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Reviewed by Terry L. Decker
By Wilbur J. Scott
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2004

Wilbur J. Scott is a professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, and served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader. He is also the author of The Politics of Readjustment: Vietnam Veterans Since the War, and co-author of Gays and Lesbians in the Military. In Vietnam Veterans Since the War: The Politics of PTSD, Agent Orange, and the National Memorial (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2004, paperback $21.95), Scott has set about to show how the veterans of the Vietnam War struggled to achieve recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder and to force acknowledgment of the sicknesses related to Agent Orange. Professor Scott also relates the trials and tribulations surrounding the construction of the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Scott considers himself “a sociological storyteller” and a “contextual constructivist who draws many insights from the work of [Malcolm] Specter and [John] Kitsuse.” He describes contextual constructivists as those who “see it as their prerogative to pass judgment on the claims and activities of claims makers.”

Through this work he “allows us to see the politics of diagnosis and diseases in disputes about whether someone is sick, and about the extent and source of the sickness.” And further: “…in contemporary society these [factors] include science, healthcare delivery systems, and the courts” to make the diagnosis.

Regarding the book’s focal issues of concern — PTSD, Agent Orange and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — the author shows how various veterans groups worked for and against Vietnam veterans. He further discusses how agendas — political (Congress, Senate, Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA], Vietnam Veterans Against the War) and social (Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans) — affected changes inside the DVA and influenced perceptions of the public at large.

The book presents a detailed chronicle of the many factions and their long-fought struggles. It is so in-depth that the section about PTSD and the Agent Orange suits could be used as an attorney billing record.

The complex process of establishing any social program requires not only a problem or a social failure, but also the right advocates with the right sales pitch. As Scott explains: “Social movements often involve efforts to critique existing arrangements and beliefs, energize and politicize potential members, and extract concessions from privileged groups and reluctant power structures. These may include strategies such as court suits, consciousness raising events, boycotts, demonstrations, and other non-routine but legal challenges, or may extend to unlawful activities and even violence.”

We are left with the conclusion that organizations are slow to change policies “or assume responsibility for past mistakes. They prefer instead to lose clients or personnel who criticize the organization.” The author further states: “As we have seen, the world of veterans issues comprises primarily the DVA, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and the major veterans organizations. At one time or another they all preferred to lose Vietnam veterans as clients rather than capitulate to demands that would, they feared, `upset the applecart.’ Some policy-makers also fretted that the protests might spread to other `victim groups.'” Moreover, writes Scott, “we have seen that the protagonists on one issue sometimes became antagonists on later issues and vice versa.”

Even though this book is about Vietnam veterans and the surrounding medical and social issues, I was left feeling as if it could have been a pre-existing document with “insert name here” spaces, giving me the impression that the veteran was of secondary importance. This book, it would seem, is more a study of “social-problems natural history,” with more attention paid to the outline than the content.

That being said, the book should do very well as a teaching guide on the movement of a social thought or program.