Off-topic: Reading about the Vietnam War

Due to my own family roots in Vietnam and my professional interest in history, I read a lot of publications concerning the Vietnam War during the last years. Most books have been published in the US, where various positions on the war, its cause, and outcome exist. The many voices which comment this significant, controversial event of the cold war (which was in fact a very hot one) range from total damnation to actual justification of the US engagement between 1965 and 1972. A neutral observer of this specific historical discourse could thereby draw clear lines between the different political backgrounds of the various authors (mostly a dichotomy of liberal and conservative point of views).

I would like to present here two very interesting books on the issue. They are recommendable to readers without any knowledge about the “10.000 days of war” (Arnett 1980) in Vietnam as well as to those who have already worked on the topic.

Appy, Christian G. (2005) Vietnam. The Definitive Oral History, Told From All Sides. Viking Penguin.

This compendium of different interviews with contemporary witnesses from all sides, which were involved in the conflict, is one of the most important pieces of recorded oral history on the event. The author interviewed generals, soldiers, nurses, reporters, peace activists, relatives and many more people to create this comprehensive documentation. The honest reports, which are partly very emotional, are structured into six chapters – which cover the conflict from its roots in the 1950s to its end in 1975, when Saigon fell to the communist forces. The various interviews are connected by the author’s descriptions of the historical context, and each interviewee is briefly introduced.

Appy provides thereby a fair account of the war – the result of many years of meticulous research and extensive talks. The reader gets a profound impression of the Vietnam War and the course it took, but also learns about individual fates which are just typical for this disastrous conflict: On the one hand, there are for instance a simple GI who left Vietnam as a cripple but feels no anger for his former enemies, a nurse who learnt to hate the Vietcong and was reluctant to help wounded captives, and a Japanese-American GI who at first was a target of anti-asian racism by his comrades before he started to disregard the Vietnamese as human beings himself. On the other one, a Northvietnamese woman tells about the hard work and deprivations while establishing the infamous Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail, another Northvietnamese man explains how he was taken out of the rice field and put into a Russian fighter jet, and a NVA veteran reports how he tries to find the remains of missed Vietnamese since 1977 until today.

Furthermore, people who were not directly involved in the fighting or who never even touched Vietnamese soil speak out, too – and their reports show how a conflict thousands of miles away can become very close in an instance: Politicians, who had at the time no idea of the true nature of Vietnamese culture, admit their mistakes, activists in the civil rights and peace movement report on their experiences at the so-called ‘home front’ and other testimonies show that the pain of losing a relative seems to endure forever.

By combining accurate descriptions of the general historical events with a pluralistic choice of interviews, this intriguing book is not only highly informative but also quite thrilling (even touching) to read. Especially due to the fact, that the provided accounts are non-ficitonal.

Hall, Mitchell K. (2007) The Vietnam War. Second Edition. Pearson Longman.

This monograph is recommendable to ‘beginners’ and provides an overview of the conflict, supported by contemporary documents. It covers the most important developments which led to the war and influenced its course and outcome. The author included also an thorough bibliography, which hints to various important publications on the issue. All those, who do not know much about the Vietnam War and want to make a start should take look on this book.

There are also numerous documentaries on the conflict. I will present some worth seeing in a later post. However, I would like to name here The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, another piece of oral history – this time captured on film. The documentary was directed by Errol Morris and won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2003. In this film, Robert S. McNamara, who has been U.S. secretary of defense during the war gives his accounts of war in general as well as on his role in the Vietnam Conflict.

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