Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is the most disappointing book I read this year.
Hastings’s book is the most recent entry in a long tradition of giant books on Vietnam written by Western journalists. The best-known is Vietnam: A History, written by American journalist Stanley Karnow, but there have been plenty of others, too, by writers like John Prados, Frances Fitzgerald, and David Halberstam. These books were mostly written in the 1960s-80s. Many of them mixed personal recollections with the broader story of the French and American wars in Indochina. Hastings, who was a young correspondent during the American phase of the war, is smart to not succumb to this temptation. He gets a couple of personal stories out of the way in the introduction and gets on with the show.
Two important themes pop up in the introduction. First is the idea that the war was “primarily an Asian tragedy”; 40 Vietnamese died for every American who fell on the battlefield. This is an obvious point but bears repeating for audiences conditioned by decades of media in which the war is background dressing for soul-searching by American heroes and anti-heroes. Second is the idea that the American War from 1965-73 was an ugly, amoral struggle without good guys. “No side had a monopoly on virtue,” Hastings says.
I find the second point especially interesting because much the historiography of the American War is full of white-hot moral arguments. In Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald or The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn Young, the National Liberation Front are the good guys while the Americans wage an evil counter-revolutionary war. The moral values are reversed in revisionist histories like Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar or The Necessary War by Michael Lind. In these books, Ho Chi Minh is a stooge bent on furthering the plan for communist world domination. I was genuinely interested, hell, even excited, to see Hastings follow through on his idea that nobody really deserved to win this war.
Hastings needed to do a couple of things to achieve his objectives. First, he would put Vietnamese (and Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, etc.) experiences front and center, keeping the narrative focused on the places where the war actually happened. This is an easier task than it was when, say, Karnow was writing the first big pop-history rendition of the war. Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese archives have all opened to various extents since the 1980s. In the past 20 years, a new generation of historians has produced dozens of books based on these materials. Second, it would look in depth at the aims and conduct of all sides to support the claim that there was no “right side” in the war.
But Hastings really doesn’t center Asian experiences or sources in his narrative. To his credit, there’s a decent sprinkling of narratives from Vietnamese perspectives in Vietnam. The chapters on the years 1973-75 especially do a good job of mostly telling the story using Vietnamese perspectives, and the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army are fairly well represented throughout the book.
Yet in most chapters, these perspectives are swamped by a flood of stories about American soldiers. We learn far more about US adviser and POW Doug Ramsay or Marine Walt Boomer than we do about any Vietnamese. An example: Chapter 25, which focuses on Operation Linebacker and the final phases of the Paris peace negotiations, devotes 11 1/2 pages to the experiences of B-52 aircrew and less than 2 to the experiences of North Vietnamese, primarily soldiers manning SAM sites. Even the chapter title — “Big Ugly Fat Fellers,” a nickname for the B-52 — emphasizes US equipment rather than the lives of people on the receiving end of the bombs.
On top of problems with emphasis are problems of omission. Foremost are Hastings’s skimping of the war in Laos and Cambodia — really inexcusable if he wants to portray the war as “an Asian tragedy” first and foremost. Hastings makes a few too many gross claims about these places. I was floored to read that Laotians “giggled through the war” and that Cambodia was an “erratic, eccentric little country.” For all Hastings’s research and interviews with survivors of the war, statements like these suggest a certain ignorance and even callousness towards what these places went through.
Another unacceptable omission is South Korea, which sent some 300,000 troops to the American War. Meanwhile, Hastings devotes over ten pages to Australia, which sent 60,000 men. Hastings establishes Australian political context and waxes lyrical about the skills of the Australian SAS, but South Korea receives a passing mention on a single page.
Worst of all, civilian perspectives are almost nowhere to be found. While Hastings claims to be keen on reconstructing “what the war was like,” in practice this only applies to military personnel. There’s no reason for these omissions in a book of this size.
There are other frustrating claims in Vietnam, too, chief among them Hastings’s assertion that racial strife in the US military after 1968 was primarily caused by the Black Power movement. This is emblematic of a deeper problem: Hastings is a military historian first and foremost, and Vietnam is disappointingly light on the social, cultural, and political (apart from high-level dealing) dimensions of the war. Because politics and war were so completely intertwined in this conflict, any book that focuses primarily on its military dimensions is going to feel unsatisfactory. Passages on Vietnamese village life and culture feel slapped-together, like Hastings is compiling a few fun facts in lieu of deeper knowledge or understanding. We learn far more about the mechanical failures of the M-16 rifle or bombing tactics during Rolling Thunder than we do about the evolution of the antiwar movement in the US or how the giant US military presence changed the social and economic fabric of South Vietnam. (It’s also annoying to see Hastings totally fail to engage with new scholarship on the Diem regime … his one-dimensional screed could have been written by David Halberstam in 1963.)
So much for focusing on the war as “an Asian tragedy.” What about the author’s second objective, the Vietnam War as a war without good guys?
Well, Hastings has a habit of undercutting this claim, too. In fact, there are lots of good guys in An Epic Tragedy. Invariably they are the dutiful soldiers on all sides trying to do their best in an awful conflict. Fair enough! Even in the worst war, there are good people who keep their moral compass and try to do the right thing. Yet Hastings never really assesses the merits of the causes all these good soldiers were fighting for. In just war theory, half the equation is just cause. If the cause isn’t just, it doesn’t matter how good the conduct of your soldiers is.
The closest Hastings comes to assessing the merits of a cause is when he talks about the DRV. He emphasizes NLF and NVA atrocities, as well as those of the Hanoi government against their own population. American and ARVN atrocities are mentioned, too, but Hastings never passes up a chance to remind the reader, just in case you’ve forgotten, that the communists were just as bad if not worse. Combined with Hastings’s persistent attacks on liberal US journalists for misreporting the war, I really do suspect that he thinks that his audience are a bunch of ’60s radicals with NLF flags in the closet and chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” ringing in the back of their minds. It’s honestly strange seeing an author take such great pains in a 2018 book to show that, yes, the communists committed atrocities in Vietnam, too. The discourse has moved on, Max! It’s not 1970 any more.
But hey, it ain’t all bad. When he’s taking us knee deep in the big muddy alongside the troops, Hastings’s ability to describe combat is unmatched. His renditions of the US combat experience are especially powerful, and I appreciate that he included some lesser-known perspectives, like Chinese and Soviet support personnel who helped turn North Vietnam into the most heavily-defended airspace on the planet. These passages can be incredibly gripping.
Yet for all the blood and gore, and all the years of misery and suffering in its many, many pages, Vietnam feels like a lightweight Dad History book. At the end, I felt like my understanding of the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the war hadn’t improved. At this point, I’ve read quite a few one-volume histories of the war and the best is still the very short Vietnam: A Concise International History, by Mark Lawrence. In about 200 pages, Lawrence covers the important political and military stuff while also covering topics like the development of the US antiwar movement and even finds time to talk about war memory. If you want visceral personal stories, there’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides by Christian Appy, which covers a much more diverse range of perspectives than Hastings. Read these two books together. Combined, they’re as long as An Epic Tragedy, and you’ll learn more.
Oh, PS … what’s up with starting the book with the viewer discretion warning from the Ken Burns series? Did Sir Max write a 750-page book to cash in on its popularity?