The blurb on the dust jacket of my edition says that Vietnam At War is “a penetrating history of how the Vietnamese people experienced the wars for th...moreThe blurb on the dust jacket of my edition says that Vietnam At War is “a penetrating history of how the Vietnamese people experienced the wars for their country” and “Mark Philip Bradley paints a vivid picture of how Vietnamese people of all classes…came to understand the thirty years of bloody warfare that unfolded around them.” It was comments like these and favorable reviews of this book that got it on my GR wishlist and convinced me to acquire it when given opportunity. Unfortunately, that’s not what I got with this book. It’s a perfectly adequate primer on the war in Vietnam (from the French attempt to recolonize the region after 1945 to Saigon’s fall in 1975) but it’s hardly a “penetrating” look at how the Vietnamese experienced the wars; it’s hardly a look at all.
One problem is that the book’s too short. At 196 pages of text in my edition, it wastes too many of them setting the background and not nearly enough talking about the Vietnamese. We meet some individuals: Dang Thuy Tram, a young Northern medical student who worked in a field hospital from 1967 to 1970, when she was killed; the writers Tran Huy Quang and Bao Ninh; Trinh Công Son, a musician; and Dang Nhat Minh, a film-maker. But Bradley barely mentions them and their lives before returning to the straight-up narrative.
This was not the book I expected or hoped for. At the end of the day, I expected to know more about both how the Vietnamese responded intellectually to the wars and how individuals lived through it. I’m sure – if I could read Vietnamese – that I would find a wealth of sources to satisfy my curiosity but lacking that skill I found Bradley’s slim volume a not-very-credible attempt to convey that information to an English-reading audience. (The best parts of the book are the “Introduction” and “Coda,” where the individuals mentioned above are most visible, because they show the kind of book that Bradley could have/should have written.)
Another complaint I have is that the photographs included don’t seem to be very well organized and there are too few.(less)
If I were recommending this book, I’d recommend it to sixth graders or middle-school teachers with students interested in American and/or Native histo...moreIf I were recommending this book, I’d recommend it to sixth graders or middle-school teachers with students interested in American and/or Native history. There’s nothing wrong with the book’s content but the writing is so simplistic (amateurish in spots) and the analysis so shallow as to make it useless as a serious history of the period. As a narrative of events, though, it’s perfectly adequate. And as I have no great familiarity with the time or its actors, the book was revelatory in that respect but also disappointing. There’s little discussion of the social and political background that engendered the war or the relationships between the whites and Native tribes.
It would have been a much better adult history if Hatch could have elaborated on the Seminoles and their origins, or the machinations in both Congress and in the military regarding Indian policy, or the drives that made it expedient to thoroughly cleanse Florida of Natives. Though what he does touch upon is depressing enough. It is no comfort to realize that our military’s tradition of invading countries without learning about the environment the army will be fighting in or the people we’re killing has a long history. The first expedition to tame the Seminoles ended in ignominious defeat; and when Winfield Scott assumed command, he also assumed he would be fighting a conventional enemy using conventional strategies. What he got, and what he bequeathed to his successor commanders, was a situation not dissimilar to Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) was the longest and costliest of the Indian wars and – like war in general – utterly pointless. The Seminoles didn’t want it and, recognizing that they couldn’t escape US domination, were willing enough to adjust to white settlement in Florida but they faced the limitless greed of the settlers, the animosity of the increasingly hysterical slaveholders (many Seminoles were escaped slaves), and the implacable enmity of the federal government under Andrew Jackson and his protégés.
As disappointing as the shallowness and superficiality of the writing was Hatch’s unfortunate tendency to ascribe motives and thoughts to people without any evident source. All too often, he writes “X must have felt…” or “We can assume Y was thinking…”. How does he know this? Why is this a reasonable assumption? There’s an extensive bibliography with what appear to be oral histories and personal memoirs but the footnoting is execrable. Is it so hard to indicate that “X writes in his diary that he felt…” or “In his memoirs, Z writes that Y told him…”? Or indicate the primary source you’re relying on in a note?
Apparently, the answer is “yes.”
If I were 13, this would be a great book, full of interesting characters on both sides and (from a 13-year old’s POV) well told (in fact – from an adult POV – the writing improves as Hatch gets more engaged with the course of the war). If I had been able to read this 30 years ago, it may have redirected my historical interests. As it was, the interesting books I read tended toward medieval and ancient histories – c’est la vie. So I will recommend this for my young adult/middle-school-age following and their parents but I can’t comfortably recommend it to older readers interested in American history.
A final note, there are two plusses about this book. One is the already mentioned bibliography, which has a wealth of books and articles for interested readers (though a lot are probably only accessible via a university library). The second plus is that Hatch reproduces three treaties between the federal government and the Seminoles that give the reader a chance to read some primary sources in their entirety. A rare opportunity in popular histories.(less)