October 2000/November 2000
Books in Review
Reviews by Marc Leepson
Making History Come Alive: Jack Langguth's Readable Our Vietnam
There have been readable narrative histories of the American war in
Vietnam. There have been exhaustively researched histories of that war,
combining material from original interviews, archival sources, and the
best secondary sources. Now comes A.J. "Jack" Langguth's Our
Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975 (Simon & Schuster, 794 pp., $35), a
history of the Vietnam War that is both compulsively readable and
Langguth, the former New York Times correspondent who teaches
journalism at the University of Southern California, focuses on American
policy-making in Washington, particularly during the Johnson
administration. But he also includes fascinating material on concurrent
planning by our Vietnamese allies and by the Vietnamese communists.
Langguth tells his story chronologically; he offers no surprises. But
Langguth does bring something new to the table: insights into some of the
war's most pivotal events gleaned from interviews with lesser known but
consequential American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses. That group includes
William Kohlmann of the CIA; Viet Cong Lt. Ta Minh Kham; Foreign Service
Officer Paul Kattenburg; North Vietnamese Army Col. Ta Minh Kham; Nguyen
Dinh Tu, a one-time South Vietnamese newspaper reporter; and Jack Smith,
the veteran ABC-TV News reporter who fought with the U.S. First Cavalry
Division at the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang.
Langguth also interviewed well-known pivotal players and mined the best
primary and secondary accounts. With an eye for the telling anecdote,
Langguth uses dozens of individual stories to create this
personality-driven saga. The result is a long, compelling narrative. The
book is short on analysis, but sets out the politically charged
policy-making story of the Vietnam War in a complete and seamless manner.
Non-fiction In Brief
Larry H. Addington's America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative
History (Indiana University Press, 191 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $12.95,
paper), is a clearly written, objective look at the main events in the
Vietnam War. Addington, a Professor Emeritus of History at The Citadel
(where he taught a course on the war) sticks mainly to the facts but also
provides some thoughtful analysis. On veterans, for example, he notes that
despite the problems of PTSD and Agent Orange, "most veterans took up
productive lives after the war, and whatever the war's merits, most of
them took pride in having heeded their country's call to duty."
British historian Lawrence Freedman gives a thorough accounting and
analysis of John F. Kennedy's Vietnam War policy-making in his
well-researched Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (Oxford
University Press, 505 pp., $35). Freedman is critical of Kennedy's conduct
in the Vietnam arena, saying JFK was "strikingly unprepared"
when the Buddhist crisis hit in the summer of 1963.
Kennedy, Freedman opines, "wanted Vietnam to be a test bed for
ill-developed theories of counterinsurgency, but the appropriate political
prerequisites were never met, while the American military preferred to
stick to forms of warfare that were far better developed, though wholly
Another British writer, Anthony Summers, offers a decidedly negative
picture of Richard Nixon--including his Vietnam War policy-making--in The
Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (Viking, 640 pp.,
$29.95). Summers' allegation that President Nixon used the mood-altering
drug Dilantin frequently beginning in 1968 made headlines before the book
was published. As for Vietnam, Summers castigates Nixon for--among other
things--pretending he had a plan to end the war in 1968, subverting the
1968 Paris Peace talks, and using illegal methods to keep tabs on antiwar
In Silent Warrior (Berkley Books, 244 pp., $30), Charles Henderson
picks up where he left off in Marine Sniper, his 1986 profile of Carlos J.
Hathcock II, the most proficient sniper of the Vietnam War--and one of the
best at his trade in American military history. Hathcock, who died in
1999, used his uncanny marksmanship in Vietnam to record more than 300
hits, 93 of them confirmed enemy kills. Henderson, a retired Marine Corps
officer, presents a sequel of sorts, keeping Hathcock's flame burning
brightly in a re-examination that concentrates on his hero's Vietnam War
In Stingray (Ballantine, 357 pp., $6.99, paper), former USMC Major
Bruce H. Norton offers an overview of the LRRP-like Marine recon squads
that operated in the Vietnam War beginning in 1966 known as Stingrays.
Norton, who served as a Navy corpsman attached to two Marine recon
companies, is the author of two war memoirs: Force Recon Diary, 1969 and
Force Recon Diary, 1970.
In Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat From World War II to the Gulf War (Dell,
383 pp., $6.50, paper) Brit writer and TV producer (and former RAFer) Ivan
Rendall includes a long, meaty chapter on the American air war in Vietnam.
"America," he notes, "won the air war [but] it was a bitter
victory because all it achieved was to make the Vietnamese agree to
[peace] terms so that America could pull out."
In Battle for the Central Highlands: A Special Forces Story (Ballantine,
274 pp., $6.99, paper) George E. Dooley presents a well-rendered memoir of
his long, eventful military career. He concentrates on his two Vietnam
tours, which began in 1966 with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in
the Central Highlands.
Virginia Hanly, who fervently opposed American participation in the
Vietnam War, committed suicide in January 1975. She did not leave a note,
but her former teacher and longtime friend, A.W. Goodman, believes
Virginia Hanly was a "victim" of the Vietnam War. "Virginia
did everything she possibly could to halt the bombing in Vietnam that
murdered so many innocent people," Goodman writes in A Victim of the
Vietnam War: The Story of Virginia Hanly (Pentland, 129 pp., $18.50), a
fervently antiwar tract.
