The Vietnam War, 50 Years On: A Reading List
George Black Recommends Frederick Logevall, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, and More
By one estimate, something like thirty thousand books have been written about we call “the Vietnam War.” It’s a term I generally try to avoid, because it distorts our understanding of what the conflict was about, where it was fought, and by whom. My own preference is to talk about the American War in Vietnam, which is what the Vietnamese themselves call it, as opposed to the earlier French War, from which it grew organically.
It’s more accurate still to talk about the First and Second Indochina Wars, and the themes I explore in my own book on the war and its aftermath, The Long Reckoning, make no sense without embracing the critical role of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail through neighboring Laos.
Any list of books on the war, whatever we choose to call it, has to include some of the early classics, even if time, hindsight, and new generations of scholarship can sometimes be harsh judges of their shortcomings. Agreed, the earliest of these classics, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, set during the latter years of the French War, has in some ways not aged well, especially in its stereotypical portrait of the young Vietnamese woman, Phuong—beautiful, passive, available, but in the end inscrutable. Yet Greene nails all of the illusions and naïveté that led the Americans to disaster more than a decade after it was published, and needs less than 200 pages to do it.
Frances Fitzgerald’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, has been taken to task in recent years for its overly romantic view of the Vietnamese struggle for national independence, but it’s still extraordinary to think that a work of such historical sweep and depth could have been written in 1972, when American troops were still in the field—and by a woman, just 32 years old, working in a male-dominated reporting environment.
Michael Herr’s hallucinogenic Dispatches has many of the narrative tics and excesses of the New Journalism of the 1960s. But to take issue with it for that, as some do these days, seems to me like condemning Jimi Hendrix for his feedback-drenched mutilation of The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock because it’s out of touch with current trends in rock music. Dispatches similarly encapsulates a particular instant in time, and it still stands out for its empathy with the ordinary grunts with whom Herr chose to embed, sharing their privations and their terrors, in the nightmarish landscapes along the DMZ in I Corps, the northernmost military zone in South Vietnam, where most of The Long Reckoning is set.
Of the first generation of books on the military and diplomatic tragedy of America’s involvement in Vietnam—by which I mean those published before about 1990—there are some that will stand up to any test of time and any amount of historical revisionism (and all historical writing in the end is an exercise in revisionism). Two in particular dismantle the illusions, misconceptions, and hubris that drove the war: Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, which was published in 1988; and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which appeared in the following year.
I’d add to this opening list the masterful scholarship of George C. Herring, the dean of American historians of the war, who passed away just last year. The unique virtue of his classic history, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975, is that after its initial publication in 1979, Herring took it through five more revised editions, each taking into account the latest scholarly insights. And as the dates in the subtitle imply, it embraces both parts of what I think of as the Second Indochina War. If there’s one single primer to read, this is it.
Those, then, are six foundational books on the “Vietnam War.” But what of the other 29,994? Here are a few of those that had an especially profound impact on my thinking as I wrote The Long Reckoning.
Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Frederick Logevall
Logevall, a historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has emerged as Herring’s successor as the pre-eminent scholar of the war, and Embers of War deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize. Deeply researched and minutely detailed, but at the same time elegantly written, Logevall’s story begins with Ho Chi Minh’s presentation of a plea for Vietnamese independence at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and ends with the deaths in 1959 of the first two Americans to have their names engraved on the Vietnam Wall. The drama pivots on the fatal error made by American policymakers after World War II, when, fixated on their fear of Communist expansion, they decided that it was more important to indulge the continued colonial fantasies of their defeated wartime ally rather than accept that postwar decolonization was a force from which France could not remain exempt.
Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen
For decades, as the United States struggled with the trauma of its first-ever defeat in a foreign war and the shattering of long-held illusions about the nation’s unique combination of strength and virtue, historians concentrated on one central question: Why did we lose? But this began to change as the Cold War ended and Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and other formerly Communist nations began to open their long-sealed archives. With this, it became possible to address the corollary question: Why did they win?
Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American scholar at Columbia University, goes further than anyone in answering that question, and in the process dispels much of our received wisdom about the war. Her analysis of the internal divisions in Hanoi makes it clear that it was not Ho Chi Minh but his hardline rival Le Duan who was the main architect of the war effort. And her insights into Hanoi’s diplomacy makes equally clear the skill with which it managed to navigate the Sino-Soviet split, securing aid from both of the great Communist powers but always maintaining its strategic independence.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This would make most people’s shortlist of the greatest books on the war, and mine is no exception. The Things They Carried has deservedly become a staple of middle- and high-school English classes as a model of great narrative writing, and I’m glad that it was on the syllabus for my own kids at that age. But at the same time I wish that it could also be taught more often as a point of entry into a deeper understanding of the war and the experience to which it subjected our veterans.
