Evidence of Things Not Seen

Evidence of Things Not Seen

My father and most of my uncles fought in World War II. I grew up in the shadow of the war.


My father and most of my uncles fought in World War II. I grew up in the shadow of the war. But it was not the romantic war of movies and books, although this romance infected me as it did all of the other farm kids in my town. It was the war of the emotionally and physically maimed. My father, who had been an army sergeant in North Africa, went to seminary after the war and became a Presbyterian minister. When he spoke about the war you could almost see him push his rifle away. He loathed the military and especially the lie that war is about glory and manhood and patriotism. When our family visited museums he steered us away from the ordered displays of weapons, the rows of muskets and artillery pieces, which gleamed from behind cases or roped-off areas.

He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. During a Fourth of July parade in the farm town where I grew up he turned to me as the paunchy veterans walked past and said acidly, “Always remember, most of those guys were fixing the trucks in the rear.” He hated the VFW hall where these men went, mostly to drink. He found their periodic attempts to re-create the comradeship of war, something that of course could never be re-created, pathetic and sad. When I was about 12 in 1968 he told me that if I was drafted for the Vietnam War he would go to prison with me. To this day I have a vision of sitting in a jail cell with my dad.

But it was my Uncle Maurice I thought most about as I looked through the images in Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam, by the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Uncle Maurice was in the regular Army in 1939 in the South Pacific and fought there until he was wounded five years later by a mortar blast. He did not return home with my father’s resilience, although he shared my father’s anger and feeling of betrayal. His life was destroyed by the war. He refused to accept his medals, including his Purple Heart.

Maurice would sit around the stove in my grandmother’s home and shake as he struggled to ward off the periodic bouts of malaria. He did not talk about the war. And so he drank. He became an acute embarrassment to our family, who lived in a manse where there was no alcohol. He could not hold down a job. His marriage fell apart. Another uncle hired him to work in his lumber mill, but Maurice would show up late, often drunk, and then disappear on another binge. He finally drank himself to death in his trailer, but not before borrowing and selling the hunting rifle my grandfather had promised me. The money, I am sure, went for a few more bottles.

There was only one time he ever spoke to me about the war. It was at my grandmother’s kitchen table. He spoke in a flat monotone. His eyes seemed to be looking far away, far across the field outside the house and the warmth of the heavy porcelain stove, far across the snowy peaks, to a world that he could never hope to explain.

“We filled our canteens up in a stream once,” he said. “When we went around the bend there were twenty-five dead Japanese in the water.” Those who pay the price, those who are maimed forever by war, are shunted aside, crumpled up and thrown away. They are war’s refuse. We do not want to see them. We do not want to hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they bear from war is too painful for us to absorb. And so we turn our backs, just as society turned its back on my uncle, as it turns its back on all who come back and struggle with the horrors of wounds, physical and emotional.

In 1962 the United States set out to destroy the crops and forests that gave succor and sanctuary to the Vietcong. The herbicide our government used to accomplish this task became known as Agent Orange, after the color of the canisters used to distribute it. Some of the herbicide contained dioxin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons. This herbicide had cataclysmic effects on the foliage of Vietnam, but it also seems to have sown a “genetic time bomb” that has left in its wake thousands of deformed children. Many died shortly after birth. Griffiths has set out to photograph those unfortunates who survived.

There is a fierce debate about the link between the deformities and the herbicide, but the incidence of birth defects in areas that were sprayed is substantially higher than in those that were not sprayed. The wives of US servicemen who were exposed to Agent Orange gave birth to a disproportionate number of deformed babies. The affected families of Vietnam veterans were paid $180 million by the chemical companies that produced the herbicide, although none accepted liability. Needless to say, the Vietnamese victims as well as Vietnam veterans from other nations, such as South Korea and Australia, have received nothing. The only way to understand war is to see it from the perspective of the victims. The face of war is in this book. It stares out at you from the formaldehyde bottles that entomb dead infants with savage deformities. It stares out at you in the portraits of orphans, crippled, plagued by skin diseases, abandoned in hospitals and orphanages. It stares out at you in the pictures from the village of Cam Nghia in central Vietnam, where one out of ten children is born with deformities. In Cam Nghia families care for children who suffer from spina bifida, mental retardation, blindness and tumors, children born years after the war but wounded as if the war never ended.

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.

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