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A gem of a book, as informative and compulsively readable as it is timely. (The Washington Post Book World)
What might happen to our conception of the Vietnam War if we simply began to hear the accounts of American veterans alongside the memories of Vietnamese who fought with and against them? What if we witnessed those distant jungle firefights through the eyes of people who regarded the battlefield as home and called this epic struggle "The American War"? How might understanding be further enlarged if we listened to former policy makers who participated in the decision making that expanded and prolonged the war, and the generals charged with executing those policies? And what if we took into account the journalists who covered the war, the antiwar activists who tried to stop it, the nurses, medics, and doctors who treated its casualties, and the almost unlimited variety of people whose lives were swept up in this complex, enormous cataclysm that killed some three million people?
These questions took me on a journey through twenty-five American states and the length and breadth of Vietnam-from a Boston suburb to a trailer park in Montana, a hamlet in Cu Chi to a Senate office in Washington, a small mining town in Appalachia to the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, "Little Saigon" in Westminster, California, to the old Saigon now called Ho Chi Minh City.
By the end I had interviewed 350 people. Some are prominent-the four-star generals William Westmoreland and Vo Nguyen Giap; President Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser Walt Rostow; diplomat Nguyen Thi Binh; Pentagon analyst turned antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg; Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig; senator and former POW John McCain; filmmaker Oliver Stone; and writers Tim O'Brien and Le Minh Khue. But most of the people in this book are less well known. We meet, for example, Henry Prunier, an American who parachuted into Vietnam in 1945 to train Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla fighters; Luyen Nguyen, a South Vietnamese "lost commando" imprisoned in Hanoi for twenty-one years; Roger Donlon, a Green Beret captain who received the war's first Medal of Honor; Sylvia Lutz Holland, a nurse who treated hundreds of casualties including a mortally wounded colleague; Le Cao Dai, a North Vietnamese doctor who operated on patients in a jungle hospital under a small light powered by a bicycle generator; Anne Morrison Welsh, whose husband burned himself to death to protest the war; Barry Zorthian, a public affairs officer who conducted daily press briefings in Saigon; and Luu Huy Chao, a MiG pilot who flew dogfights against American jets in the skies over North Vietnam.
Since the 1960s, thousands of books have been published about the war. Important as many of them are, most focus on a particular topic or group of historical actors. We have memoirs and novels by American veterans, studies of U.S. policy makers, military histories, chronicles of the antiwar movement, and a variety of Vietnamese accounts. Although we almost instinctively divide the war into separate categories, each individual's experience was, in fact, inextricably connected to those of many others about which he or she knew little if anything. Bringing them together allows us to envision the war's full scale and significance.
It is not, however, an easy stretch to make. Even in Vietnam, where the war's history is more evident, it has largely been relegated to museums, memorials, tourist sites, and souvenir shops. On street corners in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, children selling postcards also hawk two superb novels about the war-Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War and Graham Greene's The Quiet American-but virtually all copies are in English and meant for tourists. Within an hour of Ho Chi Minh City you can visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels where Viet Cong guerrillas once ate, slept, took care of their wounded, planned attacks, and hid from American bombs. You are invited to scramble through underground chambers specially enlarged to accommodate Western physiques.
Many American tourists I met in Vietnam reported with amazement on the friendliness of the Vietnamese, how apparently lacking in war-related bitterness they are, how successfully they seem to have put the war behind them. These are important, if partial, observations. After all, almost two-thirds of Vietnam's population was born after the Communist victory of 1975. Some Vietnamese worry that younger generations lack sufficient respect for the wartime sacrifices of their elders. A Vietnamese friend told me, with a note of bemused dismay, that Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper conducted a survey in 2001 asking young people to name their idols, and Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, nearly outpolled Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party and virtual father of modern Vietnam.
Stories like that are indicative of the power of the global economy, and in Vietnam's cities it is easy to find other kinds of evidence-four-star hotels, Western fashions, cell phones, and young Vietnamese entrepreneurs, to name but a few. At bottom, however, Vietnam retains a deeply rooted culture with a strong historical consciousness. The great majority of Vietnamese still depend on the land and their families to make a living, and rice farming remains their primary activity. The average monthly income is thirty dollars. Even in the cities family life remains so strong that almost no one lives alone. Family tradition itself is perhaps the most potent carrier of historical consciousness. Every household maintains an ancestral shrine with photographs of parents and grandparents who have died. Because nearly all the men and women in those pictures endured years of war, these shrines are, in effect, family war memorials, constant reminders of Vietnam's embattled past.
