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Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty, by Edwin A. Martini, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012

Virtually from the outset of U.S. involvement, and then continuously as the ground war raged in Southeast Asia through the 1960s, chemical agents—nicknamed for the color of labels on the barrels, starting with pink, green and blue, and ending with orange—were an integral element. Those same chemical agents, specifically Agent Orange, have also been an integral element of the wars of recrimination and the battles waged by veterans and their advocates for health care benefits over the 40 years since Americans departed the conflict. And the battle over dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange rages on, just as the political and military history of the Vietnam War still vexes and riles those who lived it and those who study it, eluding any tidy conclusions.

Edwin A. Martini teaches history at Western Michigan University and wrote Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000, published in 2007, which examines the relationship between the United States and Vietnam after 1975. Researching that book, Martini found that “the ongoing devastation caused by Agent Orange and other chemical agents used by the United States during the war resisted easy answers and simple explanations.” He also realized that historians had “almost completely avoided the topic.”

Given Agent Orange’s profile today— 4 million results when you Google “Agent Orange in Vietnam”—that seems like an extravagant claim. But crack open Martini’s most recent book and you will find yourself on an eye-opening journey that puts this whole sad saga into a new light. Understanding the context is crucial when attempting to discern the motives and intentions of actors who are engaged in making history. We may not always like what we find if it challenges neat assumptions and forces us to reconsider our conclusions. Martini readily admits he assumed that the military and policymakers knew about the dangers of Agent Orange in the early 1960s but chose to ignore them, “only to find out that no historical evidence supports such a claim.” And that’s just the beginning.

On the heels of David Zierler’s groundbreaking 2011 book, The Invention of Ecocide (which tells the story of U.S. scientists who were deeply concerned about the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides, and started a movement to ban what they called “ecocide”), Martini digs even deeper into the science and policy decisions that shaped what he calls America’s chemical war in Vietnam. He argues that the use of herbicides as weapons was an example of the “best and brightest’s” belief that there could be technological and military solutions to fundamentally political problems. “Herbicidal warfare was simply one more failed attempt among many to impose control over a nation, a people and a landscape.”

While the story of the Kennedy administration’s internal struggle over the moral implications of the weaponization of herbicides (the aversion to “crop destruction” played a greater part than health concerns, because the officials believed it was the same stuff we used on weeds at home) is intriguing it itself, Martini’s exploration of what he calls the “multiple meanings of Agent Orange” before, during and after the war is even more illuminating.

The author doesn’t not excuse policymakers: “Regardless both of what its intentions were and of the state of knowledge of the ensuing effects of herbicides, the U.S. government is responsible for putting millions of people into the potentially deadly path of Agent Orange with neither their knowledge nor their consent.” At the same time, Martini goes into great detail about the “politics of scientific uncertainty” and how, in the course of the Agent Orange debate, scientific uncertainty has “been fluid and contested, benefiting chemical companies at some points, the U.S. government at others, and veterans at still others.”

One of Martini’s chief themes, and one sure to not sit well with many, is that the story of Agent Orange is almost always about much more than Agent Orange. The history, he claims, cannot be understood without knowing how the “idea and the symbol of Agent Orange operated
as a screen onto which many diverse actors projected their feelings about the war in Vietnam….Given the complexities in the history and legacies of Agent Orange, it has proven to be especially prone to obfuscation, projection, and reinterpretation.”

The journey this historian takes readers on in this intricately balanced, sophisticated yet accessible work, will likely have the same effect on them as it had on Martini: “I have learned so much and yet I feel as though I have barely scratched the surface. I have had my original assumptions about Agent Orange turned upside down so often I can barely remember what they were.”

Martini’s goal is to provide context, not closure. While the war over Agent Orange will likely outlive its victims, his work will well serve all who seek to navigate through the ideologically hardened maze in an effort to solve one of the Vietnam War’s most complex and perplexing puzzles.

—Reviewed by R.V. Lee