Review of Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Reviewed Book

Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Martha Lincoln

San Francisco State University

To the rich interdisciplinary literature on the legacies of the Second Indochina (“Vietnam”) War, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam contributes a highly original entry. Its apparently narrowly focused subject matter—the cultural history of skin and its scientific study during the war era—constitutes neither a scientific nor an historical footnote. Taking as her point of departure the often incapacitating skin disorders prevalent among American GIs deployed to Vietnam, Tu reveals a mostly untold history from the vantage point of skin itself; as she ultimately shows, American dermatological science in the Vietnam War era both authorized the dispersal of persistent organic pollutants over vast swaths of Southeast Asia—affecting combatants, civilians, and their descendants—and shored up projects of scientific racialization that have never been entirely debunked since.

There is an unsettling flavor of the science-fictional or even the mad-scientific in this history, as in much of the history of 20th-century military science and medicine. In an antecedent of the human-enhancement initiatives that have since been taken up by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Vietnam War–era military dermatology aspired to create an impregnable soldier: a fighter whose skin would withstand a tropical environment and the chemical friendly fire of intentionally dispersed toxins like Agent Orange. As Tu reveals, these efforts drew on a conception of innate racial differences in risk: white soldiers’ skin was understood to be uniquely vulnerable to environmental insults, while nonwhite and particularly Black skin was understood to be physically thicker and more resilient, comparatively impervious to injury and pain. This premise underpinned experimental attempts to, for example, chemically harden the epidermis of white subjects such that its ability to resist damage, endure harm, and suffer could equal the imagined toughness of Black skin—and such that the U.S. military’s defoliant spraying program could be intensified, ostensibly without harming human health.

A key player in these efforts, as Tu shows, was pathbreaking dermatologist Albert Kligman—a retrospectively notorious figure for the studies he conducted from the 1950s to the 1970s on mostly Black incarcerated populations at Holmesburg Prison. In 1965, an outbreak of chloracne took place among Dow Chemical factory workers who were occupationally exposed to dioxin—a chemical compound present in Agent Orange in trace amounts. The corporation hoped to head off concerns associated with dioxin’s consumer use, including in combat settings. Owing to Kligman’s prior experience in studying acne, Dow commissioned him to carry out trials on the toxicity of dioxin in humans. In a trial exposing nearly 50 prisoners to dioxin, Kligman found no “instance of laboratory or clinical toxicity” (p. 71)—a claim that enabled the program of targeted spraying in Vietnam, called Operation Ranch Hand, to be significantly expanded. As an unintended byproduct of the dioxin studies funded by Dow, Kligman developed the blockbuster “cosmeceutical” known as Retin-A, a product that would soon earn fortunes for its anti-aging properties. Concomitantly, dermatology was transformed from a rather scorned and sidelined medical specialization to a prestigious enterprise with extraordinary commercial potential.

Beyond reconstructing the corporate, military, and academic investments that animated dermatological research in this period, Tu explores the outcomes of these experiences in present-day postwar Vietnam. These are indeed challenging issues to surface in research. Because the U.S. government has so successfully waged a postwar campaign of plausible deniability regarding the harmful effects of defoliants, questions about the health costs of the war in Vietnam remain shrouded in indeterminacy. Too, Vietnamese families may be reluctant to pursue genetic testing to confirm that a given symptom is the result of chromosomal damage because the social implications of a positive finding are so consequential.

However, skin is a bodily site where war trauma can resonate long after the end of hostilities; there, the environmental effects of a chemical war manifest in the form of pathological symptoms. Even without definitive proof of past toxic exposure, blemished skin is understood as potentially signifying a woman’s “illness and reproductive failure” (p. 15) in Vietnam, and dermatological care has hence become a means not only for enhancing personal beauty but also for remediating stigma. As Tu argues, the afterlife of war toxins has thus given rise—quite inadvertently and ironically—to booming domestic demand for dermatological products and services in Vietnam. As she demonstrates in ethnographic vignettes with spa customers and skin care professionals, the treatment of dermatological flaws in Vietnam is an existential undertaking, addressing issues far deeper than the skin.

The book opens with an examination of how skin disorders are perceived and treated in a Ho Chi Minh City spa—a venue that holds out promissory, modern, even “technoutopian” (p. 33) opportunities for women to manage skin disorders of ambiguous etiology. In subsequent chapters, Tu covers dioxin’s backstory, drawing on corporate archives, research records, and legal proceedings to develop a critical history of Albert Kligman’s career and its role in authorizing defoliant spraying. She also examines the work of military dermatologist Marion Sulzberger, a contemporary of Kligman, who envisioned an “idiophylactic” or self-protecting soldier whose improved skin would function like “natural body armor” (p. 83). As Tu shows, this fantasy—while never realized in practice—inherited the preoccupations of colonial-era tropical medicine, in which the white body was seen as both steppingstone and stumbling block to strategic advantage in the Pacific.

These anxieties were further reified by the wartime activities of the Field Dermatology Research Team (FDRT), a military research unit deployed to Vietnam in 1968 to gather epidemiological data on the skin disorders proliferating among American GIs. As Tu argues, the FDRT’s tacit preoccupation was to reaffirm a threatened racial order by establishing new evidence for the biological basis of race—an ideological agenda coextensive with other efforts to manage “racial disorder” in the “laboratory” (p. 107) of the war in Vietnam.

In the final chapter, the author returns to her research respondents in contemporary Vietnam—themselves also, as she notes, “experimenters in skin” (p. 133)—to reflect on the problems that are opened by attention to flawed exteriors and their ambivalent, sometimes inexplicable causes. Amid “a landscape layered with old wartime chemicals and new industrial toxins” (p. 145), Tu suggests, the “struggle over making beauty is also a struggle over making life” (p. 16).Experiments in Skin is an ambitious and multifaceted account of the social afterlife of militarized medical science; its interdisciplinarity permits its author to draw insight from revealing juxtapositions. A project of this scope also poses challenges, and these are perhaps most evident in the ethnographic material in Tu’s chapters—which at times feels compressed or overinterpreted, leaving the reader wishing to see more of the participants’ practices and to hear more of their directly reported speech. With that said, the book’s heterogeneity of methods and sources should inspire imitation, especially for scholars of science and technology in society. Drawing together critical science studies with ethnography, Experiments in Skin contributes not only to medical anthropology and the history of medicine but also to a nascent critical research literature on beauty products and industries. Its chapters would make thought-provoking contributions to advanced undergraduate courses and graduate seminars in critical environmental studies, cultural studies, feminist studies, medical anthropology, postcolonial studies, science and technology studies, and Southeast Asian studies.