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Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam Hardcover – July 2, 2004
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About the Author
Born in the Welsh town of Rhuddlan in 1936, Philip Jones Griffiths studied pharmacy in Liverpool and practiced in London, while photographing part-time for the Manchester Guardian. In 1961, he became a full-time freelancer for the London Observer. Griffiths covered the Algerian War in 1962, and then was based in Central Africa before moving to Asia. He photographed the Viet Nam War beginning in 1966, publishing Vietnam, Inc. in 1971. Time Magazine called Vietnam, Inc. 'the best work of photo-reportage of war ever published' and The New Statesman added, 'Of all the hundreds of books about [the War,] this is the truest, the most important, the most upsetting'.
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Shows the horrible chemical legacy of war, and leaves one asking, "Why does humanity do such unhumanitarian things?"
The amazing thing about it is that the country of Vietnam, now pushing 90 million population, is so big that it has largely swallowed all the suffering--portrayed so well in the pages of this book--up.
The war will soon be forgotten, and then it will be history's turn to repeate itself.
Addendum, August 16, 2012. After nearly half a century, the US has decided it will try and clean up its stockpiles of Agent Orange, still festering in Vietnam.
What is even more amazing, the Vietnamese have forgiven the Americans for all that they did. Now that is a true triumph of the heart.
When I say the Vietnamese have forgiven the Americans, what I mean is I have yet to meet a Vietnamese who was bitter because of the war. Sometimes I merely think that there is no room for bitterness in the Asian heart.
This isn't Griffiths' first foray into (visually) documenting the Vietnam War. Before this book, he came out with another photo collection called Vietnam Inc. in 1971. Setting the tone of "Collateral Damage" is its cover, for what overwhelms you is the stark darkness of it. Gray vertical and diagonal lines crisscross each other and seem etched into the blackness. Look closer and it will become apparent that it's a satellite photo of South Vietnam and the gray lines indicate the Agent Orange spray patterns. "Collateral Damage" is not startling in an aesthetic sense, but rather in a morally-outraged sense, as it brings to bear (in print form) the consequences of that infamous chemical defoliant that was used to excess in South Vietnam.
From the outset, Griffiths introduces the aftermath of technological superiority with overhead shots of smoldering foliage. In the postwar photos "American grass" (the shrubbery that has now replaced the destroyed trees) sprouts decades later and children watch over newly planted tree saplings. The requisite photos of bloated baby faces on top of their malformed bodies suspended in formaldehyde at the Tu Du hospital are blown up for the audience's revulsion and inspection. Next in line are the living casualties of Agent Orange. The range of emotions that are expected to well up inside could fluctuate from lividness to sheer pity. Griffiths' camera captured his subjects face to face, obscuring nothing, their eyes (or what's left of them) appealing to the audience's decency. They reaffirm for the audience the monumental task of holding up a mirror to the past in order for the present to confront its selfish ahistoricism.
Each major section in the book has a brief introduction to prepare the audience for what they will see. At the end of the book, the story of how and why Agent Orange was developed comes into view. Once the audience has looked through all the photos of the stillborn, handicapped and suffering human beings, the majority of them children, then even more damning context is inserted. The audience finds out about dioxin, the lethal bi-product of Agent Orange, and how Dow Chemical Company and the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments teamed up to downplay and ignore the birth defects, liver cancer, skin ailments and other harmful effects on the public and military personnel that this omnipresent poison had caused.
Interestingly, all of Griffiths' photos are in black and white, even those that depict Vietnamese (and Cambodian) victims currently living out the legacy of Agent Orange. This anachronistic visual effect makes these people a permanent fixture of the past, forever indigenous to a war that they did not personally experience and yet are bearing the brunt of. Their physical deformities and chronic illnesses serve to underline a cruel karmic spiral that will not close until the crimes against them are redressed.
But, do they believe their lives are a crime? What becomes slowly evident is that the book lacks the photographed subjects' own accounts of their lives and how their debilitating medical conditions affect their self-worth and their outlook on life. Not to mention that those babies in jars have become icons to warn future generations of the costs of war and the lingering effects of Agent Orange in one part of the globe. But, to continually put these dead babies on display is to demean their shattered infancy and to excite an immature audience's proclivities toward gore. The fear is that these unwilling still-lives stop becoming teaching tools and start becoming objects of morbid entertainment.
I understand that Griffiths' intention for this book is to light a fire under (American) society and bring about debate on how we construct and deal with history and our national self-image. Perhaps I'm being overprotective, but I just do not want to see these controversial images become a feast for the eyes that attract/repel our imagination. Eventually, this book may lose its original attraction to the buyer, but will excite the dinner guests to no end. Because what is a coffee table book but something one can peruse, flip directly to the interesting sections and then leave on the table to collect dust?
You have to have a strong stomach to be able to handle this powerful book.