Evidence of Things Not Seen
We prefer the myth of war, the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, abstract words that in the terror and brutality of combat are empty and meaningless, abstract words that mask the plague of war, abstract words that are obscene to those ravaged by war. The children in this book know war.
I too went to war, not as a soldier, but as a war correspondent. I too battle the demons that defeated my uncle. Perhaps it is hopeless to expect anyone to listen. This book is hard to look at, just as war is hard to see. The myth has a powerful, intoxicating draw. It permits us to make real the darkest undercurrents of our fantasy life. It permits us to destroy, not only things but other human beings. And in that power of wholesale destruction we feel the power of the divine, the power to revoke another person's charter to live on this earth. What we do not understand until it is over is that by unleashing this destructive impulse we destroy not only others but ourselves. War reverberates for years afterward, spinning lives into a dark oblivion of pain and suffering.
Most war films and images meant to denounce war fail. They fail because they impart the thrill of violence and power. War images that show scenes of combat become, despite the intention of those who produce it, war porn. And this is why soldiers who have not been to combat buy cases of beer and sit in front of movies like Platoon, movies meant to denounce war, and they yearn for it. It is almost impossible to produce antiwar films or books that portray images of war. It is like trying to produce movies to denounce pornography and showing erotic love scenes. The prurient fascination with violent death overpowers the message. The best record of war, of what war is and what war does to us, is that which eschews images of combat. This is the power of Griffiths's book. It forces us to see what the state and the press, the handmaiden of the warmakers, work so hard to keep from us. If we really knew war, what war does to minds and bodies, it would be harder to wage. This is why the essence of war, which is death and suffering, is so carefully hidden from public view. We are not allowed to see dead bodies, at least of our own soldiers, nor do we see the wounds that forever mark lives, the wounds that leave faces and bodies horribly disfigured by burns or shrapnel or poison. War is made palatable. It is sanitized. We are allowed to taste war's perverse thrill, but usually spared from seeing its consequences. The wounded and the dead are swiftly carted offstage. The maimed are carefully hidden in the wings while the band plays a majestic march.
War, at least the mythic version, is wonderful entertainment. We saw this with the war in Iraq, where the press turned it into a video game, with a lot of help from the military, and hid from us the effects of bullets, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. War is carefully packaged, the way tobacco or liquor companies package their own poisons. We taste a bit of war's exhilaration but are safe, spared the pools of blood, the wailing of a dying child.
Only those works that, like Agent Orange, eschew the fascination with violence to give us a look at what war does to human bodies grapple with war's reality. We can only understand war when we turn our attention away from the weapons my father refused to let us see in museums and look at what those weapons do to us, look at those who bear war's burden.
Modern warfare is largely impersonal. It mocks the idea of individual heroism. Industrial warfare, waged since World War I, means that thousands of people, who never see their attackers, can die and suffer in an instant. The power of these industrial weapons, to those of us who have not seen them at work, is incomprehensible. They can take down apartment blocks in seconds, burying everyone inside. They can demolish tanks and planes and ships in fiery blasts. They can leave a country like Vietnam defoliated and poisoned for decades after an afternoon flight.
Those left behind to carry the wounds of war feel, as my uncle did, a sense of abandonment, made all the more painful by the public manifestations of gratitude toward those who fit our image of what war should be. We see only those veterans deemed palatable, those we can look at, those who are willing to go along with the lies of war. They are trotted out to perpetuate the myth, held up as heroes for young boys to emulate. We do not tolerate deviations from the script.
My family was not unique. There were tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of families like ours, families that cared for the human refuse of World War II. There are families today that carry similar burdens, from Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and now Iraq. And there are their counterparts, once the enemy, now part of the suffering mass of humanity that survived the war, brothers and sisters of the maimed.
Agent Orange allows us to look beyond the nationalist cant and flag-waving used to propel us into war. It looks beyond the seduction of the weapons and the pornography of violence. It looks beyond the myth. It focuses on the evil of war.
War corrupts our souls and deforms our bodies. It destroys homes and villages. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful and sacred. It is a scourge. It is a plague. Before you agree to wage war, any war, look closely at this book. Look at the faces of these children. Look at the faces of your own children.