blighted and the land in the south is still poisoned, especially in areas adjacent to former U.S. bases. A random sample of schoolchildren found that 6 percent have congenital malformations. It is estimated that of Vietnam’s 1 million Agent Orange victims, 150,000 are children.
Griffiths calls on the U.S. government to provide funding for the care of these people. In 2002 the Ford Foundation contributed $150,000 for surgery for 1,000 impoverished victims, an important beginning that will hopefully generate further generosity. The Japanese government is only now beginning to clean up its chemical weapons dumps scattered through China, nearly six decades after the war ended. Hopefully the U.S. government will not be so dilatory in addressing its responsibility for the environmental and genetic consequences of Agent Orange suffered by Vietnamese.
Griffiths writes: “The trauma at seeing the birth of a child rendered almost inhuman by deformities is overwhelming. Those born without brains usually die quickly while those with serious malformation of internal organs endure a little longer. The survivors are either physically handicapped or mentally retarded and sometimes both.” Due to poverty, “often there is little more to offer than love and affection and in every family I visited, compassionate care was showered on the victim.”
The story of Agent Orange by Griffiths probes the dissembling by corporate and military leaders eager to deny prior knowledge about the dangers of dioxin or any links between health problems and the 46 million liters of Agent Orange sprayed between 1962 and 1971. Internal memos from Dow Chemical from 1965 suggest that corporate executives knew about the dangers of dioxin.
Archival research also provides “strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation in military strategy, they also knew of the potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to censor relevant news reports.” Perhaps the greatest impact of Agent Orange during the war was the embittering of farmers who lost their crops, and the undermining of U.S. efforts to win “hearts and minds.”
This disturbing archive of war’s aftermath is an important contribution from a former president of Magnum Photo agency best known for “Vietnam, Inc. (1971),” the finest book of photo reportage on the Vietnam war. Certainly this must have been an emotionally draining and thankless mission, and Griffiths deserves kudos for creating a valuable testimony and resource. He has given a voice to the faceless, distant victims of U.S. aggression and makes a compelling case for shedding the amnesia and insouciant disregard that characterize a sordid chapter in American history.