Anyone who's seriously interested in the Vietnam war should read this book. Drawing on information from North Vietnamese archives, Nguyen (I'm assumin...moreAnyone who's seriously interested in the Vietnam war should read this book. Drawing on information from North Vietnamese archives, Nguyen (I'm assuming she's using the western conventions for order of names, apologies if I have that wrong) complicates the standard story that posits a more-or-less unified North Vietnam against the U.S. She demonstrates several important points: 1. There was a deep and lasting division within North Vietnam between those who wanted to concentrate on building the North internally and those who wanted to unify North and South Vietnam. 2. The American image of Ho and Giap as the dominant figures in the North is just flat wrong. At almost every major point of decision, the two symbolic representatives of the Vietnamese independence struggle lost to Le Duan and Le Duc Tho. 3. The North Vietnamese saw Tet as a real chance to win the war, not--as the standard story posits and as I've taught my students--a psychological blow aimed at the U.S. They thought the South Vietnamese would rise up against the Saigon regime. They didn't. That doesn't change the fact that in some ways Tet did "win the war," although it took a long time to play out. 4. While the superpowers--the U.S.,the Soviet Union and China--were major players in the war, both the South and North Vietnamese did masterful jobs of taking advantage of their position to manipulate rivalries for their own ends.
Those aren't minor changes. They redefine the shape and meanings of the war in profound ways. I'll certainly never teach the political and diplomatic dimensions of the war the same way I have been.
So why just three stars? There are two significant problems with the book. One is a writing style that piles detail upon detail--the alphabet soup of organizations and the huge cast of diplomatic players--in ways that are sometimes hard to follow. In addition Nguyen often repeats details, occasionally to make points that come closer to contradicting one another. It's just a slog to read, and a lot of the details float free of the themes of the section or chapter they're part of. The second, and more important problem, is that when Nugyen does make judgements, I don't trust them. She repeatedly castigates the Comrades Le for their misjudgments, concluding that they missed a variety of opportunities and that Ho and Giap were in the right. I get why she says this--for the most part Ho and Giap counseled restraint and cooperation. Clearly they would have preferred a much earlier settlement to the war, as would anyone with a sense of the human cost of the war. However--and it's a huge however--if the real goal for the North was to unify the country under communist rule, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho succeeded. It's very difficult to see how taking a different path at the various crossroads could have attained that goal anywhere near as quickly as it happened. Similarly, Nguyen is far far more sympathetic to Thieu, the South Vietnamese ruler during the long endgame, crediting him with diplomatic successes which, as far as I can tell, ultimately accomplished nothing whatsoever.
Despite these drawbacks, this is an important book, one that will provide a foundation for better ones in times to come. It also makes me eager to see what happens when (or if) additional archives--party and military--become available to scholars.(less)
There are parts of this novel I like a lot and parts that really irritate me. At times, Gologorsky is spot on with her pictures of the way that Vietna...moreThere are parts of this novel I like a lot and parts that really irritate me. At times, Gologorsky is spot on with her pictures of the way that Vietnam vets bond and simultaneously distance from the world around them; at times, it's pure stereotype, and it irritates the hell out of me that she doesn't include any vets who really manage to make it back to the world in one piece. I come to this as an insider-outsider, which I imagine is pretty much Gologorsky's position, so there are parts of the picture that make me say "oh, come on, not everyone stayed a mess." But, at the same time, she describes some of the scenes very nicely, sort of like Faulkner writing about black characters. And there's no reason to doubt her accuracy on the responses of the women entangled--mostly in this book for worse--in the vets' lives. I'd compare this with the chapter on the women in Doug Bradley's book DEROS, which I think catches some of the nuances that Gologorsky misses. As with the themes, the writing's a combination of terrific scenes and borderline cliche.
I don't know a better book about the women whose lives were changed by their involvement with vets, but it's a long ways from perfect.(less)
As I read this frustrating, unremitting book, I found myself thinking of a line from Alfredo Vea's great Vietnam novel, Gods Go Begging: "It's true, b...moreAs I read this frustrating, unremitting book, I found myself thinking of a line from Alfredo Vea's great Vietnam novel, Gods Go Begging: "It's true, but it's not the truth." Turse is determined to correct what he sees--incorrectly I think--as a thorough whitewashing of the nature of the war in Vietnam by insisting over and over and over again that atrocity was the center of the story. On meaningful levels, that's true, and Turse provides copious documentation of both individual and systemic abuse of Vietnamese, emphasizing--again correctly--the human suffering visited by H&I policies, free fire zones, and operations such as the horrendous Speedy Express. I don't think there's any question about the truth behind the stories Turse tells.
So why the two stars? Part of it has to do with Turse as a historian; he's almost entirely uncritical of his sources, presenting all manner of information as if it's equally trustworthy. This is a problem because it will open him to the sort of criticism that dismisses the points he wants to make. Nothing new about that in discussions of Vietnam; the revisionists will savage anything that doesn't adhere to their "noble cause" hallucinations. No need to help them out. That's tied to the voice of the book, which irritated hell out of me. Without justifying or apologizing for US or South Vietnemese or South Korean actions, I disagree with his choice to call the NVA and the VC "revolutionary forces," especially since--a subordinate clause or two aside--he pretty much gives them a free pass they didn't earn. This is NOT to say that the situation was equally horrible on both sides; it wasn't. But Turse again and again ramps up the rhetoric--his use of adjectives and adverbs and scare verbs bugged the hell out of me--and it has the effect of diminishing, not increasing his impact.
