Photo Exposé: The Vietnam Syndrome

In the 1960s, the United States blanketed the Mekong River delta with Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant more devastating than napalm. Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the chemical is still poisoning the water and coursing through the blood of a third generation. From Ho Chi Minh City to the town of Ben Tre and from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Hackettstown, New Jersey the photographer James Nachtwey went in search of the ecocide’s cruelest legacy, horribly deformed children in both Vietnam and America. Nachtwey, arguably the most celebrated war photographer of his generation, sees the former conflict in Southeast Asia as a touchstone for his work. “My decision to become a photographer,” he says, “was inspired by photographs from the Vietnam War.” This expanded photo essay from the land of Agent Orange—part of which appears in the August V.F. with an accompanying essay by Christopher Hitchens makes clear, according to Nachtwey, that “the effects of war no longer end when the shooting stops.”
Essay by Christopher Hitchens, August 2006
Agent Orange, used by the U.S. to defoliate Vietnam’s jungles, has now poisoned a third generation. From Ho Chi Minh City to the town of Ben Tre, photographer James Nachtwey and the author confront that ecocide’s most shocking legacy—horrifyingly deformed children—even as new lawsuits could bring justice for more than a million victims, both Vietnamese and American.
To be writing these words is, for me, to undergo the severest test of my core belief that sentences can be more powerful than pictures. A writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked. I seriously doubt my ability to perform this task on this occasion. Unless you see the landscape of ecocide, or meet the eyes of its victims, you will quite simply have no idea. I am content, just for once and especially since it is the work of the brave and tough and undeterrable James Nachtwey to be occupying the space between pictures.
The very title of our joint subject is, I must tell you, a sick joke to begin with. Perhaps you remember the jaunty names of the callous brutes in Reservoir Dogs: “Mr. Pink,” “Mr. Blue,” and so on? Well, the tradition of giving pretty names to ugly things is as old as warfare. In Vietnam, between 1961 and 1971, the high command of the United States decided that, since a guerrilla struggle was apparently being protected by tree cover, a useful first step might be to “defoliate” those same trees. Famous corporations such as Dow and Monsanto were given the task of attacking and withering the natural order of a country. The resulting chemical weaponry was euphemistically graded by color: Agent Pink, Agent Green (yes, it’s true), Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and — spoken often in whispers — Agent Orange. This shady gang, or gang of shades, all deferred to its ruthless chief, who proudly bore the color of hectic madness. The key constituent of Agent Orange is dioxin: a horrifying chemical that makes total war not just on vegetation but also on the roots and essences of life itself. The orange, in other words, was clockwork from the start. If you wonder what the dioxin effect can look like, recall the ravaged features of Viktor Yushchenko — ironically, the leader of the Orange Revolution.
The full inventory of this historic atrocity is still being compiled: it’s no exaggeration to say that about 12 million gallons of lethal toxin, in Orange form alone, were sprayed on Vietnam, on the Vietnamese, and on the American forces who were fighting in the same jungles. A prime use of the chemical was in the delta of the Mekong River, where the Swift Boats were vulnerable to attack from the luxuriant undergrowth at the water’s edge. Very well, said Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., we shall kill off this ambush-enabling greenery by poisoning it from the skies. Zumwalt believes his own son Elmo III, who was also serving in the delta, died from the effects of Agent Orange, leaving behind him a son with grave learning disabilities. The resulting three-generation memoir of the Zumwalt family — My Father, My Son (1986), written by the first and second Elmos about themselves and about the grandchild — is one of the most stoic and affecting family portraits in American history.
You have to go to Vietnam, though, to see such fallout at first hand. I had naïvely assumed that it would be relatively easy to speak to knowledgeable physicians and scientists, if only because a state that is still Communist (if only in name) would be eager to justify itself by the crimes of American imperialism. The contrary proved to be the case, and for two main reasons. The government is too poor to pay much compensation to victims, and prefers anyway to stress the heroic rather than the humiliating aspects of the war. And traditional Vietnamese culture has a tendency to frown on malformed children, whose existence is often attributed to the sins of a past life. Furthermore, Vietnamese in general set some store by pride and self-reliance, and do not like soliciting pity.
I am quite proud of what I did when I came to appreciate, in every sense of the word, these obstacles. The first time I ever gave blood was to a “Medical Aid for Vietnam” clinic, in 1967. That was also the moment when I discovered that I have a very rare blood type. So, decades later, seeing a small ad in a paper in Ho Chi Minh City (invariably still called Saigon in local conversation) that asked for blood donations for Agent Orange victims, I reported to the relevant address. I don’t think they get many wheezing and perspiring Anglos at this joint, let alone wheezing and perspiring Anglos with such exclusive corpuscles; at any rate I was fussed over a good deal while two units were drawn off, was given a sustaining bowl of beef noodles and some sweet tea, and was then offered a tour of the facilities.