Not far from the Cu Chi tunnels tourist attraction is a large war memorial that lists the names of Vietnamese who died only in that relatively small region-about six hundred square miles-while fighting the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. It contains roughly the same number of names as appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Had the United States lost the same proportion of its population as Vietnam, the Wall in Washington would include not 58,193 names, but at least twelve million. Almost every Vietnamese family continues to feel the weight of the war's history.
The complex relationship between present-day Vietnam and its history struck me one day while on my way to an appointment with Vietnamese veterans of the American War, where I would ask questions and my companion, Hoang Cong Thuy, would translate. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City were jammed with every conceivable vehicle-motor scooters, cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, and cyclos, all jockeying for position in the morning traffic. With countless horns blaring I had to lean close to catch Thuy's words. We had just turned onto Tran Hung Dao Street, named after a famed thirteenth-century Vietnamese commander. In 1284, three hundred thousand Mongols had stormed down from China to conquer Vietnam. Badly outnumbered, Dao's army had lost several battles. The Vietnamese emperor asked his general if perhaps it would be wiser to capitulate. Dao's response is still well known in Vietnam. "Your Majesty," he said, "if you want to surrender, please have my head cut off first." And so he fought on, leading his troops to victory with a tactic used successfully three centuries earlier by another revered Vietnamese general, Ngo Quyen, against the Chinese. He had his men drive iron-tipped spikes into the Bach Dang River, a tidal waterway near the modern-day city of Haiphong. At high tide, with the spikes submerged, the Vietnamese retreated up river, luring the Mongol boats over the spikes. As the tide began to ebb, the Vietnamese forced the Mongol fleet back onto the exposed spikes, sinking their ships. The enemy was then routed and driven from the country.
Suddenly, the taxi driver slammed on his brakes and a young couple on a motor scooter crashed into our rear. No one was hurt, but a brake light cracked and our driver insisted on immediate compensation. Thuy helped negotiate a settlement and we moved on, looking for topics to lighten the mood. That wasn't hard because, like many Vietnamese, he seemed to prefer talking about the present. We had been together many days before I learned that he had lost two relatives in President Richard Nixon's 1972 "Christmas bombing" of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and its principal port, Haiphong.
So I was somewhat taken aback when, seemingly out of the blue, Thuy turned to me in the taxi and said, "Do you realize we are the only nation on earth that's defeated three out of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council?" No, I conceded, it had never occurred to me, but the Vietnamese had indeed driven China, France, and the United States from their land. Thuy's question was a spare and striking evocation of Vietnam's remarkable history and one that made me feel for the first time that I was not in a small, faraway country on the other side of the world, but at an epicenter of global conflict, among a people whose history stretches back two millennia and intersects with that of every great power.
For many Vietnamese, the "Vietnam War" is not a single event, but a long chain of wars for independence against foreign enemies that began in the year 40 when the Trung sisters led the first insurrection against Chinese rule. Not until 1428, after dozens of wars, did Vietnam permanently establish its independence from China. French missionaries began arriving in the seventeenth century, and two centuries later, in 1883, France took formal possession of Vietnam, abolished its name, and divided the nation into three parts. Resistance to French rule grew over the next century and culminated in a brutal eight-year war (1946-54). After a major Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu, it ended with a peace settlement in Geneva. The anti-French war had been led by the Indochinese Communist Party but included many non-Communist nationalists. In the final years of that war, the United States provided massive military aid to the French. From that point on, many Vietnamese viewed the United States as an enemy in their quest for independence and the American War as a direct outgrowth of the war with France.
In 1954 at Geneva, the great powers agreed to divide Vietnam temporarily at the seventeenth parallel. The idea was not to create two separate Vietnams, North and South, but to establish the peaceful conditions that would allow for a nationwide reunification election in 1956. However, those elections were never held as the United States stepped in to build and bolster what it hoped would be a permanent, non-Communist South Vietnam. The Communists retained significant support throughout Vietnam, however, and set their sights on an eventual overthrow of the American-backed regime in Saigon, the capital of the newly created country.
