Agent Orange: An Ongoing Atrocity

A review of Agent Orange: "Collateral Damage" in Vietnam by Philip Jones Griffiths
Trolley Ltd. (Great Britain)
Hardback, 160 pages, with 100 b/w photographs

In this welcome and timely follow-up to his well-known 1971 classic Vietnam, Inc., photojournalist Phillip Jones Griffiths takes readers on a moving journey into the heart of darkness, shining a light on the pain that still lingers in Vietnam, whose residents are reminded every day of the war most of the world has tried to forget about.

As the title suggests, the photos and text of Agent Orange are focused specifically on the lasting damage done by the most famous of the various defoliants (nicknamed for the orange canisters it was transported and stored in) with which U.S. forces drenched the jungles of South Vietnam. Although "Agent Orange" was intended only as a tactical weapon – not meant to inflict physical damage on the enemy, only to deprive them of cover – it contained a byproduct of chlorine known as dioxin, one of the worst toxins known to man. A huge segment of the population of South Vietnam (along with some residents of Cambodia and many U.S. soldiers) was exposed to the poison during the war, whether it was rained directly onto their skin, inhaled during the spraying of large areas, or ingested in water or food that was exposed. (Unbelievably, the used orange storage barrels were also used for water, food and petroleum storage, and even as barbecue pits, causing further spread of the toxin.) Dioxin is a virtual "genetic time bomb" :once it has entered the body, it may cause any number of birth defects in the children of those exposed, ranging from stillbirth or infant death to mental retardation or physical deformity. Agent Orange is a devastating pictorial catalogue of these defects and more – the enduring legacy of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam.

The images that open the book are of the barren landscapes left by the use of defoliants. They are stark, patchy plains, containing only scrubby grass, often leafless trees, and the occasional sign of militaristic life here and there. These opening pictures are just the calm before the storm, tame in comparison to the images of human suffering that follow, but they do set the mood and illustrate succinctly the quote that opens the book’s first section of narration: "America didn’t just threaten to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age, it went right ahead and did so." As these pictures attest, even 40 years later, 40% of South Vietnam remains barren, growing nothing more than grass.

Following these photos is a section entitled "Poisoning the Land," which contains a slightly more positive group of pictures (despite its grim title), mostly of local people working to clear and cultivate damaged land. This more positive section at first seems out of place in a book about collateral damage, but it does express the enduring strength of the Vietnamese people and their will to do their best with the lot they are given, which turns out to be a major theme of the book.

From here the book dives into much darker territory, beginning with a section entitled "The Bell Jar." Griffiths tells his readers that the vast majority of dioxin-affected fetuses are stillborn or die within 48 hours of birth, if they make it to the end of term at all, and he proceeds to document this statement with silently screaming images of some of the many deformed babies that arrived dead or passed away soon after birth at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and are preserved in formaldehyde in its basement. Here, like a real-life version of some mad scientist’s lab, are babies with two heads or two faces, conjoined twins, children with monstrously cleft palates, seemingly missing parts of their skulls, even children so far from the normal form their bodies are barely recognizable as human. But they are human, every one, and every one had a mother and a father they never knew and a life they never got to live. Griffiths worked to prevent this section from becoming a voyeuristic freak show, instead bringing out the humanity and pathos in the victims where he could. The most striking photo here, for instance, is one of a baby with no visible abnormalities simply lying on its back, its hands appearing clasped over its face, as if in despair – as if it were trying to avoid acknowledgment of its fate and the fate of all those who share his dark, silent room. These still, sleeping children, these glimpses of life perverted and destroyed before it even had a chance, are perhaps the saddest and most haunting pictures in the book, though one might argue that at least these victims were spared the lasting torture endured by the victims whose images fill the remainder of the pages.

In the sections that follow are pictures of people living with a huge range of problems almost certainly caused by dioxin’s presence in one or both of their parents. It is a collection of portraits eloquent in their expression, yet elegant in their simplicity, accompanied by simple, blunt captions that explain only the necessary details not obvious in the pictures above them: the names of the people pictured, perhaps their age or the town they come from, the scientific names for the disease or deformation they suffer. These pictures would be beautiful if what they portrayed were not so horrible.

