Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: Detailed, informative Vietnam history falls short where it counts

It's been nearly a half-century since the United States "officially" became embroiled in war in Southeast Asia (in truth, the entanglement goes back to the immediate post-World War II years).
In that time, a remarkable number of outstanding books have been published about the war in Vietnam. In fiction, the roster includes Tim O'Brien's hallucinogenic "Going After Cacciato," Gustav Hasford's "The Short Timers" (basis of the movie "Full Metal Jacket") and Karl Marlantes' more recent realistic tome "Matterhorn." The nonfiction shelf includes Frances FitzGerald's "Fire in the Lake," "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam, and Philip Caputo's searing memoir "A Rumor of War.
Those examples don't begin to cover the multitude of great writing on the war, and decades on, it's fair to ask, is there anything new or revelatory to say about Vietnam?
In the case of James Wright's " Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War," the answer is, sort of. The book is an exhaustively detailed blend of historical facts, political context, quotes from other writers and brief, personal experiences of some 160 Army and Marine veterans who fought on the front lines.
Wright is scheduled to speak about and sign the book on April 18 during a free event at Old Main Chapel on the University of Colorado campus.
"This book is not a compendium of memories; it is a work of history that seeks to understand why America in the 1960s sent its young to war, to remember who the Vietnam generation was and how they had grown up, to reflect on why this generation served and sacrificed in a war that drifted in purpose and declined in public support," writes Wright, professor of history and president emeritus of Dartmouth College, and a former U.S. Marine.
Wright packs a surprising amount of historical context into the book's 500 pages, starting with the Kennedy administration and extending through the last days of the war, but offers little in the way of new insight to anyone who has read earlier histories.
He zeroes in on the pivotal year 1969, and in particular on one of the war's few setpiece battles, for Dong Ap Bia, a steep mountain in the A Shau Valley, better known to Americans as "Hamburger Hill," seeing it as a reflection of the war itself.
"The enduring symbolism of the battle for Hamburger Hill cruelly underlines the nature of the Vietnam War," he writes. "This fight was sustained and on a scale large for Vietnam. But even in this well-known battle, the traditional elements of previous famous battles were missing. Hamburger Hill lacked a clear frontline narrative; it was an operation with a conclusion but no real sense of classic 'victory,' of victorious elation; there were no widely disseminated tales of combat enriched by popular stories of heroic men described in heroic encounters."
'It's life and death'
While not excusing the mistakes that led to war or mistakes in its execution, Wright seeks to bring the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the men who actually fought it out of the shadows. It is here that "Enduring Vietnam" offers something beyond simple history.
The veterans recall the reasons they went (despite commonly held belief, less than a third of those who served in Vietnam were drafted) including the generational influence of their World War II-veteran fathers, John F. Kennedy's and Tom Dooley's moral calls to action, even curiosity.
"I didn't have a death wish ... I wanted to see what it was like in the combat zone and Vietnam. I had never done any travel out of the country — I was looking at it as some kind of adventure," recalls one veteran who signed up after graduating from college.
The men who served in combat units and suffered casualties were disproportionately from blue-collar backgrounds and minorities. But out in the jungle, on the front lines and facing an unpredictable enemy, animus gave way to desperate trust.
"I'm stuck out here in the boonies, and the white guy from the South is stuck out here, and it's life and death, we'd better begin to erase all this coloration immediately," one black veteran says.
Most affecting are the descriptions of fear and alienation in a landscape and culture utterly removed from everything these young men had ever known. Everyone was scared, and especially as the war ground on, many understandably stopped even pretending that there was anything other than personal survival at stake.
"You're not thinking about the war and whether it's right or wrong, or whether its moral or not, or the right thing to be or even the smartest thing to do," one recalls. "You're thinking more about your own hide."
A vexing problem left untouched
Woven throughout the text, these quotes — short, and usually unattributed — begin to feel like a collection of soundbites, far less affecting than, for example, the long, deeply textured recollections in Studs Terkel's excellent World War II oral history, "The Good War." Rather than personalize them, Wright's approach actually keeps them at a distance from the reader.
Wright undermines some common narratives that have grown up around the war, such as the idea that all or most veterans were treated badly upon returning to the United States, or that media coverage pushed Americans into opposing the war. He doesn't shy away from the ugly actions of the troops, even as he appropriately recognizes the vast majority who fought the war out of what they believed were principled stands.
Wright mentions the Nuremberg precedent — following orders is no defense for war crimes — in relation to the My Lai massacre, yet he waves off well-documented research confirming that such atrocities were not only more common than most Americans know, but also a matter of policy.
Finally, he leaves all but untouched the most vexing problem faced by all those who fought: Where should one draw the line between duty to government and duty to conscience?
Deeply researched, detailed and informative, "Enduring Vietnam" is a worthy addition to literature about Vietnam, a hybrid that, like Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History," provides facts about the war abroad and at home, while also giving readers glimpses into the minds of those who actually lived its consequences. But in weaving those elements together within such a dense narrative, Wright's admirable compassion toward his subjects never quite hits the reader where it matters — in the heart.


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