Philip Jones Griffiths, 'Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam'

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

Between 1961 and 1971 the United States dropped approximately 46 million litres of Agent Orange - a herbicide containing the highly toxic waste product dioxin - on South Vietnam. Some 20,000 villages were sprayed, affecting an estimated five million people.

In 1965 an official for the Dow Chemical Corporation wrote an internal memo in which he recognised that dioxin was “exceptionally toxic ... [with] tremendous potential for producing chloracne [a skin disorder similar to acne] and systemic injury”. “Under no circumstances may this letter be reproduced, shown or sent to anyone outside Dow,” he wrote. The spraying continued.

In 1967, in response to growing public concern, US Gen RW Korner produced a memorandum outlining a PR strategy whose stated purpose was “to meet criticism of excessive use of defoliants ... while in reality not restricting our use.” The spraying continued.

Today, 33 years after it finally ended, the people of Vietnam and Cambodia - whose border areas were also sprayed - are still bearing the horrific human and ecological costs: as much as 40% of Vietnam is now classified as barren; almost 4% of pregnant women experience a condition in which the foetus degenerates into a formless bloodsoaked sponge-like mass; and a staggering 6% of school children, randomly sampled, were found to have some form of congenital malformation. Meanwhile the US Government continues to refuse to accept any responsibility or to compensate the victims.

Magnum photographer Griffiths - author of the famous photographic indictment of the war Vietnam Inc - has travelled to the country countless times since the end of the war in an attempt to document this ongoing tragedy, despite the fact that for 20 years he was only able to get one picture printed in a magazine. Simultaneously beautiful and horrific, Agent Orange is both a tribute to the victims - some of whom Griffiths counts as old friends - and an urgent call for justice. As such every US citizen should read this book, which should be available in every bookstore, school and library.

As an important lesson regarding the realities of US power everyone else should read it as well.

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