The Vietnam War
I was born a little after 4 a.m. on January 27, 1973. Less than 4 hours later, Lt. Col. William B. Nolde died when an artillery shell exploded near An Loc, making him the last reported American casualty of the Vietnam War. A cease fire that was a result of the Paris Peace Accords signed earlier in the day took effect at 7 p.m. that evening. Sharing a birthday with such an historic moment has led to a long-standing interest in the war. It is no surprise that I had been anxiously awaiting the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War. The series aired in late September on PBS and will be re-airing during the fall, as well as streaming on the PBS website. The library catalog also features the DVD set, soundtrack and companion book.
As one would expect of Mr. Burns, the documentary offers a comprehensive history of the war and does so by presenting viewpoints from all sides involved to create a complete picture. The series took over a decade to make and is noted for its never before seen footage culled from news archives, private collections, and historic archives from around the world. While watching the series, I began thinking of a unique way to craft a post for this blog and what immediately came to mind was a class I took in graduate school, the Literary Legacy of Vietnam. Like the Burns film, that class was focused on a more comprehensive view of the war, with literature from different sides that showed how the war impacted the lives of those involved, either as soldiers or civilians. Since writing a thesis for that class, I have continued to scope out books that I discovered while doing my research or that have since been released. If you have watched the series, or plan to, and would like to explore the human side of the war in more depth, the titles listed below are a good place to start and are among my favorites. The book titles are links to the library catalog, but if you want a complete list of the library’s holding on the Vietnam War, including books, DVDs, CDs, and items for children, click here.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – Ninh is featured in episode one of the Burns film and was a soldier with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade for North Vietnam. The brigade included 500 teens, some as young as 13, that was reduced to just ten by the end of the war. Ninh’s novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the war that follows a young soldier, Kien, who is part of a postwar mission to recover bodies of North Vietnamese soldiers. The novel follows Kien’s thoughts on the war, in a series of flashbacks, as he goes about the task of locating and tagging corpses, bones, and body parts. While the novel would be remarkable as one of few examples of the North Vietnamese view on the war, its real strength comes from the similarities between Ninh’s thoughts and feelings and those of the typical American account, showing that the soldiers on the ground were not that different in their everyday fears and experiences. The novel is also notable for the brevity and honesty with which Ninh relays those emotions, they are simply stated and not overdrawn or melodramatic.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – O’Brien and Ninh could have sat down and compared notes, given the similarities in the emotions they convey in their work. O’Brien opens his short story collection with the title story, which starts out by telling the reader about some of the material items American soldiers carried with them into Vietnam, mostly books, photos, and other light mementos from home. As the story progresses, the reader learns of the items they carry out of need or for a specific mission, such as grenades or ponchos. By the end, the reader knows “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried,” which alludes to the emotional baggage as well as the sheer destructive power of the weapons they carried. The remaining stories read more like a novel and build upon each other and this theme of awe, both in terms of emotion and the startling reality of the seriousness of war. O’Brien is one of my favorite authors and I would also suggest his other primary works on Vietnam, Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Note that O’Brien also shows up in the Burns documentary.
When Heaven and Earth ChangedPlaces by Le Ly Hayslip – this work is an autobiography of a girl, twelve when the war came to her area of central Vietnam, who grew up in the war-torn country. Her home was near Da Nang and the geography placed that area in the middle of some of the heaviest fighting, often made more intense due to the fact that it was so difficult to figure out which side any given person was on. Soldiers, citizens, and guerilla groups from both north and south were represented in the area. For Hayslip, the horrors of the war as a civilian ranged from starvation from low rations to rape. While the book includes descriptions of these horrors, the end result is positive as Hayslip did escape to the United States and has since started foundations dedicated toward healing the wounds left by the war, both in Vietnam and the United States. In 1993, Oliver Stone released the movie Heaven & Earth, starring Tommy Lee Jones, based on Hayslip’s books (the other being Child of War, Woman of Peace).
Dispatches by Michael Herr – Herr, who passed away in 2016, was a journalist for Esquire magazine during the war and Dispatches is his recollection of his time in country. The book was listed by The Guardian at number 9 in their list of the 100 best non-fiction books of all-time and is generally regarded as one of the best books about war. Herr’s writing style, however, reads more like a novel, pulling the reader in with plenty of action and interesting side stories. By the end, the reader should find themself both enlightened and entertained, yet be able to keep in mind how very real the war was from what they have just read.
Finally, here are some other novels and non-fiction books that I have found held my interest, are generally well-received critically, and fill in some other details about the war:
Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History by Terry Wallace – keep in mind that the war took place at the same time the Civil Rights Movement was taking place back home and this oral history covers the war from the African American persepctive.
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason – a novel set postwar, touches upon PTSD, was made into a film starring Bruce Willis.
Chickenhawk by Robert Mason – memoir of a Huey pilot
Home Before Morning: The Story of An Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda Van Devanter – the title says it all, be prepared for graphic descriptions.
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History by Norman Mailer – novel about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, explores the war protests.
They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 by David Maraniss – touches upon some of the protesting back home, covers some specific events but as with all of Maraniss’ works, well researched and written. Bonus fact – Maraniss was a staff writer for The Times of Trenton in the 1970s.
A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo – one of the first memoirs to garner critical acclaim, Caputo was a Marine at the beginning of the war and a reporter at the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Other fiction – Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Quiet American by Graham Greene, Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Other non-fiction – We Were Soldier Once… and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow, The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam, and Five Years to Freedom by James N. Rowe
- Laura N., Information Technology