by Mark Chmiel
For me, one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s greatest gifts is the original 14 precepts of the Order of Interbeing (first published by Parallax in 1987). As you know, I include the 4th precept in my novel Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, where it serves as the catalyst for so much of what takes off in that story. For present purposes, I highlight the sentence, “Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound.” Images, yes, images.
I have memorized an English translation of the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s poem, Shema; he updates the classic Jewish prayer in light of what happened (what was allowed to take place) in the death camps. After describing in spare lines how men and women suffered, he concludes,
“Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.”
Thầy and Levi come to mind as I have read the second of photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths’ awesome trilogy on Viet Nam, Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam.
You are well acquainted with Agent Orange, as your father suffered from Agent Orange-related disease. You know the basic facts about Dow Chemical and Monsanto and other manufacturers, who settled a suit with some U.S. veterans back in 1983 (of course, the companies didn’t admit any guilt in the settlement).
What Griffiths’ book affords us is the chance to take seriously the 4th precept and see if we can truly “consider that this has been” via the photos of anguished yet determined mothers with their children, street beggars, the landscape destroyed, doctors and nurses caring for the diseased and deformed people, the children with missing limbs or eyes. So many families in southern Viet Nam grapple hourly with the consequences of that horrid term, “collateral damage.” But the standard American military-government-corporate self-exculpation is that these familial traumas simply reflect the nature of war, and it’s just too bad for those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
From his many visits with the Vietnamese who have so few resources to aid their loved ones, Griffiths observes, “Often there is little more to offer than love and affection and in every family I visited, compassionate care was showered on the victim. There was also a surprising lack of recrimination towards those who are responsible, other than the occasional polite inquiry about the possibility of compensation from America.”
Journalist Gloria Emerson has written about Griffiths’ work: “In these pages are the Vietnamese and Cambodians the American tourist never see, never hear about. Here are the results of the US spraying Agent Orange over these countries. Never has its effects on humans been so clearly shown as in this book by Philip Jones Griffiths, one of the great photographers of the war, who feels we should see what Agent Orange has done. It is almost unbearable, but to turn away and not see the photographs is to compound the crime.”
Deep seeing can lead to deep acting.