By Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
Published by Ebury Press
By the time the Viet Cong flag was being raised across Saigon on 30 April 1975, the United States had spent the best part of 30 years conducting a programme of sustained financial, political, and military assaults against Vietnam in order to prevent the country from becoming a Communist state.
The casualties, in what would become the first technocratically managed conflict (obsessively quantifying the war’s ‘progress’ on the basis of body-count ratios), still makes for disturbing reading: 58,000 American military personnel, at least 250,000 South Vietnamese military personnel, over one million North Vietnamese Army soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas, and over two million North and South Vietnamese civilians. In addition to this brutal toll must be added another casualty: the United States itself.
The Vietnam War: an intimate history is a 764-page companion to the ten-part TV series (2017) directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novic, and written by Geoffrey C Ward.
The TV series drew plaudits for its patient, insightful, and sobering return – notwithstanding more recent attempts to construct a revisionist history of the conflict – to what is still widely held to be a dark chapter within American history.
What places this book in a class apart from many other narratives of the war is that it seeks to examine the conflict not only from an American point of view, but also from that of the Vietnamese, North and South. It also reaches for the view from below. Many military histories view events through a prism of higher-ranking participant accounts. In The Vietnam War, these perspectives are not excluded, but it is in the testimony of ‘ordinary’ players and lesser-known characters that the book excels.
With any conflict as complex as the Vietnam War, an understanding of its history and background is required. Ward and Burns’ introduction is salutary, offering an abstract of the First Indochinese War, fought by the French against the nationalist independence coalition, the Viet Minh.
French Indochina – a grouping of three Vietnamese regions, Tonkin (north), Annam (centre), and Cochinchina (south, along with Cambodia) – had been formed in 1887. Colonial rule had offered the vast majority of Vietnam’s population few benefits: 5% of the population owning 95% of the arable land in the Cochinchina region, for example. All the social ingredients were present for a festering resentment seeking a political outlet.
The First Indochinese War began on 19 December 1946 and ended climactically eight years later when, after 57 days and nights of fierce fighting at the French jungle garrison of Dien Bien Phu, Viet Minh troops overran the French expeditionary force – an event described by historian Jean-Pierre Rioux as ‘the only pitched battle to be lost by a European army in the history of decolonisation’.
The French defeat culminated in the division of Vietnam into Communist North and non-Communist South. Although French colonialism had been defeated, the three-point programme of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the national liberation struggle – ‘Defend the North, Free the South, and Unite the Country’ – remained unfinished.
Within three years, the greatest player on the contemporary world stage would have boots on the red earth of Vietnam.
A major problem faced by the authors in attempting to write a comprehensive account of the war was how to produce a narrative that was both fluent and coherent in relation to a conflict that was neither.
This conundrum was concisely expressed by General William C Westmoreland, commander of US military forces in Vietnam, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on 28 April 1967. ‘We are fighting a war with no front lines, since the enemy hides among the people, in the jungles and mountains, and uses covertly border areas of neutral countries. One cannot measure our progress by lines on a map.’ However, with access to a vast range of previously unavailable sources and participants, the authors have been able to produce a more refined history of the conflict than ever before.
For many of the individuals involved in the war, the lived experience did not conform to any known narrative structure. The book focuses on the shared suffering of those at the grassroots level of the war.
But it does not avoid the important question as to how the United States became embroiled in the war. This, inevitably, is controversial. Though criticism is measured – it was a matter of ‘decent people’ afflicted with ‘fateful misunderstandings’, which led to ‘tragic consequences’ – this perspective has drawn criticism from revisionists in the United States.
An important feature of the book, and one which reveals fresh perspective on the conflict, are the North Vietnamese voices. Hoang Phuong, who served as a North Vietnamese infantryman and later became a post-war poet, recounts the sheer scale of the destruction the Americans were capable of unleashing and the terror it could generate.
‘If they noticed a movement in the forest, the Americans would fire hundreds of shells to eliminate the forest. It was American wealth. When the bombing or shelling began, we split into three-man groups, so that only so many might be killed at once. Only a stone wouldn’t have been terrified…’
Now, looking back from a distance of over 50 years, the many North Vietnamese voices that we hear in the book reveals the full extent of the price paid for victory.
While the war was being fought in the oppressive jungles of Vietnam, at home America was entering its most divisive period since the Civil War. Questions were being asked, with ever-increasing rancour, about all aspects of American life: the honesty and trustworthiness of government; the meaning of patriotism; battlefield glory. And the fracture-lines were to a large degree, initially at least, generational.
The Vietnam War was the first major war to be brought live into the living room by TV reporting. Families became fragmented in reacting to the conflict. Rising numbers of young people were saying ‘no’ to a war that their parents’ generation expected them to fight. Several commentators observed that ultimately the United States lost the war not on the battlefields of Vietnam, but around the TV sets of American homes.
Of the 8,615,000 draft-age men who served in Vietnam, a little fewer than a quarter were in fact conscripted; but the draft became to be seen as one of the war’s most divisive issues.
Roughly 80% of those drafted were from working-class and poor backgrounds. An interview with a prominent Los Angeles draft attorney highlights the skewed inequality of the process, one which has continued to simmer down the years: ‘Any kid with money could absolutely stay out of the Army, with 100% certainty.’
Draft protests, welded with student-led activism, coalesced into a strident anti-war movement. Whether on university campuses or Vietnam’s unforgiving terrain, the description by US war correspondent Michael Herr that ‘Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods’ still resonates for many of the war generation.
The book draws heavily on the journalists and correspondents who themselves created a high-water mark for war reportage. Never before, or since, has the press had so much unrestricted access to an ongoing conflict.
Six hundred accredited journalists of all nationalities were covering the war at its peak (during 1968). Sixty were killed during the conflict. The Military Assistance Command Vietnam ensured that military transportation could take journalists pretty much anywhere that they wished: the next story was only a helicopter ride away.
The Joint US Public Affairs Office daily briefings (the ‘five o’clock follies’) provided surfeits of operational reports, which came to be viewed with deep mistrust by the attending journalists. Many journalists are interviewed in the book, including several serving military personnel who subsequently became renowned authors, such as Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and David Halberstam.
Perhaps, though, it is the TV correspondents whose words, originally conveyed to camera but today seen on the page, that echo most poignantly. The Associated Press’s Peter Arnett’s grim statement that ‘it became necessary to destroy the town to save it’ became emblematic of American military failure.
Following the Tet Offensive in February 1968, which delivered punishing casualties on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces but deeply shocked Americans at home with its scale and ferocity, it was left to CBS’s Walter Cronkite, then acknowledged as perhaps the most trusted figure in the country, to deliver a bitter truth.
‘For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence the optimists who have been wrong in the past.’ He concluded that ‘it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.’
A significant consequence of the broadcast was that President Johnson – who is claimed to have said ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America’ – announced that he would not run for a second term.
This book offers an evocative and at times graphic account of the experiences of both willing and unwilling players – military personnel, their families, doctors, POWs, nurses, anti-war activists, veterans, refugees, along with the politicians from all sides – of this most terrible of wars.
Review by Gary Rossin
This review was published in the October 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.