Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty by Edwin A. Martini (review)
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Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. By Edwin A. Martini. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Pp. 302. $24.95 cloth)

It has been over half a century since the United States first sprayed the chemicals that, according to military records, defoliated 20 percent of the upland forests, 36 percent of the mangrove forests, and destroyed 3.2 percent of the crops during the war in Vietnam. During the five intervening decades scientists and politicians have studied and debated the consequences of those chemicals for human health, pushed on by the questions of veterans and civilians—American and Vietnamese—trying to make sense of the illnesses they and their children endured after the war.

Focusing the lens of history on the intersecting issues commonly glossed as “Agent Orange,” Martini moves the conversation towards greater complexity and clarity as he explores five distinct moments in the use of chemicals during the war: the decision to use the chemicals; the way the spraying was discussed at the time by policymakers, military leaders, and villagers; the debates over disposal of the chemicals once they were banned; the development of Agent Orange as a matter of public concern and scientific debate; and the global legacies of its use in war.

Across decades, Martini explores Agent Orange as both a chemical with “very real and very serious effects” (p. 5), and as a cultural [End Page 166] phenomenon enmeshed in sea changes in environmental awareness and challenges to scientific and state authority. He redraws the boundaries of the issue: including people who lived and worked in the roughly forty sites around the world where the chemicals were manufactured, transported, or stored: Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, Texas, Puerto Rico, Canada, South Vietnam, Thailand—the list goes on.

Martini examines similarities and differences among various sites where dioxin contamination has captured the public imagination and public resources, including Times Beach, Missouri, Seveso, Italy, Alsea, Oregon, and New Plymouth, New Zealand, comparing and contrasting the ways various governments and legal systems have approached the issue, and on whom the burden of proof has fallen to demonstrate the toxic or harmless nature of the chemical.

Readers looking for insight into the scientific debates of the 1980s will find a lucid discussion of the issues. Martini traces in fascinating detail a chronology of the mix of politics and science that fueled those debates and the related public outcry, focusing on the role uncertainty played in shaping early reactions to claims of Agent Orange–related illnesses. It should be underscored that this is a work of history. Readers interested in the current state of medical knowledge of diseases linked to Agent Orange can search the web for “Institute of Medicine Agent Orange,” to get the most recent research results. This list serves as the basis for compensation to U.S. veterans.

In his conclusion, Martini suggests that his work may contribute to answering three key questions about the use of chemicals during the war. History is perhaps most useful in casting light on his first question, “How could the United States and its allies do such a thing?”(p. 239). Martini places the decision and consequent actions in historical context: the intense political and military battles in Southeast Asia, fueled by decolonization and the Cold War; Washington’s illusory faith in its ability to control peoples and nature itself through technology; and a mushrooming chemical industry linked to what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, at a time before the hazardous effects of certain chemicals were widely known. He [End Page 167] finds the answer to his second question, which is equally thought-provoking and thoughtfully explored, is more ambiguous: “Should the use of Agent Orange be considered chemical warfare?”(p. 242).

His third question resonates as a moral and ethical challenge: “What can and should be done for U.S. veterans, Vietnamese victims, and others around the world who believe they are suffering as a result of Agent Orange?” (p. 244). Given both what we know and what we do not know, how do we act decently, as ethical human beings, responsible both to...


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