By Max Hastings
It's going to take you some time to read, Max Hasting’s, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy. Invest the time. Hastings' work is sweeping in its coverage — beginning with the war's French roots in 1945 and continuing until its end. His account is gripping. You will feel the war, it's realities and atrocities -- on both sides. I found the author fair in both his praise and criticism. His analysis is insightful. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy is more than a history. It is an education, a cultural and political critique and a laying bare of all that is good and bad about the human spirit in this war that claimed 58,000 American lives and many many more of the North and South Vietnamese.
While not a soldier, Hastings is certainly fit to write about the war. He worked as a British reporter covering the war in 1967-68, encountering chief decision makers, including President Lyndon Johnson. Hastings is both an eye witness (he rode a chopper out of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 during the final evacuation) and careful chronicler, with more than 300 books, articles, and online sources in his "Select Bibliography" tied to 752 footnotes throughout his text.
I picked up Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, in part, because I want a working understanding of the conflict and because Lyndon Johnson (the President about whom I have read more than any other) plays such an ignominious role in it.
Do yourself a favor and read Hasting's work with map in hand. Take the time to become familiar with his glossary he provides at the outset. Non-Vietnamese speakers will need help differentiating the various soldiers, generals, and political figures the author cites with the ease of "Smith" or "Brown." His account is fantastic!
There is so much to appreciate:
1. Great writing: "Yet such a man might have riposted to this scornful spook that he was hard because only hard men could do the business in that hard place. Everything about the war was hard--vehicles, guns, shells, planes, body armor, bullets, C-ration cans, Conexes, the will of the enemy--everything except human flesh and most of the ground underfoot." (p. 270).
2. Frank critique of both friends and foe: This on LBJ: "In 1964-1965, the highest stakes appeared to be relatively small sums of money, together with the egos of the president and those around him, which they so deftly enfolded in the flag that personal reputations seemed, in that season, inseparable from the nation's global prestige." (p. 229).
3. A human face on an inhumane moment in history: Hastings intersperses the individual stories of patriots and deserters, competent and incompetent generals, soldiers who made it and those who did not, POWs, citizens, idyllic American students of the 60's and 70's who praised Ho and the communists while ignoring the atrocities they committed, and hardened soldiers who stopped differentiating between innocent civilians and the enemy. He gets up close to helicopter pilots risking all, infantry enduring all, and B52 pilots -- in constant danger of being shot down -- living on the emotional edge, but also the terror and acceptance of those living under constant bombing barrage. John Ramsey, John Paul Vann, Robert McNamara, General Giap, and so many others are people I needed to meet -- and did -- through the pages of this book.
4. "The Audit Of War": Hastings afterward is worth the price of the book as is most every chapter he wrote. Hastings chronicles dollars spent, lives squandered, heroism displayed, time wasted, ideologies gained and lost, the absolute devastation wrought by US bombing campaigns, and still a sad exit and a sorry fate for those left in South Vietnam.
5. Perspective: As he does throughout his book, Hastings intersperses his commentary with that of others, both in the South and the North. This is one of the rich features of his work. One such voice is that of Soldier David Rogers who recalled the judgmentalism of one who did not fight, his own guilt in the killing, his intense loss over members of his own platoon who didn't make it back, the sights of choppers over the tree lines, and of the people who ran the war: "They knew what was happening. We didn't. I did the pace count and that was it." Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer says, "People are reevaluating. At least now we can separate the war from the warriors. They were blamed for something they didn't start." (Page 747).
There's much to say about this book, but the most important is this: Read it!