Art for Agent Orange victims
September 23, 2008
An American woman has dedicated her life to fighting for justice for victims of Agent Orange. She spoke to Thanh Nien Daily during her second visit to Vietnam with the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund.
Agent Orange campaigner Debra Jeanne Kraus has temporarily suspended her activism because she is losing another family member.
The 54-year-old Kraus lost her Vietnam veteran husband to Agent Orange-related lung cancer 12 years ago. Now she is losing her 88-year-old mother to heart failure.
Kraus intends to resume her life’s work soon, including completing an essay she intended to enter into a competition run by a Vietnamese newspaper to support the ongoing lawsuit against the American manufacturers of toxic herbicides used in the Vietnam War.
The Californian has already created an installation art project called Fiat Lux (Let There be Light) to raise awareness of the deadly effects of Agent Orange.
“[This] project artwork will end when I’m no longer able to work,” she says.
Kraus’s installation, which includes paintings, photos, sculptures, ceramics, videos and performance pieces, has been exhibited twice in the U.S and presented to an international conference on Agent Orange/dioxin victims in Hanoi in 2006.
Fiat Lux is brutal in its criticism of American use of toxic herbicides at the time of deployment, the US cared only about winning the war, not the toxicity of the herbicides it used.
After illnesses and birth defects were first detected by those who designed the herbicides, it took a long time for the American government to ban its use.
And now, four decades later, the US government is still denying a link between Agent Orange and the birth defects and other illnesses many Vietnamese and Vietnam War veterans still suffer.
Between 1961 and 1971, US troops sprayed about 80 million liters of defoliants, including Agent Orange, on Vietnamese forests to deprive southern Vietnamese guerillas of their cover and crops.
As many as 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to dioxin, the carcinogenic chemical found in Agent Orange and around 3 million of them have suffered serious health problems, according to Vietnam Association of Agent Orange/dioxin victims (VAVA).
In 2004, VAVA filed a lawsuit on behalf of Vietnamese victims against 37 American chemical companies that produced toxic chemicals used during the war.
A US court dismissed the suit on the ground that these chemicals weren’t banned at the time. Last year, VAVA appealed and was again dismissed. It plans to appeal to the US Supreme Court next month.
Also last year, the American Congress set aside US$3 million for dioxin cleanup throughout Vietnam, especially in Agent Orange “hotspots” such as Da Nang City and Bien Hoa Town, Dong Nai Province. Inspired by the international pop art movement of the 1960s, Kraus incorporated even the most commonplace objects into her art to help convey her message.
In Living Without, a piece showing several body organs destroyed by Agent Orange, the artist used her husband’s X-ray images.
The letters and photos he sent home during his six-month tour in Vietnam add a realistic touch to another work, Homecoming, which reproduces Vietnam’s defoliated and burned forests.
Kraus says she started her project out of “anger and resentment” in 1998, two years after her husband died.
On the day he died, May 28, 1996, former US President Bill Clinton and the Department of Veterans Affairs included adenocarcinoma of the lung, the secondary cancer that caused her husband’s death, in its list of Agent Orange-related diseases.
Though she was later compensated with a monthly allowance and an educational stipend, the compensation came too little too late.
“The government didn’t admit their guilt for poisoning him and they didn’t apologize,” she says.
Nor would his name, Peter Charles Kraus, ever be engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., that honors only Vietnam War veterans who were killed in action.
So, “childless, heavily indebted and widowed from a war that had ended decades earlier,” Kraus went back to school to find “answers.”
But what she found was more questions about the American government’s use of Agent Orange. She also found something far more important: art.
“Its visual language speaks to the soul,” she says. “That’s where the change in our governments must occur.”
Her first two exhibitions generated “overwhelming” responses. The first Fiat Lux show was held at the University of California, Berkeley, shortly after the American invasion on Iraq in 2003 and the second at Los Angeles Valley College during the presidential election in 2004.
Kraus received many notes from audience members saying things like “thank you,” to “I miss my friend who’s currently serving in Iraq,” to deeply personal questions about whether they should have children.
“They were in tears. They were physically moved. They wrote papers,” Kraus said.
Fiat Lux is in storage now, ready to be shown again once Kraus resumes her campaigning.
Kraus plans to add new pieces to the project, which she calls “an artistic dialogue” about Agent Orange.
Those new works – several paintings about the freedom and peace Vietnam is now experiencing and a project about the global food chain – reflect her widened interest.
After visiting Vietnam three times – twice with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and once to attend the conference in Hanoi – Kraus has seen a country forging ahead despite lingering pain from the past.
The fight for justice for those affected by Agent Orange needs to be fought globally, says Kraus, who uses the plural when talking about “government.”
She said the fight extends beyond the American government’s unscrupulous use of toxic herbicides to win a war. It also includes the extensive testing and use of these chemicals by several governments, including the US and New Zealand, and the other toxic chemicals that have been introduced to the global food chain.
For Kraus, of the many painful legacies of the Vietnam War, helping Agent Orange/Dioxin victims and cleaning up contaminated soil and water should be the top priority of American and Vietnamese governments.
“Yes, [removing] unexploded ordnance is important because agriculture is at stake. Children are at stake, families are at stake, but the level of public Agent Orange/Dioxin exposure is a much more important issue at this time. It’s been 40-plus years.”
Kraus is part of the NGO Agent Orange Working Group (AOWG) which coordinates activities to clean up dioxin-contaminated areas in Vietnam.
At present, this organization is channeling funds from the U.S government and other sources to support agencies such as United Nations Development Program and the Ford Foundation to carry out remediation work throughout the country.
Fellow Agent Orange activist Vern Weitzel, who manages AOWG’s email list, heard Kraus’ speech to an international conference in Hanoi two years ago.
“I was very impressed,” he said. “But clearly, I was not the only person in the meeting to empathize with this lady from California whose values and emotions are like those in Vietnam who have suffered loss.”
Weitzel, a former meteorologist for the US army during the war, said when it comes to Agent Orange, most NGOs’ approach is to help disabled people regardless of the causes of their disabilities.
Kraus says the US National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine is reluctant to admit many cancers and illnesses, including birth defects, are connected to the dioxin in Agent Orange because so many other defoliants were used during the war.
Kraus believes governments worldwide do not push hard enough for scientific research that would explain what is going on.
“It’s all about money,” she says. Yet, Kraus has gone through enough to know that ultimately, “understanding and forgiveness,” rather than acrimonious criticism, is the answer.
“[So] much has changed since the war,” says her friend, photographer Justin Mott, who saw many Vietnam War veterans show up to support the VAVA lawsuit in a public conference in San Francisco last year.
So it’s compassion that Kraus wants. “It will take compassionate presidents from all countries to move [research] forward for the answers.”
“From the Earth to the Moon and Back,” a piece in Debra Jeanne Kraus’s Fiat Lux project. This work positions the moon equal in size to the earth, to condemn the American government for spending billions of dollar on space mission yet choosing not to fund research on dioxin’s effects on human health in the 1960s.