I suppose it’s because it was the backdrop of my youth, born in 1967, that the war was a tunnel from which I exited. Mom, Dad, and my six older brothers and sisters were, of course, more close to it than I. Dad served in Korea; not in Viet Nam. But my oldest brothers had to register for the draft when they turned 18 and the political winds that had blown so strongly before, they were still around when I was a kid. I was only at the back end of the hurricane, something lightly felt, as the bulk of the storm had already passed me by and calmer, brighter skies were assuredly ahead.
The Viet Nam War became personally relevant when I joined the military in my young adulthood. I came into the uniform in 1990, long before the September 11, 2001 wave that opened up the new era of military service. So I naturally read about Viet Nam war to try to gain a sense of the group I was joining.
Working where I do now at a combined Veterans Administration – Department of Defense hospital, meeting and getting to know so many Viet Nam vets, that has re-kindled a fascination with the problems and intent of the Viet Nam war. These men (mostly men, some women) paid the real price for our then-opposition to Communist ideology. Looking at the entirety of it from a U.S.-centric point of view, as we “Americans” often do, I never realized the war and its aftermath was ten, a hundred times worse for the Vietnamese people than it was for us. I also never heard how bad the Communism we had fought turned out to be for the Vietnamese people, after the war was lost. I still don’t really know; I’ve read books on the subject as an amateur with an interest, and that’s about it.
I didn’t realize I was back into another phase of reading about the war until I recently finished, “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. That novel dovetailed nicely with a history of Viet Nam that I finished maybe a year ago, entitled appropriately enough, “Viet Nam, A History.” This was by Stanley Karnow, and was a historian’s work that began well before our engagement there.
The Sympathizer was about a South Vietnamese Army double-agent (a Communist agent). It’s all I’ll say about it other than it deserves to be as lauded and it deserved its Pulitzer Prize. Karnow’s book – a must read to understand the backdrop, the history of the country.
“Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes is an incredible read. If Karnow’s history gives a basic outline of epochs, places, historical movements, and moments of great importance to the country’s history, concentrating the most upon the recent epochs of the French colonialism and war, followed by the Capitalism versus Communism epochal battle which the country hosted in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, then Marlantes’ story of a “fictitious” Marine Corps Captain, fighting in the in the jungle and on the mountains, gives an up front, blood in your eyes / slugs on your skin view of the experience. I did it as a book on tape, and the actor(s) doing the reading – magnificent. It’s a five-star, must read. Marlantes’ personal story is interesting, too.
“Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam” is really important for anyone to read if you want to know how we screwed up our part so badly – meaning, we screwed it up from the top. My only criticism of it is that if I recall it left General Westmorland (’64-’68 / Gulf of Tonkin / “war of attrition”) off the hook somewhat; I’ve no personal knowledge of these things myself, but books that I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to (occasional Vets in my VA) convey the distinct impression that he’d fought one war too many.
And then there was “A Great Place to have a War: America in Laos and the birth of a Military CIA.” If you’ve an interest this is a fascinating read insofar as I had NO idea of the Communist reality there, despite one of my good childhood friends being a refugee from Laos and the communist takeover.
No Viet Nam War book discussion would be complete without either Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” or Eugene Burdick + William Lederer’s “The Ugly American.” Despite the similarities of the titles, they’re two COMPLETELY different books. Yet both of them are iconic and deservedly classics in the field. Greene, a British author and former MI6 agent, deftly depicts our pre-war CIA efforts as earnest and heartfelt but misguided, insufficiently informed and… arrogant. Burdick & Lederer’s book meanwhile, characterizes that SE Asian effort so completely that it apparently became standard reading for all Peace Corps volunteers for decades. Both are in the “must read” category.
And there should be no skipping Ken Burns, “The Vietnam War.” This I think you should go to this one last because it’s so extremely powerful and gripping, and also because it’s so engrossing that if you go to it first you might believe you know all you need to about it, however impossible that may be.
My last point on this is that contemporary society has probably largely forgotten about the Communist problem, that bugaboo that was our existential threat / mortal enemy one generation ago, as had been the fascism of the Nazi war machine one generation prior to that. (As a side note: without this external existential threat, we seem to have taken to tearing one another apart within our country.) Just how bad is Communism? It seems to be a question we’ve forgotten to ask.