How could we get sucked into a civil war in Asia, and how could we stay stuck in that war for so many years? What is revealed in the shadows of that war and its aftermath?
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns answer those questions and present a comprehensive and compassionate work in their massive "The Vietnam War: An Intimate History" (Knopf, 2017). It's must reading for anyone who failed to understand or learn the lessons of Vietnam.
Of course, this book is a also a detailed compendium to the documentary film series (and website) by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. According to the authors:
"America's involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties."The Vietnam War grew out of World War II as a national liberation war to prevent totalitarianism. "Ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world."
|President-elect Nixon visits LBJ's White House in 1968.|
Nixon's own words are printed as transcripts.
In one exchange, in which Ward and Burns say "Nixon was lying," Nixon told President Johnson, in the midst of the 1968 election, "We've got to get this goddamned war off the plate ... Just the quicker the better and the hell with the political credit. Believe me, that's the way I feel about it."
|President Lyndon B. Johnson (Johnson Library)|
LBJ's conversations with others – and growing conflicted conscience – are also part of the record.
Johnson was "caught between his key advisors – and between his conflicting desires simultaneously to end a war and to keep from being the first president to lose one."
Ward and Burns show how the Gulf of Tonkin incident escalated our involvement in Vietnam, from a questionable encounter at sea involving U.S. Navy destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy turned into "one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history" and leading immediately to air attacks and soon a commitment to a land war.
|USS Maddox operates off Oahu, Hawaii, March 21, 1964. (Photo by PH2 Antoine, NHHC)|
Highlights and insights in this 600+ page book include the role of Anna Chan Chennault before, during and after the war; the stories and lives of veterans John Musgrave, Hal Kushner, Denton "Mogie" Crocker, Joan Furey and Vincent Okamoto; the patriotism and words of John Kerry, Robert F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and Merrill McPeak; and the pivotal moments of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation, the Tet Offensive, Cambodia incursion, My Lai massacre, Kent State shooting, evacuation of Saigon and release of POWs. Writers and thinkers like Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes and Neil Sheehan share their thoughts, and we get the perspectives of former enemies, including Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Thank Tung, Nguyen Tai, and Bao Ninh.
|Former North Vietnamese soldier and acclaimed writer, Bao Ninh.|
"The last time I caught sight of American combat troops close up, on the ground, was late one morning in April 1971, near An Khe Pass. I saw a platoon of airborne troops on patrol on Highway 19. They seemed relaxed, not particularly cautious, walking down the road in single file, skirting the edge of their base. They didn’t know there were three of us scouts silently following their every move, monitoring them from behind thick camouflage on a hill about 100 meters off the road, and they had absolutely no idea that a strongly armed North Vietnamese Army unit was waiting for them at the bend of the road half a kilometer ahead. To this day, I see them clearly in my mind, as if they were right in front of me. I especially remember a radio operator carrying a PRC-25 backpack radio. I can’t understand why as radio operator he wasn’t beside the company commander, but instead was pulling up the rear, trailing behind the group. He seemed nonchalant, with no bulletproof vest, no helmet, no M-16 or grenade launcher, just the radio on his back. He had short brown hair, no beard or mustache. Through my binoculars I saw that he was chewing something, probably gum. He was just ambling along, kicking an empty Coke can as he walked. Fifteen minutes later the sound of gunfire told me his platoon had walked into our ambush. I never found out what happened to that radio man, have no idea whether he made it. "In 1998, during my first trip to the United States, whenever I was visiting a university or high school and saw young boys and girls in auditoriums and hanging out on the lawns, I would see again the face of that young soldier, hear the clatter of that empty Coke can on the road. He was just like a kid on the way home to his mother after school, playing with whatever he happened to come across."It’s been a long time, but I still have nightmares from the war. I still hear the hiss of hundreds of bombs being dropped from B-52s, the roar of artillery barrages and the thrum of the helicopter rotors. I still see platoons of American Marines in bulletproof vests and helmets jumping out of Chinook helicopters, brandishing their M-16s.Worst of all, I can’t forget the dreadful nightmare of dioxin. In the spring of 1971, when we were stationed west of Kon Tum, we were sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange. I didn’t know if the Americans on those C-123 Caribous knew anything about the terrible toxicity of the liquid they sprayed, or if only the chemical companies that manufactured it knew. We understood all too well its horrible destructive force. As soon as the Caribous passed over us, the sky would turn dark with a strange, thick, milky rain. The jungle canopy broke apart, ulcerated and fell to the ground. Leaves, flowers, fruits, even twigs, all silently dropped. Green leaves turned black, crumpled. Grass withered and died. I witnessed many cruel scenes in the war, but that brutal massacre of nature is what comes back to me most often and disturbs my sleep."
|A shadow silhouette of then-President Barak Obama reflects on the Vietnam Memorial in 2012.|
Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a tribute to the more than 58,000 Americans who died in the "devastating calamity" so that, in the words of the Gold Star Mothers, "those who died should be remembered."
|Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat is remembered. (Army photo by SSgt. Bernardo Fuller)|
"Throughout our long production, we were inspired by the architect Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially as controversial as the war itself, but which has become one of America’s sacred places. When she unveiled her design in 1981, Lin told the press that her memorial to the Americans who died in the war would be a journey 'that would make you experience death, and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead . . . [It isn’t] something that was going to say, It’s all right, it’s all over. Because it’s not.' Nothing, certainly not our film or book, can make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But we can, and we must, honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served, those who died, and those who participated in the war against the war. As filmmakers, we have tried to do that the only way we know how: by listening to their stories. 'It’s almost going to make me cry,' Army veteran Vincent Okamoto told us, remembering the infantry company he led in Vietnam in 1968. 'Nineteen-, twenty-year-old high school dropouts that come from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society . . . they didn’t have the escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had . . . but to see these kids, who had the least to gain . . . they weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: how does America produce young men like this?'"
|Soldiers at Hue City. (Photo from National Archives)|
|A Sailor reads and reflects aboard USS Maddox, 1965.|
According to the authors, "We can, and we must, honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served, those who died, and those who participated in the war against the war."
Recently, the Naval History and Heritage Command completed its The U.S. Navy and Vietnam War books/pamphlets series, showcasing the Navy's role.
According to a Naval History and Heritage Command press release, "Interested readers can download a free digital copy from the Naval History and Heritage Command's (NHHC) website ... or purchase a hard copy from the Government Printing Office (GPO)."
--The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945-1965;
--Nixon's Trident: Naval Power in Southeast Asia, 1968-1972;
--The Battle Behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War;
--Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon;
--Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam;
--Naval Air War: The Rolling Thunder Campaign;
--Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia;
--Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War; and
--End of the Saga: The Maritime Evacuation of South Vietnam and Cambodia.
I enjoyed reading Navy Medicine historian Jan Herman's "Navy Medicine in Vietnam" and saw a lot of information that added to the complete story of the Vietnam War.
|A North Vietnamese motor gunboat burns in the Raonay River, 12 miles north of Dong Hoi, after being attacked by USS Midway aircraft, April 28, 1965. Note shadow of RF-8A recce plane. (National Archives and Naval History and Heritage Command)|
Earlier this year I listed 50 books to represent 50 years of the Vietnam War, including multiple dimensions and perspectives. Ward and Burns's "The Vietnam War" belongs in every military library.