Our Vietnam:The War 1954-1975 By A.J. Langguth Simon & Schuster 766 pp., $35
As a Vietnam veteran, I have not been obsessed with the war. I don't think so, anyway. My shelf of books on the subject is fairly short: "On Strategy," by Harry Summers; "These Good Men," by Michael Norman; "A Bright Shining Lie," by Neil Sheehan; a few others.
"Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975," by A.J. Langguth, has just joined the list.
It's a real doorstopper - 766 pages with footnotes and chronology - but don't be put off by the length or the subject. It reads with compelling drive and clarity, a history that will be admired and studied by scholars and journalists, a collection of character portraits and relationships that beats most bestselling fiction.
Langguth was a reporter for The New York Times who went to Vietnam three times and now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. He researched this book for six years, drawing on new information from presidential archives, interviewing many of the key players on both sides, and traveling back to Vietnam and China.
There are some combat scenes as the North Vietnamese attack the South, and as the growing US forces try not to become the "pitiful, helpless giant" Richard Nixon warned of. The true battle story of American soldier Jack Smith (son of network television newsman Howard K. Smith) is as horrific and as vividly drawn as anything in "Platoon" or "Full Metal Jacket." There is the recounting of My Lai and the courage it took for one GI to reveal the massacre there.
But the real action takes place in Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi: the Machiavellian twists and turns, the hopes raised and dashed, the deceptions and betrayals - within as well as between the two sides (three sides, really). The portraits of Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger stand out. McNamara, so sure of himself as the war escalated, has since made his haunted mea culpas. Kissinger (the subject of a massively researched indictment for war crimes by Christopher Hitchens in recent issues of Harper's magazine) heads a highly lucrative business advising governments and international corporations.
Some readers may wish that Langguth had added a chapter of personal analysis and editorializing. But the strength of the work is that it doesn't need that to make its point. The facts on the ground - in Vietnam and in Washington - and the words of the political and military architects lead to the inevitable conclusion: After fighting Japanese invaders, French colonialists, and an American superpower playing geopolitical dominoes, the Vietnamese deserved to sort out their own independence.
After the war, an American colonel I knew told his North Vietnamese counterpart, "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield." "That's true," his onetime opponent said, "but it's also irrelevant."
American supporters of the war argue that weak-willed politicians and biased journalists influenced public opinion and cost the US victory. "Our Vietnam" makes clear that motive, will, and singleness of purpose were more important than military might in Southeast Asia.
"The Americans thought that Vietnam was a war," said Luu Doan Huynh, who, from the time he was a teenager, fought the French and then the Americans. "We knew that Vietnam was our country."
It seems unlikely that the United States would ever find itself in a 10-year war like that again. According to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the only circumstance in which most Americans would favor the use of US ground troops today is a strike against a terrorist training camp. "Force protection" - taking every precaution to make sure no American serviceman is killed - has become the top priority in deployments to potentially dangerous parts of the world.
It seems unlikely that another Vietnam could happen for this country. But you never know, which is a good enough reason to read this fine new history.
Monitor staff writer Brad Knickerbocker was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor