Spate of books on Vietnam

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The Vietnam war has become a cottage industry for American academics and publishers. With the advent and now acceptance of the war in college curricula, books such as Touring Nam: The Vietnam War Reader (Morrow, 416 pp., $16.95) will no doubt occupy university bookshelves and students' reading lists. Editors Martin H. Greenberg and Augustus Richard Norton have assembled excerpts from previously published novels, memoirs, short stories, reportage, et al., to give readers the real war -- slices of various American lives led on the ground and in the air of Vietnam. The best of the bunch is Sympathy for the Devil, a novella by Kent Anderson concerning a Special Forces unit. Anderson's novella has been out of print since it was originally published in a special issue of Tri-Quarterly, which was devoted to war stories several years ago. Other notable selections include works by Tim O'Brien, Dr. Ronald Glaser, and Josiah Bunting, but the pieces are better read in toto. The editors' policy seemed to exclude politically sensitive selections, perhaps because Norton is a lieutenant colonel now stationed at West Point.

Gen. Bruce Palmer (ret.), former acting chief of staff, has written The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (University of Kentucky, 246 pp., $24). Part military history, part memoir, Palmer's book should raise eyebrows with statements such as ``the United States had no intention of invading North Vietnam -- a major mistake on our part.''

Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Palmer served as a deputy in Vietnam, will wince -- if he hasn't already -- reading that he [Westmoreland] had ``a preoccupation with his public image, not seeming to realize that a good record speaks for itself and that public impressions can be very fragile things.'' It is something to ponder while considering the curiously contradictory testimony given during Westmoreland's libel suit against CBS.

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Fragility and image-consciousness are not two qualities James Reston Jr. attributes to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. In Sherman's March and Vietnam (Macmillan, 304 pp., $14.95), Reston wanders ruminatively through the South Sherman scorched more than a century before, setting an example that the German high command studied before World War II. Reston also notes that other writers, including Arthur Schlesinger and General Westmoreland, in his memoirs, have compared the Vietnam war to the Civil War -- for political expedience. But they neglected, as Reston does not, summary reflections on the consequences. Reston writes: ``Tragedy had become one of those words after Vietnam out of which was squeezed any sense of personal complicity and culpability.''

Concerning the Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman doubted that the ``real war'' could ever get into the books. Were he alive today, Whitman might wonder which of the real wars written here was the one waged in Vietnam. Let the reader judge the evidence.

Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the U. of Wisconsin, Parkside.

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