Taking on what one former U.S. ambassador called “the last ghost of the Vietnam War,” this book examines the far-reaching impact of Agent Orange, the most infamous of the dioxin-contaminated herbicides used by American forces in Southeast Asia. Edwin A. Martini’s aim is not simply to reconstruct the history of the “chemical war” but to investigate the ongoing controversy over the short- and long-term effects of weaponized defoliants on the environment of Vietnam, on the civilian population, and on the troops who fought on both sides. Beginning in the early 1960s, when Agent Orange was first deployed in Vietnam, Martini follows the story across geographical and disciplinary boundaries, looking for answers to a host of still unresolved questions. What did chemical manufacturers and American policymakers know about the effects of dioxin on human beings, and when did they know it? How much do scientists and doctors know even today? Should the use of Agent Orange be considered a form of chemical warfare? What can, and should, be done for U.S. veterans, Vietnamese victims, and others around the world who believe they have medical problems caused by Agent Orange? Martini draws on military records, government reports, scientific research, visits to contaminated sites, and interviews to disentangle conflicting claims and evaluate often ambiguous evidence. He shows that the impact of Agent Orange has been global in its reach affecting individuals and communities in New Zealand, Australia, Korea, and Canada as well as Vietnam and the United States. Yet for all the answers it provides, this book also reveals how much uncertainty—scientific, medical, legal, and political—continues to surround the legacy of Agent Orange.
In 1955 the Supreme Court ruled that veterans of the U.S. armed forces could not be court-martialed for overseas crimes that were not detected until after they had left military service. Territorial limitations placed such acts beyond the jurisdiction of civilian courts, and there was no other American court in which they could be adjudicated. As a result, a jurisdictional gap emerged that for decades exempted former troops from prosecution for war crimes. “This was not merely a theoretical possibility,” Patrick Hagopian writes. Over a dozen former soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre did in fact “get away with murder.” Further court rulings expanded the gap to cover civilian employees and contractors that accompanied the armed forces. In American Immunity, Hagopian places what he calls the “superpower exemption” in the context of a long-standing tension between international law and U.S. sovereignty. He shows that despite the U.S. role in promulgating universal standards of international law and forming institutions where those standards can be enforced, the United States has repeatedly refused to submit its own citizens and troops to the jurisdiction of international tribunals and failed to uphold international standards of justice in its own courts. In 2000 Congress attempted to close the jurisdictional gap with passage of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. The effectiveness of that legislation is still in question, however, since it remains unclear how willing civilian American juries will be to convict veterans for conduct in foreign war zones.
After more than four decades, the Viet Nam War continues to haunt our national memory, culture, politics, and military actions. In this probing interdisciplinary study, Susan Lyn Eastman examines a range of cultural productions—from memorials and poetry to cinematic and fictional narratives—that have tried to grapple with the psychic afterlife of traumatic violence resulting from the ill-fated conflict in Southeast Asia.
Underpinning the book is the notion of “prosthetic memory,” which involves memories acquired by those with no direct experience of the war, such as readers and filmgoers. Prosthetic memories, Eastman argues, refuse to relegate the war to the forgotten past and challenge the authenticity of experience, thus ensuring its continued relevance to debates over America’s self-conception, specifically her coinage of the “New Vietnam Syndrome,” and the country’s role in world affairs when it comes to contemporary military interventions.
With the notable exception of the Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, Eastman’s focus is on works produced from the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) through the post-9/11 “War on Terror.” She looks not only at American representations of the war—from movies like Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers to poems by W. D. Ehrhart, Yusef Komunyakaa, and others—but also at novels by Vietnamese authors Bao Ninh and Huong Thu Duong. The experiences of women figure prominently in the book: Eastman devotes a chapter to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and another to Sandie Frazier’s novel I Married Vietnam and Oliver Stone’s film Heaven and Earth, based on memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip. And by examining Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle, a novel inspired by the filming of Apocalypse Now, she considers how the war’s repercussions were felt in other countries, in this case the Philippines. Her investigation of Vietnamese American authors Lan Cao, Andrew Lam, and GB Tran adds a transnational dimension to the study.
With its up-to-date perspective on recent works that have heretofore received scant critical notice, this book offers new ways of thinking about one of the most polemic chapters in U.S. history.
SUSAN LYN EASTMAN teaches in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
America’s Vietnam challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. The book’s cross-cultural prism spans Paris, Saigon, New York, and multiple oceans, and its departure from Cold War frames reveals rich cross-period connections.
America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns. Tracking Vietnam’s transition from an emergent nation in the nineteenth century to a French colony to a Vietnamese-American war zone, Nguyen demonstrates that how authors represent Vietnam is deeply entwined with the United States’ shifting role in the world. As America’s longstanding presence in Vietnam evolves, the literature it generates significantly revises our perceptions of war, race, and empire over time.