Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975
In Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975, Max Hastings chronicles conflict in the country from the end of World War II until South Vietnam fell to the communists. He lays out how America viewed Vietnam as a military problem to be solved, when the concerns were primarily political and social, and that the United States acted with hubris by not involving the Vietnamese in decisions that affected their own country. Additionally, he believes that the communists have been unfairly seen as being in the right in the conflict. Because the Northern Vietnamese so tightly controlled the media and public opinion, though, the world was not privy to the atrocities they committed which were similar to those committed on the other side, and he doesn’t let either side off easily.
The book is primarily structured chronologically, though some chapters are thematic. It is full of anecdotes from soldiers, often grunts, NCOs, or low ranking officers, providing a very intimate account of the war. At times, it reminded me a bit of Mark Bowden’s Hué 1968 writ large. Hastings draws from interviews as well as primary and secondary source material, and it seems the research is comprehensive.
In all the other Vietnam War books I’ve read, I’ve not seen any discussion of the Russian or Chinese advisers to the NVA. Hastings includes accounts from Russians who were assigned to assist surface-to-air missile teams and Chinese engineers sent to help repair bridges destroyed in bombings. Truly, just for those sections, I was glad to have read the book because it was a perspective I’ve seen nowhere else.
True to his mission of including both sides, Hastings also offers insight from Vietcong and NVA soldiers. One female doctor was killed while carrying a journal, and he quotes frequently from it. He also includes poetry and songs.
Additionally, Hastings includes a chapter on the M-16 versus the AK-47 and offers insight into why an inferior gun was rushed to the field without proper testing. He also devotes attention to Australian and New Zealand troops as well as the domestic opposition to their deployment.
Because the book is focused on what happened in country, less details are included about the political wrangling in Washington DC, although the basic outline of Presidential commitment, from Truman to Nixon, is delineated. On the Northern Vietnamese side, he reveals how Le Duan eclipsed Ho Chi Min as a power broker in the politburo and recounts personal details about Le Duan I’d not read about before.
Given the nature of the subject matter, I understand why the book is so lengthy, but I do still wonder if it could have been cut a bit since there was some repetition. Additionally, at times, the organization was a bit chaotic, with Hastings moving from topic-to-topic within a section or even a single paragraph. I also thought at times, his language was a little flippant or silly, for example when he wrote, “streetwise—or rather, paddywise.” I did like the maps, which were crisp, clear, and easy to understand. The included photos were useful, though in this case, I’d like to have more rather than less.
Overall, this was a very interesting book and offered new material in a very crowded genre. I wouldn’t recommend it as the first or only book to read on the Vietnam War, but maybe the second or third!