10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War by Philip Caputo

Because I have read a lot about the Vietnam War, I was interested in seeing how the conflict would be presented to young readers (ages 9 to 12 according to the publisher). Accordingly, I was not expecting to learn anything new, but I was surprised to discover unknown details.

Caputo presents events in roughly chronological order in extremely short chapters. Each chapter begins with a call-of box of “quick facts.” These were interesting. For example, one described how American children went to school in reinforced buses before the families of men serving in Vietnam were sent home when the country became too dangerous. Another mentions soldiers didn’t wear underwear because of the risk of jungle rot. Some of the material in the call-out boxes was presented like trivia, as in the above examples, but some of the material was a summary of critical information, such as the role that each president from Truman to Ford played. I wished there had been more consistency in that feature.

The book eskews details for a broad presentation. To some extent, this made sense to me because of the audience; however, some of the battles were condensed so much that the description was nearly perfunctory and much of the political intrigue (e.g., the coup against Diem) was omitted entirely. On the other hand, the book included a chapter on the Australian and New Zealand military contributions which is often ignored. Another described naval operations I hadn’t read about before. Caputo also made a clear link between defoliation agents and birth defects (though he unfortunately used the term “mentally retarded”).

The historical facts are augmented with recollections from veterans. Japanese- American Vincent Okamoto, who was later interviewed for Ken Burn and Lynn Novak’s masterful documentary, The Vietnam War, discusses nearly being mistaken for the enemy because of his Asian features. These memories augment the book but I wish that Caputo had included references regarding the sources of the quotations.

10,000 Days of Thunder contains a wealth of photographs, many of which I haven’t seen before, but the quality is uneven.

I also found that Caputo made some unusual if not distressing and biased choices in the narrative. He characterizes Viet Cong and North Vietnamese operations as terrorist attack. He claimed that attacks after the Paris Peace Accords (1973) showed that “North Vietnam had never lost its desire to conquer South Vietnam.” A more accurate description would claim that North Vietnam never lost its desire to unify the country and eliminate foreign influence.In a caption for a photograph of female soldiers of the South Vietnamese People’s Self-Defense Force, he refers to the women as “girls.”

Most disturbingly, I found that Caputo was biased against Johnson and for Nixon. He intimated that if Johnson had been honest with the country, the public would have been behind the war. That assumes (to my mind incorrectly) that there was a legitimate rationale for going to war in Vietnam. Caputo blames the media for the North’s political victory after Tet, faulting them for broadcasting the immediate reactions of soldiers and the damage to the American Embassy in Saigon without offering sufficient analysis. Caputo glossed over Nixon’s misdeeds, including his sabotage of the peace talks prior to the 1968 election.

I also noticed an egregious error. Caputo asserts that General Giap conceptualized and oversaw the 1968 Tet Offensive. In actuality, he was opposed to the operation which was spearheaded by Le Duan who sidelined Giap by sending him to Hungary for medical treatment.

The book concludes with a chapter on the Vietnam Memorial and one on Vietnam today. I found the ending quite abrupt and thought the book would have benefited with a final concluding chapter.

Overall though I had looked forward to reading this book and had greatly enjoyed Caputo’s Rumors of War, because of the biases and incorrect information, I was ultimately disappointed in it.

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