Monday, March 14, 2016

The Vietnam War: Three Important Titles

Interested in the Vietnam War? Here's a short list of books you might try. Considering that they are only three books, these represent a fairly wide array of style and interpretation. When it comes to viewpoint, the outlier is Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken. Moyar is a leading voice among so-called revisionist historians of the U.S. in Vietnam. Milam was the only one of the three authors to actually fight in Vietnam. Sheehan's book has the distinction of winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Milam, Ron. Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Milam was a U.S. Army Infantry junior officer who served in Vietnam. Attempting to remain objective, he brings to his work an interest in defending the reputations of almost all of his fellow platoon leaders. Because Vietnam was a catastrophe for the U.S., finger pointing was inevitable. Much of the criticism was written by “angry colonels” who faulted junior officers. This trend was made all the more easy because of the reputation of the infamous William Laws Calley, Jr. Milam turns the tables, citing a number of poor decisions that were handed down to lieutenants in the field. These mistakes, combined with the ingenious, dirty tactics of the enemy, and other factors made Vietnam something other than “a gentleman’s war.”

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This is the first book in a proposed two-volume interpretive survey of the Vietnam War. The dividing line between this and a proposed second book comes at July 28, 1965, when President Johnson announced there would be a huge military build up in Vietnam. The author explains that his approach is an example of what has come to be known as the revisionist position, which stands opposed to the majority orthodox position. Like other revisionists, Moyar attempts to show that the war was not "wrongheaded and unjust." Instead, it was "a noble but improperly executed enterprise" (xi). His over-the-top, demonizing characterizations of certain leaders in his story come across as tendentious. The great value of this book is that it forcefully advances a contested interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1989.

As the subtitle suggests, this is something like two books in one. But far from presenting a biography of Army Lieutenant Colonel Vann spliced together with a history of the Vietnam War, Sheehan's work is something far more subtle and creative: a complex narrative that features a huge cast of characters and that assumes the microcosm of Vann's hopeful but tragic life is a revealing lens through which to see the macrocosm of America in Vietnam. An incredible achievement written by a journalist who was there, A Bright Shining Lie won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

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