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Abstract

The Vietnam War (1961-1975) ended almost a half-century ago, and both the United States and Vietnam have put most of it behind them. But the legacy of Agent Orange, the dioxin-containing herbicide that the U.S. sprayed over large portions of Vietnam to defoliate it and remove cover for the enemy, continues to be a potent and divisive issue. The toxicity of dioxin has affected Vietnam in a variety of ways, particularly through its effects on the reproductive health of women. Families who lived in the vicinity of “Agent Orange spray zones” or who have become exposed to dioxin because of proximity to or from the use of resources from “Agent Orange hot spots” have experienced severe reproductive complications. From birth defects to miscarriages, this chemical has had an effect through generations of families, and has disproportionately affected women and children due to their biological susceptibilities. Unexpected miscarriages and birth defects have added a greater level of complexity to this public health issue. As the U.S. and the Vietnam progress toward resolving disputes over the responsibility and consequences of this weapon of war, defining victims” and what should be done for them continues to be an issue today.

This paper explains the “victims” issue from several perspectives. It will, first of all, look at the different representations and narratives of Agent Orange in Vietnam, particularly as it pertains to those who are identified or represented as “victims” of Agent Orange. Scientists, governments, and activists have told different stories and identified victims in different ways. We examine here how those who have suffered the consequence of dioxin exposure have become identified as “victims” by investigating the problem of exposure as well as the politics that have shaped and defined it. The challenge of defining precisely how Agent Orange “exposure” and toxicity function has opened up a narrative space for different representations of “victims.” We will also examine the fundamental difference of exposure in women compared to men, and try to evaluate the consequences that arise from this differentiation. Finally, this paper will examine the issue of responsibility, the relationship of Agent Orange narratives to responsibility, and how it has both shaped and challenged efforts to define victims and who gets to do so.

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