Although Turse is reasonably clear that he doesn't want to blame the soldiers and holds command decisions accountable for what happened on the ground, the weight of the evidence focuses on the soldiers and a reader who doesn't already have the wider context will be likely to emerge with a demonized view of them.
Finally, I simply don't think there's much new here, with the exception of some useful delving into official military records. The Winter Soldier hearings made the basic points Turse claims credit for very clearly, as did the numerous contemporary books he cites. Maybe we've forgotten more than I think we have. If this book reminds us about some of that, well and good. But the truth is in the memoirs and earlier histories that recognized that My Lai wasn't an isolated case.(less)
DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas) fills an important gap in the literature of the Vietnam War. Drawing on his experience as a military jo...moreDEROS (Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas) fills an important gap in the literature of the Vietnam War. Drawing on his experience as a military journalist stationed in Long Binh (MOS 71Q20), Bradley has assembled a tapestry of short stories accompanied by "interlinear" vignettes focusing on the experience of the REMFs (Rear-Echelon Motherfuckers), who comprised, depending on how you count, well over 75% of the troops who served in Vietnam. In his afterword, Bradley identifies Hemingway's In Our Time as his structural inspiration, which is fitting given the spare, direct language. In addition to sketching the day-by-day conditions of life in the rear, Bradley provides insightful portraits of GIs struggling with feelings of loneliness, anger, guilt. There's a nice mix of comedy and tragedy, seasoned with a sharp sense of the political contradictions and failures of the American mission, which comes to a head in the final story "You Baby Ruth." Each of the stories contributes to the impact of a book in which the whole is definitely larger than the sum of the parts, but my favorites include "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Art of War," "DEROS," and "The Gospel According to Shorttimer Sam." What those have in common is a thematic concern with the problem of story-telling, of how to tell the truth in a context where lies were as common as M-16s. As a journalist, Bradley saw that up close and he's been grappling with the problem ever since. Put this on the Vietnam fiction shelf next to Alfredo Vea, Karl Marlantes, Tim O'Brien and Larry Heinemann.
Near the end of poet Linh Dinh's first novel, the narrator observes that a billboard accurately reflecting the reality of contemporary Saigon would lo...moreNear the end of poet Linh Dinh's first novel, the narrator observes that a billboard accurately reflecting the reality of contemporary Saigon would look like a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. That's a useful clue to the LD's approach to the complex and contradictory realities of Vietnamese experience 35 years after the end of the American phase of the Vietnam War. One of the major contributions of the novel is to provide a South Vietnamese perspective on the experiences of a range of characters before, during and after the War. Not surprisingly, LD, who has grown up and lives in the U.S., is particularly concerned with the presence of America in the Vietnamese world view. One of the central stories concerns a mother obsessed with having her daughter marry a Viet Kieu (Vietnemese who have grown up elsewhere returning to the homeland), so she can escape Saigon. The longest section of the novel, however, focuses on the mother's childhood, marriage to a South Vietnamese officer, and subsequent re-marriage to a Chinese man in the wake of the North Vietnamese victory. The least effective piece of the novel--though conceptually necessary--involves an American teaching English in Vietnam today. (He's pretty much a caricature, though all the pieces are recognizable enough.)
As social document, Love Like Hate is fascinating. It breaks down the myths of post-war reconciliation without descending into ideological truisms. It does a good job contrasting contemporary Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I don't have enough points of reference to judge the accuracy of the characterizations but it feels real.
There are, however, problems, mostly stemming from Linh Dinh's vocation as a poet. The love stories fairly often feel cliched, and the insertion of mini-essays into the narrative often disrupts the flow. He does a great job capturing the power of global consumerism, but the various pieces of the story feel a bit randomly structured. Which takes me back to the Bosch image at the start of the review. Until I encountered it, my inner rater was prepared to give this three stars--good pieces more than a good book. Looking at it through Bosch's eyes, I'll bump it up.(less)
Beyond Combat is the definitive book on women and gender in Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews and archival research, the book demonstrates the wa...moreBeyond Combat is the definitive book on women and gender in Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews and archival research, the book demonstrates the ways Cold War notions of gender contributed to the policy decisions that put American military personal in utterly untenable positions. The book balances personal testimony with analysis of the enveloping social and cultural contexts which effected individual experience. While her emphasis is primarily on Americans in Vietnam, the framing chapter on Madame Nhu as Orientalist dragon lady. Similarly, she considers the image of the "girl next door" in need of protection in relation to the actual positions of donut dollies nurses and WACs in Vietnam. Turning her attention to gender in relation to male troops, she focuses on the inexorable collapse of the John Wayne image of heroic manhood. It's a beautifully written book which places narrative in the foreground without neglecting the significance of the stories she tells.(less)
A major disappointment. I loved Marlantes' novel Matterhorn, but this has the feel of a book written when an agent said "you're hot, we should get som...moreA major disappointment. I loved Marlantes' novel Matterhorn, but this has the feel of a book written when an agent said "you're hot, we should get something out soon." It's a mix of not particularly effective combat memoir--my Vietnam vet friends are dubious about the details of several of the scenes--and borderline simplistic Jungian psychology, celebrating "warrior" energies. Read Matterhorn and let this one slide into obscurity. Considered giving it one star, but my respect for Marlantes tipped the scales.(less)