In “Evidence of Things Not Seen” Chris Hedges passes a lesson he learned from his father to his audience: the reality of war can only be understood by focusing on its victims not the propagandist images of glory and manhood. Both Hedges’ father and uncle served in World War II. Though they escaped the fate of the many fatalities of the war, they both returned home as casualties of war’s savagery. Hedges later had the lessons of his father reaffirmed through his own experience as a war correspondent. Hedges lauds Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam, by the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, for showcasing the true horrors of war by focusing on its victims and proliferating the message that has shadowed his life. “War reverberates for years afterward, spinning lives into a dark oblivion of pain and suffering.”
Hedges turns his attention to the atrocities of the Vietnam war depicted in Agent Orange to further his argument about looking to the victims in order to see beyond the myth of war. In 1962, the United States used an herbicide, dubbed Agent Orange, to destroy the agriculture and forestry depended upon by the Vietcong. The herbicide contained the powerful poison dioxin which not only “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.” The ensuing debate regarding the link between the herbicide and the birth defects reflects the state’s inability to face the consequences of their wartime actions. Despite evidence demonstrating a significantly higher incidence of birth defects in areas that were sprayed with Agent Orange as opposed to those that were not, the chemical companies that produced the herbicide were never required to accept liability. While the state redirects public attention to the myth of war to absolve itself and the public of any liability for the consequences of war, Agent Orange confronts the public with these truths in the images of the deformed children. Through these images the public is forced to recognize their complicity in the trauma inflicted upon these children.
Still, Hedges argues that Agent Orange is not particularly effective simply due to its graphic depiction of war. It is particularly effective because it maintains its focus on the victims of war. “Most war films and images meant to denounce war fail… because they impart the thrill of violence and power.” The visualization of war found in films and video games can never escape its fetishization. The fetishized myth of war intoxicates the public with the license for wholesale destruction. But casualties of war, like Hedges, his father, and his uncle, must also face the consequences of this destruction and the part they played in it. When these men return home they feel “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.” Yet as these casualties yearn for increased public recognition of the true consequences of war, they are forced to witness a shrinking recognition of these truths within the military itself as modern warfare becomes ever more impersonal.
The power of modern industrial weapons “to those who have not seen them at work is incomprehensible.” But the increasing automation of weapons means that the consequences of these weapons remain incomprehensible to those at their helm. This increasing segregation between the consequences of war and those complicit in warfare, military and general public alike, make collections such as Agent Orange necessary for “us to look beyond the national cant and flag waving used to propel us into war. The myth of war is glory and patriotism. The truth of war is death and destruction that reverberates for generations.