A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

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 thoroughly researched.

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 inappropriate."

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 movement leaders.

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 experiences.

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., $22.95).

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 In Country.

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 mid-seventies.

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 human being."

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.


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