This privilege, after a while, I came almost to regret. In an earlier age the compassionate term for irredeemably deformed people was lusus naturae: “a sport of nature,” or, if you prefer a more callous translation, a joke. It was bad enough, in that spare hospital, to meet the successful half of a Siamese-twin separation. This was a more or less functional human child, with some cognition and about half the usual complement of limbs and organs. But upstairs was the surplus half, which, I defy you not to have thought if you had been there, would have been more mercifully thrown away. It wasn’t sufficient that this unsuccessful remnant had no real brain and was a thing of stumps and sutures. (“No ass!,” murmured my stunned translator in that good-bad English that stays in your mind.) Extra torments had been thrown in. The little creature was not lying torpid and still. It was jerking and writhing in blinded, crippled, permanent epilepsy, tethered by one stump to the bedpost and given no release from endless, pointless, twitching misery. What nature indulges in such sport? What creator designs it?
But all evil thoughts about euthanasia dissolve as soon as you meet, first, the other children and, second, those who care for them. In the office of Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan, a wonderful lady who is in charge of the equally impossible idea of “rehabilitation,” I was taking notes when a lively, pretty, but armless 10-year-old girl ran in and sprang with great agility onto the table. Pham Thi Thuy Linh’s grandfather had been in the South Vietnamese Air Force, had helped to vent Agent Orange on his Communist foes, and had suddenly succumbed to leukemia at the age of 42. His curse has been transmitted down the generations, whether via the food chain or the chromosomes is unclear. While Pham Thi Thuy Linh deftly signed her name with her right foot – with which she also handled a biscuit from the fond nurses — I learned that she had been listed for some artificial arms, perhaps with modern synthetic flesh, from an organization in Japan. All this will take is a wait until she’s fully grown, and some $300,000. Money well spent, I’d say. But there will be no “making whole” for these children — eerily combining complete innocence with the most sinister and frightening appearance, ridden and riddled with cleft palate and spina bifida. One should not run out of vocabulary to the point where one calls a child a monster, but the temptation is there. One sees, with an awful pang, why their terrified and shamed parents abandon them to this overworked clinic. One also realizes that it isn’t nature, or a creator, that is to blame. If only. This was not a dreadful accident, or a tragedy. It was inflicted, on purpose, by sophisticated human beings.
I am not an epidemiologist. And there are professionals who will still tell you that there is no absolutely proven connection between the spraying of this poison and the incidence of terrifying illnesses in one generation, or the persistence of appalling birth defects in the next one or the next one. Let us submit this to the arbitration of evidence and reason: what else can possibly explain the systematic convergence? I left Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and went down the road and along the river, by boat, to the delta town of Ben Tre. This is the very place where Peter Arnett heard the American soldier say in 1968 that “we had to destroy the town to save it.” My ferry churned the big muddy waters that had once been cruised by the Swift Boats, and I stood out in the pre-monsoon rain to get a clear look at the riverbanks with vegetation that took so long to grow back. Ben Tre Province, then called Kien Hoa, was a kind of “ground zero” for this experiment on human beings and animals and trees.
Jungles can ostensibly rise again, but dioxin works its way down through the roots and into the soil and the water, where it can enter the food chain. The unforgivable truth is that nobody knew at the time they were spraying it how long it takes dioxin to leach out of the natural system. The muttered prayer of many Vietnamese villagers is that this generation will be the last to feel their grandparents’ war in their bones and their blood and their epidermis, but the fact is that the town of Ben Tre is home to about 140,000 people, of whom, the Red Cross says, 58,000 are victims of Agent Orange. (I don’t trust Vietnamese statistics, but these were supplied to me by a woman expert who is not uncritical of the Communist regime, and whose family had been subjected to forced “re-education” after the fall of Saigon.)
