Reflections on war, from ancient times to Vietnam

Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, The United States and the Modern Historical Experience, by Gabriel Kolko. New York: Pantheon. 628 pp. $25. Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, by Richard Holmes. New York: The Free Press/Macmillan. 436 pp. $19.95. Nothing is a stronger impetus to peace than an accurate picture of the reality of war.

As historians continue to write about the Vietnam war, the volume of information grows and grows: government studies, historical treatises, endless charts and photographs, order-of-battle military accounts, and great gray mountains of journalism. The distillation and re-distillation of this mash of facts require the ability to focus accurately and work toward a preselected point on the horizon of knowledge.

Anatomy of a War is one of the best-written general histories of this conflict yet published, but it is as controversial as it is lucid. Gabriel Kolko, author of seven influential books on foreign policy, has arranged factual material and analysis so that they intelligently justify one another, condensing mountains of information to help the reader who has a serious but not inexhaustible curiosity. This is no small accomplishment, even at well over 600 pages, since to leave out some of the interesting and flamboyant aspects of the war is to risk a dull account.

On the contrary, Mr. Kolko tells the more gripping story -- the political and military tenacity that locked both sides in a battle from which neither would benefit. The entire account testifies to his final statement that Vietnam proved the ability of arms to do little more in the third world than ``impose immeasurable suffering.''

Kolko's conclusion, which hasn't been accepted by some other commentators in the ongoing revision of the history of the war, is that smaller nations like Vietnam must be left to develop in their own way, and that they will probably do so more rapidly without the help of the United States or any other intervening power. Not everyone will agree with this view -- it's as out of fashion now as it was in John Kennedy's time -- but it's well argued here.

Kolko stresses the importance of the thinking at the political and military headquarters of the combatants. As Vietnam becomes a permanent part of American history, what the leaders on both sides were thinking, and were urged to think, will remain the most intriguing mystery of all. If we can eventually figure that out, and impress the seriousness of their mistakes on current leaders, we may have won something from the Vietnam war after all.

Most of the writing about the Vietnam war tends to regard it as a special case, a war different from others.

Richard Holmes's book, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, carefully describes the attributes of men in war and the events and conditions that make them the way they are. It proves that at the actual point of combat, things in Vietnam were pretty much the same as they were in all other wars.

For example, soldiers, particularly in unpopular wars, have faced lack of support at home whether they fought for quarreling Roman generals, effete British aristocrats, or self-important American officers. Veterans from defeated armies have been shunned by apathetic civilians and tight-fisted politicians in nations around the world and throughout history.

The problems of command, refusing orders, ridiculous training, and the horrible confusion of an army in the field are documented as existing in nearly all armies in all wars.

The parallels are disturbing, and some are very subtle. A German soldier in World War I is quoted as saying, ``I cannot go home and start the old life . . . ,'' and a Vietnam veteran explains that he took to armed robbery because ``I wanted the adrenalin pump [of battle]. It wasn't the money.''

Mr. Holmes writes as a good professor lectures. Illustrations and quotes come in rapid sequence from various sources -- history, literature, and interviews. Soldiers' experiences in wars from ancient Britain to the Falkland Islands, from the Totenkopfdivision (German tank corps in World War II) to the First Air Cavalry in Korea and Vietnam provide material for comparison. Holmes delineates the enduring problems and horrors: the tyranny of fear, the confusion of purpose, the shock of explosives, the limits of human endurance, and the tearing apart of the orderly fabric of normal lives. This makes unsettling but mandatory reading for any serious student of history.

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