For most Americans, Vietnam was not even a familiar name until the mid-1960s when their nation dramatically escalated its military intervention. Few realized the United States had been involved in Vietnam since the 1940s or that it had presided over the creation of South Vietnam. Instead, they believed their country had entered a war already in progress whose origins were mysterious. American leaders claimed that our troops were needed to help a small, struggling democracy in South Vietnam to maintain its independence from external Communist aggression launched from North Vietnam and engineered by the Soviet Union and Communist China, and that if the United States failed to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, one country after another would fall under the control of America's Cold War enemies. These arguments had great resonance in American political culture in the 1950s and early '60s, and there was widespread public support for intervention in Vietnam that lasted through years of mounting escalation.
Over time, however, ever more Americans came to believe their leaders had misled and even lied to them about the realities of the war. Many concluded that South Vietnam was neither a democratic nor an independent nation, but a corrupt and unpopular regime entirely dependent on U.S. support; that preserving it was not vital to national security and that the United States was itself acting as an aggressor. Even many who supported the objectives of U.S. policy came to doubt whether they were achievable or worthy of the cost. By the end of the 1960s, the war had become the most unpopular in our history, producing an antiwar movement of unprecedented size.
Even so, there was no predicting when the war might end. Although American presidents regularly announced steady progress, the fighting only continued, often on the same ground as previous battles, and spread to battlefields in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Ho Chi Minh often said that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for ten, twenty, even a hundred years, to drive out the Americans and overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Saigon. Such claims were not taken seriously by American leaders who persuaded themselves that eventually they could break the will of the Vietnamese. They never could. Nor did they persuade the American people that they should be willing to wage another ten or twenty years of war in Vietnam.
The South Vietnamese who supported the Saigon government were engaged in a civil war against their own countrymen. A considerable portion of them had allied themselves with the French in the previous war and many were Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist land. Their struggle to build a separate, non-Communist Vietnam cost them more than two hundred thousand lives, but their cause failed to gain widespread allegiance throughout the South. Among those who regarded American support as necessary, few anticipated how massively the United States would intervene, how deeply its presence would antagonize other southerners, and how dependent their own lives would ultimately become on a foreign ally. When the Communists took over in 1975, many who had linked their fates to the United States were not only defeated but abandoned. Eventually, more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Vietnamese made their way to the United States. For those who fled, Vietnam is not just a lost war, but a lost homeland.
Part One: Introductions
Bernard Trainor: It turned out the major of Danang was a double agent
Dang Vu Hiep: With all those choppers they seemed terribly strong
Roger Donlon: We were babes in arms in every way
Tran Thi Gung: I was stuck in a tunnel for seven days
Paying the Price
Ta Quang Thinh: They carried me the whole way back to the North
George Watkins: That sand was probably the only thing that saved me
Phan Xuan Sinh: Ail my ancestors are buried here
Where is Vietnam?
Jo Collins: I just thought I was going to Europe
Deirdre English: How can my country be at war and I don't know about it?
Part Two: Beginnings (1945-64)
History Is Not Made with IFS
Henry Prunier: These were not ragtag farmers
Yo Nguyen Giap: The most atrocious conflict in human history
Deliver Us From Evil
Daniel Redmond: The doctor who won the war in Indochina
Rufus Phillips: Tell 'em I'm not French before they lynch me
Ngo Vinh Long: If they're making maps, they're preparing for war
Kick the Tires and Light the Fires
Richard Olsen: It was like 'Terry and the Pirates'
Malcolm Browne: You could smell the burning flech
Le Leiu Browne: There was one coup after another
Paul Hare: My cock lost the fight
The Emporor Has No Clothes
Paul Kattenburg: What's good for Peru is good for Vietnam
Evelyn Colbert: Dissent which contradicted the public optimism was ignored
Chester Cooper: Boy, you speak just like an American
Sergei Khruchchev: The Vietnamese had their own ideas
John Singlaub: We sent them all back with a generous gift package
Luyen Nguyen: She divorces her second husband and waited for me
Part Three: Escalations
Trails to War
Vu Thi Vinh: The Truong Son jungle gave us life
Nguyen Thi Kim Chuy: We came home hairless with ghostly white eyes
Hegelhimer: I was their wife, their sister, their girlfriend
You Want Me to Start World War III?