Once again, after a tour of some thatched hamlets and some local schools for the special cases, I experienced an urgent need to be elsewhere or alone. How many times can one pretend to “interview” the parents of a child born with bright-yellow skin? The cleft palates, the deafness, the muteness, the pretzel limbs and lolling heads … and the terrible expressions on the faces of the parents, who believe that this horror can sometimes skip a generation. There is just enough knowledge for agony and remorse, in other words, but not enough for any “healing process.” No answer, above all, to the inescapable question: When will it stop? A rain from hell began falling about 40 years ago. Unto how many unborn generations? At a school full of children who made sign language to one another or who couldn’t sit still (or who couldn’t move much at all), or who couldn’t see or couldn’t hear, I took the tour of the workshops where trades such as fishnet weaving or car repair are taught, and was then asked if I would like to say a few words, through an interpreter, to the assembly. I quite like a captive audience, but I didn’t trust myself to say a fucking thing. Several of the children in the front row were so wizened and shrunken that they looked as if they could be my seniors. I swear to you that Jim Nachtwey has taken photographs, as one of his few rivals, Philip Jones Griffiths, also took photographs, that simply cannot be printed in this magazine, because they would poison your sleep, as they have poisoned mine.
‘After such knowledge,” as T. S. Eliot asked in “Gerontion,” “what forgiveness?” That’s easy. The question of forgiveness just doesn’t come up. The world had barely assimilated the new term “genocide,” which was coined only in the 1940s, before the United States government added the fresh hell of “ecocide,” or mass destruction of the web of nature that connects human and animal and herbal life. I think we may owe the word’s distinction to my friend Orville Schell, who wrote a near-faultless essay of coolheaded and warmhearted prose in the old Look magazine in March 1971. At that time, even in a picture magazine, there weren’t enough photographs of the crime, so his terse, mordant words had to suffice, which makes me faintly proud to be in the same profession. And at some points, being naturally scrupulous about the evidence, he could only speculate: “There are even reports of women giving birth to monsters, though most occurrences are not reported because of nonexistent procedures for compiling statistics.”
Well, we know now, or at least we know better. Out of a population of perhaps 84 million Vietnamese, itself reduced by several million during the war, there are as many as one million cases of Agent Orange affliction still on the books. Of these, the hardest to look at are the monstrous births. But we agree to forgive ourselves for this, and to watch real monsters such as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, who calmly gave the orders and the instructions, as they posture on chat shows and cash in with their “memoirs.” But, hey, forget it. Forget it if you can.
No more Latin after this, I promise, but there is an old tag from the poet Horace that says, Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur. “Change only the name and this story is also about you.” The Vietnam War came home, and so did many men who had been exposed to Agent Orange, either from handling it and loading it or from being underneath it. If you desire even a faint idea of the distance between justice and a Vietnamese peasant family, take a look at how long it took for the American victims of this evil substance to get a hearing. The chemical assault on Vietnam began in 1961, in the early days of the Kennedy administration, and it kept on in spite of many protests for another 10 years. The first effective legal proceeding brought in any American court was in 1984, in New York. This class action, settled out of court, was so broadly defined, in point of American victims and their stricken children, that almost nobody got more than $5,000 out of it, and there was a sharp (or do I mean blunt?) cutoff point beyond which no claim could be asserted. Six million acres of Vietnam had been exposed to the deadly stuff, and, as is the way with protracted litigation, the statistics began to improve and harden. It was established that there was a “match” between those who had been exposed and those who were subject, or whose offspring were subject, to alarming disorders. Admiral Zumwalt, who had first used the phrase “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” in connection with Vietnam, took a hand in forwarding the legal cause and might have added that his grandson should not be (or do I mean should be?) the last one to suffer for a mistake. More than a mistake. A crime.
Long after both senior male Zumwalts had died — or in 2003, to be precise — the Supreme Court ruled that the issue had not been completely put to rest by the 1984 settlement. The way now lies open for a full accounting of this nightmarish affair. A report, written by Professor Jeanne Stellman, of Columbia University, as part of a U.S. government study, has concluded that nearly two million more gallons of herbicide were disseminated than has yet been admitted, and that the dioxin content of each gallon was much higher than had been officially confessed. (It has been calculated from tests on some Vietnamese that their dioxin levels are 200 times higher than “normal.”) The implications are extraordinary, because it is now possible that thousands of Americans may join a million of their former, Vietnamese adversaries in having a standing to sue.
“Doesn’t it ever end? When will Agent Orange become history?” These were the words of Kenneth Feinberg, who figured as the court’s “special master” in the 1984 suit, and who has more recently run the Victim Compensation Fund for the families of those who died in the attacks of September 11, 2001. One should not leave him to answer his own question all by himself. Agent Orange will “become history” in a different way from the trauma of September 11. Of that event, it’s fairly safe to say, there will be no lapse of memory at least until everybody who lived through it has died. Of this Vietnam syndrome, some of us have sworn, there will likewise be no forgetting, let alone forgiving, while we can still draw breath. But some of the victims of Agent Orange haven’t even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn’t shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs will do.
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

Share this:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.