Dana Sachs, a free-lance American journalist, fell in love with
Vietnam--the country, not the war--after visiting in 1989 when she was 27
years old. A few years later, Sachs moved to Hanoi and spent most of the
1990s in Vietnam teaching English, leading tour groups, and writing. Sachs
recounts her rich 1990s Vietnam experiences in the engaging The House on
Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam (Algonquin, 368 pp.,
The brother in Adam Fifield's A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable
Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother (Avon, 336 pp., $24) is Soeuth Saut, a
Cambodian refugee who joined the author's family in Vermont in 1984. Adam
was then 11; Soeuth, 14. They grew up together. In 1998, Soeuth returned
to his homeland after he discovered that his family had survived the Khmer
Rouge holocaust. This family memoir contains flashbacks to the Killing
Fields, along with much reconstructed dialogue.
Philip K. Jason shows off his wide knowledge of Vietnam War literature
in Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture (Rowman
& Littlefield, 183 pp., $45), a compilation of ten essays, along with
a section on teaching Vietnam War literature (Jason does so at the U.S.
Naval Academy). Among the more illuminating pieces are Jason's takes on
science fiction novelist (and Vietnam veteran) Joe Haldeman and James Lee
Burke's fictional Nam vet detective Dave Robicheaux (see below).
Vietnam War and Post Modernity (University of Massachusetts, 242 pp.,
$50, hardcover; $16.95, paper) is a compilation of nine essays edited by
Michael Bibby, an English professor at Shippensburg University. These
academic pieces zero in on war literature, film, and other cultural
representation. Contributors include Philip D. Beidler on the image of the
Huey and Tony Williams' postmodernist deconstruction of two 1980s Vietnam
War-themed novels, Philip Caputo's Indian Country and Bobbie Ann Mason's
Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States
Imperialism, 1945-1966 (University of Massachusetts, 340 pp., $60,
hardcover; $18.95, paper) contains nine essays that examine how American
culture shaped the Cold War. Edited by Christian G. Appy (Working Class
War), the book features essays dealing with the Vietnam War by Mark
Bradley, Christina Klein, and Andrew J. Rotter.
Fiction In Brief
Terry Farish's finely crafted novel, Flower Shadows (1992), told the
autobiographical story of a young American woman who volunteers to go to
Vietnam to work with the Red Cross ministering to the social needs of
American soldiers--a doughnut dolly, as the phrase went. Her new novel, A
House in Earnest (Steerforth, 261 pp., $13, paper) deals with a young,
rootless, iconoclastic woman (you could say she is a hippie), her
significant other (a Vietnam veteran), and their turbulent life in the
It's a mostly melancholy tale that wanders back and forth in time
plotlessly. Christy, the veteran, is intelligent but emotionally damaged.
"The only time he's sane is when he's teaching," one character
says. "Give him a class and he's on, otherwise he forgets he's a
Harry Dilkes, a VVA member who served in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry
Division's 1st of the 12th Infantry, has (with Lewis A. Easterly) written
Five Years to DEROS (DPG Ltd., 355 pp., $19.50, paper), an evocative
autobiographical tale told in the first person and set in the Central
Highlands. To order a copy of this solidly written book, write to: P.O.
Box 10655, New Brunswick, NJ 08906.
Stephen (Flight of the Intruder) Coonts's latest thriller, Hong Kong
(St. Martin's, 350 pp., $25.95), once again stars Jake Grafton, former Nam
flyboy. This time Grafton, now a hotshot Navy admiral, gets involved in an
anticommunist revolution, thanks to his connection with an old war buddy,
Virgil "Tiger" Cole, the U.S. consul general (and high-tech
billionaire) in Hong Kong.
Also in the thriller-with-a-Vietnam-War-connection: Thomas Powers' The
Confirmation (Knopf, 416 pp., $25.95), in which the prospective nominee to
head the CIA faces up to allegations that he covered up the existence of
an American Vietnam War POW held in a Russian prison. Powers is a former
Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper reporter.
Ma Van Khang, the former Vietnamese war correspondent during the
American War, today is one of his nation's top novelists. His latest work
of fiction, Against the Flood (Curbstone, 306 pp., $15.95), is set in
present-day Vietnam. It involves the politically and sexually charged life
of a writer whose work is banned by the government. The able translation
is by Phan Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin, who adds an informative afterward
on the author's work.
The pseudonymous Carl Ax's After Nam: A Police Story (244 pp., $7.95,
paper) is the dialogue-heavy story of Howard Dale, a former Marine in
Vietnam who is now a cop in Washington, D.C. He must battle bad guys in
the mean streets of D.C., as well as bad memories of his service in the
war. To order, write: P.O. Box 25, Earlville, PA 15919-0025.
T.C. Huo's Land of Smiles (Plume, 224 pp., $13, paper) is a short,
engaging tale that follows the adventures of Boontakorn, a young Laotian
boy who escapes his homeland after the Vietnam War. Huo, who emigrated
from Laos to the United States in 1979, takes his hero on a first-person
journey through a Thai refugee camp, to San Francisco, and finally, back
to his homeland.
Purple Cane Road (Doubleday, 341 pp., $24.95), the eleventh and latest
James Lee Burke Dave Robicheaux detective novel, follows a familiar
pattern. Dave, the part-time sheriff's deputy in New Iberia, Louisiana,
gets into a heap of trouble, barely staying true to his principles, as he
chases down a group of sociopathic bad guys. Many persons, good and bad,
are murdered as the blood flows and the pages turn.
This time, Dave, a Vietnam veteran who suffers the occasional flashback
and war-related nightmare, is after the person or persons who murdered his
mother many years ago. He is abetted in his often not-quite-legal quest by
his old buddy, ex-New Orleans cop (and fellow Nam vet), the hot-headed,
hard-drinking Clete Purcell. Dave and Clete use their brawn and brains to
solve the mystery.