James Thompson: This was crazy and deceitful policy making
Seth Tillman: We could stop this war tommorrow
Charles Cooper (I): He used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp
Walt Whitman Rostow: Take the North Vietnamese of Vinh hostage
Dennis Deal: Man, if we're up against this, it's gonna be a long-ass year
Ward Just: It approached the vicinity of the spiritual
Le Cao Dai: Sometimes I operated all night while the staff took turns pedaling the bicycle
From Civil Rights to Antiwar
Julian Bond: They said I was guilty of treason and sedition
General Baker Jr.: When the call is made to free the Mississippi Delta...I'll be the first one in line
The Ultimate Protest
Anne Morrison Welsh: It was like an arrow was shot from Norman's heart
Jim Soular: A goddamn chopper was worth three times more than David
James Lafferty: No draft board ever failed to meet its quotas
David M. Smith: The knife man
Sylvia Lutz Holland: We saved their lives, but what life?
Chi Nguyen: Being wounded was not considered the worst thing that could happen
Bobbie Keith: I got a butterfly right on the butt. So that's my war story
James Brown: After they got the funk they went back and reloaded
Quach Van Phong: An artist ca be as important in war as a soldier
Nancy Smoyer: I can't believe the Donut Dollies got us to do that
Vu Hy Thieu: Nothing was more essential than our sandals
Joe McDonald: I was president of my high school marching band
Jopnathan Schell: I had my notebook right there in the plane
Pinkerton Jr.: Good luck and good hunting
Luu Huy Chao: Before I trained as a pilot I had never been in an airplane
Nguyen Quang Sang: That was the first time I ever saw an American
Fred Branfman: What would it be like to hide in a cave all for five years?
Prisoners of War (I)
Porter Halyburton: I don't see how you've got a worse place than this
Troung My Hoa: They tried to make us say, 'Down with President Ho!'
Randy Kehler: Friction against the wheel
Cameras, Books, and Guns
Philip Jones Griffiths (I): Go see what they did to those people with your money
Larry Heinemann: We had this idea that we were king of the fucking hill
Doung Thanh Phong: We didn't need a darkroom
Joan Holden: The counterculture was visible everywhere
Oliver Stone: He lived to kill. He was like a real Arab
Nguyen Duy: Whoever won, the people always lost
Yusef Komunyakaa: Soul Brothers, what you dying for?
H.D.S. Greenway: We would write something ans the magazine would ignore it if it wasn't upbeat
Todd Gitlin: A rather grandoise sense that we were the stars and spear-carriers of history
Tom Englehardt: It was like Vietnam had somehow come all the way into our living rooms
Vivian Rothstein: What? Meet separately with women?
They Slept At Our House
Paul Warnke: We fought for a separate South Vietnam, but there wasn't any South
Part Four: The Turning Point (1968-70)
Tran Van Tan: He asked me for directions to the police sensations
Barry Zorthian: Then-boom!-Tet comes along
Philip Jones Griffiths (II): You're not safe in those cities
Nguyen Qui Duc: I was living a double life
Bob Gabriel: We buried our own men right there
Tuan Van Ban: Attack! Attack! Attack!
Memorial Day 1968
Clark Dougan: He Was Only 19-Did You Know Him?
