Agent Orange

“Even when you aren't sick, you’re afraid — afraid of getting sick. You live with the fear of it all the time.” — Al Marcotte, Vietnam vet.

In the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, thousands of men and their families are living with this fear. It's the fear of a chemical timebomb called dioxin.

Dioxin, in its many forms, is called one of the deadliest chemicals known to man. In animal experiments, smaller dosages of dioxin have more harmful effects than any other chemical being tested. Dioxins are the byproducts of many familiar substances such as dyes, wood preservatives and pharmaceuticals. One of its most common forms is TCDD, the byproduct of an ordinary herbicide, 2,4,5-T. 2,4,5-T was also one of the two primary ingredients of Agent Orange, the defoliant most widely used by the United States in Vietnam to expose enemy hiding places and supply routes. It was also used to destroy cropland and food.

With humans, science has been unable to define a precise causal link between disease and exposure to dioxin. However, as an article in Life magazine put it: "In case after case, one thing is clear, something has gone horribly wrong."

It went wrong first for the people of Vietnam, many of whom were sprayed directly and later had to take their food from land contaminated with the chemical residue. It has also affected U.S. veterans of the war. More than 16,000 veterans have filed claims with the Veterans Administration. The claims list medical problems similar to those reported by the Vietnamese: rashes, numbness, gastric disorders, nerve damage, cancers and birth defects. In Australia, hundreds of other veterans with similar symptoms have also petitioned their government for help. In Vietnam, where financial compensation is impossible now, orphanages and hospitals have been set up to lake care of families and children whose health seems to have been damaged by exposure to chemical defoliant.

War veterans have brought the issue to national consciousness, but the incidence of civilian contamination is growing dramatically. Beyond Times Beach, Missouri, where residents have been advised to evacuate their homes because of dioxin in the soil, more than 100 other dump sites containing dioxin have been identified in Missouri. Herbicide spraying, factory explosions, rail accidents and toxic dumping have also affected citizens in New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, Arizona, California and Oregon.

In recent years, steps have been taken to limit the use of 2,4,5-T in many countries, including the U.S., but little has been done for the victims of dioxin exposure. For veterans of the Vietnam War, it has been 12 years since the first scientific evidence of ecological damage from Agent Orange came to light. It has been four years since a 28-year-old Chicago veteran, Paul Reutershan shocked a TV audience by saying: "I died in Vietnam and didn't know it."

Reutershan died as have many veterans after him, but the Veterans Administration and the Defense Department continue to deny any linkage between reported health problems and exposure to Agent Orange. Among responsible executive agencies (not only in the U.S., but Australia as well), deception and obfuscation have been the name of the game. For years, the toxicity of Agent Orange and other defoliants was denied. Consequently, no special precautions were taken to protect troops in the field.

When debate arose over its effects, the U.S. government maintained that no troops had been exposed to Agent Orange spraying. Early studies indicating the toxicity of dioxin were not released-until discovered by veterans groups and the media. And when, in September 1981, Cabinet Secretary Richard Schweicker surprised the administration by saying that Pentagon records did show that troops were exposed, the government was forced to admit the truth.

Veterans in the U.S. have turned to Congress and the courts for help but help has been slow in coming. Congress mandated more studies before direct help would be forthcoming. Some studies have been started, but others are mired in controversy over methodology and definition. In the courts, legal precedent has given the government immunity from damages for injuries incurred in military service during wartime. Although independent medical research is now indicating that the presence of dioxin in the body can cause abnormal cell growth and abnormal quantities of certain chemicals, scientific certainty may never be established.

The exhibition now at HCP is the work of four photographers who have photographed separately, individually, with no knowledge of each other, and in different parts of the world. They came to the subject from different perspectives: Philip Jones Griffiths, from a profound disgust with the Vietnam War and its effect on an entire nation; Mike Goldwater, from a concern with the implications of chemical pollution and chemical warfare; Goro Nakamura, from an awareness of the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and I from a deep concern over the militarism of U.S. culture and its cost to human life around the world.

This exhibition is the first time this work has been brought together as a whole. These photographs are an appeal to consciousness — a greater public consciousness of the continuing human cost of war and the dangers of an indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.

Ultimately, it is our hope that these pictures may serve as a warning for the future. What is the consequence of increasing appropriations for the development of chemical warfare capability? Do we have adequate criteria for the assessment of risk in the marketing and use of new chemicals? How far will we go in the tradeoff between life, health and economic gain?

By Wendy Watriss