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A literary guide to the Vietnam War

Tue, Apr 11th, 2000
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We called it the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese refered to it as the American War.

This Saturday will be the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. There will be great celebrations in Vietnam commemorating this event, as the date, April 30, 1975, has become a historical marker for that nation, just like the Fourth of July is for our own.

On that day, the guns became silent and the two parts of Vietnam became one for the first time since 1954 when the country was divided along the 17th parallel. From the Vietnamese standpoint, it was also the first time that the country had been rid of foreign invaders since the French began colonizing it in the 1860's.

For most of us "Baby Boomers", who came of age in the 60's, the Vietnam War was our defining moment. Whether we were drafted into the military, volunteered to serve, or protested against the escalation of the war, for many years Vietnam played center stage in our lives.

Over the years I have come to know combatants on all sides of the conflict - GI's, ARVN soldiers from South Vietnam, as well as Boi Doi regulars from the North. I have met American POW's and have conducted extensive interviews of Vietnamese re-education prisoners. I have worked with thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S., the Philippines and Hong Kong, including Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen. And I have traveled in Vietnam several times, which has brought me in contact with people throughout the country, both North and South.

I have also read extensively on the subject of the Vietnam War. Out of the Vietnam conflict has come a great body of literature detailing all manner of thought about the events and actions during that time.

What follows is a literary guide to the war. These are the ten books that I would recommend to anyone wanting to know about the Vietnam War - why we were there and what was it like for the American soldiers who fought there.

1. Fire in the Lake by Francis Fitzgerald. This Pulitzer Prize winning book gives a historical and cultural reference point from which to view the war, and, in particular, the effects of the American military strategy.

2. The Siege of Dien Ben Phu (Hell in a Very Small Place) by Bernard Fall. Fall, a French journalist, gives a detailed account of the battle of Dien Ben Phu, a strategic military victory by the Vietnamese over the French colonial forces. Fall, who was killed while covering the American Vietnam War, also wrote Street Without Joy which chronicled the difficulties faced by French forces fighting a conventional war against insurgent elements in central Vietnam.

3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene. This novel, published in 1955, is prescient in its depiction of American attitudes and actions in Vietnam during the late '50's and early '60's.

4. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstram. Halberstram was a war correspondent for the New York Times. This 1972 book focused on the American leadership during the Kennedy and Johnson years and how decisions were made regarding Vietnam policy. Halberstram also wrote The Making of a Quagmire, a 1965 account of America's early conduct of the war.

The next three publications are classic "grunt" books as told by the soldiers who fought the war. These three are my favorites, although there are many others out there.

5. If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien. This Worthington, Minnesota native, won the National Book Award for his fictional account of the war, Going After Cacciato. If I Die in a Combat Zone is a near autobiographical narrative of life as a draftee serving in a rifle company in central Vietnam.

6. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. This is a haunting depiction of life in the field, focusing on the things a GI carried with them.

7. A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo. Caputo was with the first wave of marines to land in Danang in 1965. He later served as a war correspondent.

8. Dispatches by Michael Herr. Herr was an American journalist covering the war and Dispatches is recognized as one of the best written books about the war by any non-combatant observer. Herr focuses quite a bit of attention on the psychological gap between U.S. civilians and soldiers involved in the war.

9. A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. This book details the work of John Paul Vann, a former combat officer, who later became one of the few civilians to command troops in Vietnam, and his efforts to change the manner in which the U.S. Government waged war. Vann was killed in a plane crash in the central Highlands.

10. All the Wrong Places by James Fenton. On April 30, 1975, Fenton, a British journalist, became the Saigon bureau chief for numerous publications, including the Washington Post, when the Americans left. This is an account of the last days of Saigon.

There are several histories and anthologies dealing with the war. Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History (which was a companion piece to the PBS documentary of the same name) and The Vietnam Reader, edited by Stewart O'Nan are two excellent examples.

One additional book worth looking at from the North Vietnamese perspective is The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh. Bao Ninh, a former soldier, details in this fictional account the many problems that soldiers on the other side faced during and after the war, including post war trauma.

The Vietnam War was a terrible tragedy. Over three million U.S. servicemen and women served in Vietnam, of which 58,183 lost their lives. It is estimated that nearly one million Vietnamese military personnel (both North and South) and another four million civilians, nearly 10% of the population of Vietnam, were killed. To this day, there are about 2,000 Americans and 300,000 Vietnamese listed as missing-in-action. The direct American cost of the war has officially been put at $165 billion.

To the young today, the Vietnam War is as remote as World War II was to my generation. But, as in all life changing events, it altered the way my generation looked at life. Things would never be quite the same way again.

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