From Johnson to Nixon
John Gilligan: Our only shot was to help Humphrey break away from Johnson
Peter Kuznick: Political conversion was the greatest ahprodisiac
J. Shaeffer: The Palace Guard
Samuel Huntington: You had to be pretty stupid to stay out in the countryside
Douglas Kinnard: While we had the power, it turned out they had the will
A Three-Square-Mile Piece of the United States
Tom O'Hara: It was like being in a minimum-security prison
Familes At War
John Douglas Marshal: You will not be welcome here again
Huynh Phuong Dong: Recieving a letter was a mixed blessing
Richard Houser: They told me I needed to choose between my country and my brother
Nathan Houser: A sign this country has grown up will be when there is a memorial erected to the war resisters
Suzie Scott: This nice young man from the FBI was here
Lam Van Lich: I was away from home for twenty-nine years
Larry Colburn: They were butchering people
Michael Bernhardt: The portable fire-free zone
You Look Like a Gook
Vincent Okamoto: Damn, I'm a Gook
Wayne Smith: I was thinking God they didn't have air support
Charley Trujillo: It sure as hell wasn't 'English only' in Vietnam
An Acute Lack of Forgetfulness
Gloria Emerson: Before the war, I was Miss Mary Poppins
Nguyen Ngoc Luong: To get their ID cards, the girls had to go to bed with the police
From Cambodia to Kent State
Anthony Lake: Quitting wasn't heroic
A.J. Langguth: I think they pictured it as a kind of huge bamboo Pentagon
Tom Grace: As much as we hated the war on April 29, we hated it more on April 30
Part Five: Endings (1970-75)
The End of the Tunnel
Alexander M. Haig Jr.: Even the tough guys...caved in
Morton Halerin: Kissenger did not trust anybody fully
Judith Coburn: Vietnamization wasn't working any better than Americanization
We Really Believes...
Beverly Gologorsky: God forbid my boss finds out I'm here
Nguyen Ngoc Bich: Why should my son die for your country?
Chalmers Johnson: The campus was turning into a celebration of Maoism
Steve Sherlock: Steve Sherlock, bronze star with a V.
Daniel Ellsberg: We're eating our young
Egil "Bud" Krogh: Let's circle the wagons
The World Was Coming to An End
Frank Maguire: The whole attitude was, stand back little brother, I'll take care of it
Charles Cooper (II): All this area was Indian country
Everybody Thought We'd Won the War
Charles Hill: Reporters just kept writing as if it were Tet
Daniel Davidson: I wouldn't buy a used car from that man
Nguyen Thi Binh: The longest peace talks in history
Nguyen Khac Huynh: It wasn't a mistake, it was an inexplicable crime
Prisoners of War (II)
Jay Scarborough: I read Anthony Adverse about four times
Tran Ngoc Chau: The curriculum was designed to detoxicate us
John McCain: Americans like conspiracies
Patty and Earl Hopper Sr.: What mushroom do they think we were hatched under last week?
Gloria Coppin: The government wanted to control the POW/MIA movement
Frank Snepp: There was classified confetti all over the trees
Troung Tran: We could either lose or tie, but not win
The Merriment was Short-Lived
Le Minh Khue: The letters remain, but the senders are gone forever
Part Six: Legacies (1975- )
Missing In Action
Tran Van Ban: We saw so many parents crying for their lost children
Tom Corey: Why do you hate the Vietnamese?
Tran Luong: I never got there in time to capture an American pilot
Bong Macdoran: It's not worth my energy to lay blame on anybody
Luong Ung: People just disappeared and you didn't say anything
Toshio Whelchel: i didn't her to worry, so I lied
R. Huynh: Your real self was only for you
Jayne Stancavage: I just want to know what happened
Hoang Van Thiet: They bought Zippos as a kind of birth certificate
Leroy V. Quintana: Old geezers...playing taps on a tape recorder
William Westmoreland: I was leading an unpopular war
Thai Dao: The first time I ever encountered the Vietnam War was in Hollywood movies
Tim O'Brien: You can't talk with people you demonize
Huu Ngoc: We no longer hate the Americans
Wayne Karlin: The roof that hasn't been built
Duong Tuong: Because love is stronger than enmity
Posted October 19, 2004
I purchased this book because I believed the advertising on the cover that it was a un-biased view of the Viet Nam conflict. Instead I found that it was extremely biased and 95% or more of the people interviewed were media people either during or after the conflict. If you were a communist Viet Nam supporter (e.g. Jane Fonda, John Kerry, etc.) you will love this book. It would have been nice if the author had given some equal time to the American patriots who fought in this conflict. I hope that some of my words here are not taken out of context because they could give the opposite impression as had the author in this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 7, 2004
An excelent book that brings the Vietnam war to life from every angle. All sides of the war are shown from the men who were there to the protesters at home, the soldiers from North Vietnam and the 'radicals' from the south fighting a revolution. The emotions are brought to the forefront and one becomes engulfed in the war as if it were the 60s and 70s all over again. A book well worth reading for history and Vietnam.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.