Younger generations of Americans remain woefully ignorant of what happened in Southeast Asia, another chapter in a long national tradition of historical amnesia that continues to lead us into more foreign misadventures. In our current political climate, however, perhaps teaching O’Brien’s masterpiece in that way would only lead to it joining the many other books being pulled off library shelves because they risk making some students and parents uncomfortable.
Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir by W.D. Ehrhart
There are many great memoirs of Vietnam by combat veterans, especially by Marines who had the misfortune to serve in I Corps, where much of my own book is set. But Erhart’s unsparing confessional of one Marine’s descent into hell is unique in the intensity of the moral questions it raises about what war does to young men. It shows how an ordinary 18-year-old from a small town in Pennsylvania could be transformed into someone who could gun down an unarmed old woman simply because she is wearing black pajamas and running away, or yuk it up with his buddies as they destroy an abandoned Buddhist temple just for the hell of it, or take his place in a line of Marines waiting for their turn with a starving woman trading her body for a can of C-rations. An unforgettable book by a man who went on to become the unrivaled poet of the war.
Matterhorn is the third in my trilogy of great books by combat veterans. It took Marlantes, a former Marine lieutenant in I Corps, 35 years to write, drafted and redrafted and rejected and redrafted again until an editor finally told him to cut the doorstop manuscript in half. In the vast literature on the war, there is nothing else quite like Matterhorn. It works both as microcosm—conveying in granular detail the excruciating minute-by-minute grind of combat in the forbidding mountains along the DMZ—and as grand metaphor, for the endlessly repeated futility of operations in which troops were ordered to take some anonymous hill, hold it, and then abandon it again.
But Matterhorn acquires even deeper levels of meaning when read in conjunction with Marlantes’s book of essays, What It Is Like to Go to War, which intersperses vignettes of his time in Vietnam with meditations on the constants of all wars: killing, guilt, lying, loyalty, revenge, and the necessary dehumanization of the enemy that transforms young men, not otherwise inclined to take the life of another human being, into killing machines.
Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian Appy
In the great tradition of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, Patriots gives us a symphony of voices that capture the full sweep and complexity of the war: combatants and civilians; men and women; Americans, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese; journalists, writers, and poets; doctors and scientists; policymakers and photographers; pilots and POWs; anti-war activists and witnesses to atrocity; and countless others. “All sides” indeed. Cast away on the proverbial desert island, this is probably the one book on Vietnam I’d take with me, one to read and reread or simply dip into again, savoring the reacquaintance with the Appy’s vast cast of characters, each of them memorable in his or her own distinct way.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
On street corners in Hanoi or outside tourist attractions like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, you’ll often find vendors peddling pirated copies of this extraordinary autobiographical novel of the war. Banned until 2006 in Vietnam, It’s the story of a North Vietnamese grunt, a member of the 514th Glorious Youth Brigade, a relentless portrayal of war and its aftermath, as experienced by one of the millions who were dehumanized by Americans during the war with racist epithets like gooks and dinks.
It centers on the narrator’s search for those lost in battle, the “screaming souls” condemned to wander, unable to find passage to the world of their ancestors. Read today, it’s also a sobering reminder that while the United States continues to devote huge sums each year to search for the 1,500 or so Americans still missing in action in Southeast Asia, no one even knows how many Vietnamese dead remain unrecovered, although 300,000 is one common estimate.
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen is best known as a writer of fiction, especially for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, which delves into the conflictive passions and treacheries of the Vietnamese-American diaspora in California. But he’s also a distinguished essayist and scholar, and Nothing Ever Dies is a brilliant collection of essays on how both sides remember and memorialize the war—or choose to forget it. “All wars are fought twice,” Nguyen writes, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
His subjects range from Vietnam’s propagandistic war museums, with their heroic statues and totemic displays of wrecked American airplanes and armored vehicles, to the Vietnam Wall in Washington and the neglected cemeteries of the southern war dead. Above all, the book is about the ethics of remembering. “When we recognize our capacity to do harm, we can reconcile with others who we feel have hurt us,” he writes, “then perhaps we would go to war less readily and be more open to reconciliation in its aftermath.”
The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam by George Black is available from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.