Most of the victims shown are young, but many are full-grown adults. Some appear almost normal but suffer from mental retardation, blindness, or epilepsy. Others have perfectly intact minds but live with missing or terribly malformed limbs. Still others suffer from torturous skin conditions, dwarfism, paralysis, double sets of elbows and knees, tumors, and countless other maladies. Some have doctors checking on them, others have parents patiently massaging and holding them. Amazingly, though most of the pictures show people living with deformations, few readers could imagine facing, very few appear to be pictures of suffering. There is little crying or wailing, little beseeching the camera for help. What Griffiths has created is not so much a record of the miseries caused by Agent Orange, but a record of humanity surviving against all odds. Again, these pictures are a testament to the incredible endurance, will, and acceptance that has become a way of life for the South Vietnamese people. Where it might have been easy to create portraits that begged, accused, and frightened, such pictures are all too easy to turn away from, block out, or ignore. Instead, Griffiths’ pictures all contain a dignity and a humanity that stares the reader straight in the eye, drawing him in and forcing him to recognize the injustice these people have been forced to live with. The magnitude of the atrocity looms even larger because of the undeniable humanity and admirable strength visible in Griffiths’ pictures.

Frustratingly, though there seems to be a large body of research from some of the chemical companies that created Agent Orange showing the genetic havoc wreaked by dioxin in lab animals, though Americans exposed to the chemical during the war won a $180 million lawsuit against its manufacturers, and though South Vietnamese children suffer from an incredibly high rate of these deformities (even in today’s third generation, as Vietnamese soil, water, animals, and parents still contain a high concentration of the chemical, which is dangerous even in trace amounts), neither the chemical manufacturers nor the United States government has ever admitted any fault in the matter, and neither has ever paid a penny in reparations to the people of Vietnam or made any effort to help those who still face exposure to dioxin and live with its horrifying effects.

Perhaps Agent Orange‘s only weakness is the book’s lack of explanation as to why, as the publisher’s statement says, "theoretically and scientifically there are no proven connections between the maimed subjects of Griffiths’ photographs and the presence of dioxin in Agent Orange." There is conclusive scientific evidence of dioxin’s poisonous effects on animals and of its presence in Agent Orange, and the author clearly believes in the connection, as the general thesis of the book seems to be that America owes reparations and assistance to dioxin’s victims. The reasons cited for America’s denial of responsibility and assistance are also frustratingly vague (though not particularly surprising to anyone familiar with the history of American Empire); apparently, dioxin also exists naturally in the world, and no one has proved decisively that the U.S.’ use of Agent Orange is solely responsible for the high concentration of it in South Vietnam. The book also states that "selective experts" have denied links between birth defects and dioxin. Perhaps most pertinently, Vietnam simply lacks the economic and political pull to produce its own scientific proof or to force the United States to own up. Griffiths also brings up the fact that by denying or ignoring the problem’s existence, the world scientific community is wasting a rare opportunity to study dioxin’s effects, properties, and dangers, as they have a near-identical human populations and environments to compare (North Vietnam was sprayed little if at all with Agent Orange during the course of the war, while South Vietnam was inundated with the chemical).

In any case, if the book leaves one a little starved for detail, it also leaves one incredibly frustrated with the injustice of this self-perpetuating war crime. The victims of dioxin have no choice but to accept its effects. The least the United States government could do is accept some measure of fault for the lasting contamination of an entire country, and do something to assist its victims. One hopes Agent Orange will spread awareness and motivate people to do more to assist dioxin’s victims and cleanse Vietnam of the poison. In these days of nuclear materials, chemical weapons, depleted uranium and other deadlier toxins being used in warfare, Agent Orange also stands as an undeniable and invaluable record of the lasting horror we risk inflicting on our world for untold generations if we do not stop to consider the lasting consequences of our actions in war.