Until now, British historian Max Hastings has mostly focused his research on World War II. His collection of works includes some fine books, including Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (one of my favorites).
But in his new tome, Hastings has taken on the Vietnam War.
Why another book on Vietnam, you may ask? Good question. We've seen a shelf-load of histories, analyses, memoirs, and novels on Vietnam. But what Hastings does in Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (1945-1975) is pull all these genres together in a highly readable and vivid narrative that, I think, will become the standard on the war for many years to come.
And Hastings is right to title this book an epic tragedy. It was so for the U.S. and South Vietnam, and the North as well, for the fighters who slogged through the jungles and the mud and for the countless families who lost loved ones.
This is a thoughtful and balanced work — and an aggressive one. He takes on all sides, starting with the French for "clinging to an empire" and underestimating their foe; the U.S. for its arrogance and foolish military strategy; and South Vietnam for its corruption and unwillingness to provide a better government for its people.
And he sharply criticizes the North, as well, comparing Ho Chi Minh and other leaders to Stalin — for their indifference to suffering among their populations and for creating a repressive state. "All those possessed of property or education became marked for exclusion, even death, under the new order," he writes.
Hastings singles out academics, some notable writers and anti-war protesters who saw only "Uncle Ho," a benign and ascetic nationalist. And not just Ho. "A significant portion of the youth of the Western democracies professed to admire Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries, heedless of the oppression their heroes promoted..."
The press does not escape his critical gaze, pointedly for the coverage of the Tet Offensive. Most were close to "hysteria" about the broad attacks across the country but made little of the central reality "that the enemy lost." He does praise reporting by The New York Times's Gene Roberts, who "assessed the condition of American arms in Hue better than any higher commander in the northern battle zone."
But the North never got bad press, Hastings asserts, because their crimes — unlike those in the South — were often conducted in secret. Together, the governments were "The Twin Tyrannies."
Hastings was once a journalist — and it shows. He's a vivid story teller, and his vast knowledge of military operations adds weight to every chapter.
Starting at the beginning of this epic tragedy, Hastings delves into the catastrophe that was Dienbien Phu — the French battlefield loss that spelled the end of that country's long presence in Vietnam. The Vietnamese hauled artillery up into the hills, surrounding a French garrison that was eventually pummeled. Some French fought valiantly, others ran, still others committed suicide. And the North Vietnamese fighters also suffered greatly with battle field losses and too few rations that left them scrounging for roots to eat.
Here is Hasting's epitaph for the French effort:
"Those men had no Kipling to weave for them shrouds of romance. A decade later in Saigon, however, a legend was spun that the fallen of Groupe Mobile 100 had been buried beside Route 19 in the Central Highlands where they perished, standing upright in the stiffness of death, facing toward France."
Hastings breaks no new ground here. He deftly chronicles the flaws of William Westmoreland, the micromanaging of Lyndon Johnson, the strategic differences between Ho and North leader Le Duan, the realpolitik of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
It's how he crafts his story with color and detail and pathos that makes Hasting's Vietnam a great book. It's sort of a blend of David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Truong Nhu Tang's A Vietcong Memoir.
Hastings highlights some forgotten battles. Many know at least the names of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. But it's likely there are few outside the Marine Corps — and especially 2/4 Marines — who will remember Daido in 1968, a battle that achieved nothing but casualties. Hastings said it was a "folly of Crimean proportions," and writes, "Daido merits recounting in detail, as an exemplar for scores of other such battles, bloodier than any that took place in twenty-first century Iraq and Afghanistan, and probably more futile."
The battalion lost 81 killed and 297 wounded, in frontal assaults, while the North Vietnamese Army had some 800 killed.
Hastings quotes a 22-year-old Navy corpsman who was there, Roger "Doc" Pittman: "It was absolutely — absolutely — ridiculous, and I always felt that somebody should have been hung."
As he recounts how the war dragged on, Hastings makes ample use of soldiers like PFC Ed Voros who said in 1971, "The war didn't make sense anymore. We all thought it was bullshit ... We were just there, and basically it came down to staying alive and keeping your buddies alive."
And this from Truong Nhu Tang, who served with the Vietcong and saw the North Vietnamese leaders as patriots — until their executions and prison camps came after victory: "The politburo's real policy was vicious and ultimately destructive to the nation."
So what of the U.S. role here? Hastings argues the American commitment was "fatally flawed" because it was not focused on the interest of the Vietnamese people, but rather on the "perceived requirements" of U.S. domestic and foreign policy — reflections and containment of China among them. As early as 1965, when U.S. combat troops were first introduced, the Joint Chiefs warned Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that the solutions in Vietnam were "primarily political."
"American leaders," Hastings writes, "nonetheless deluded themselves that all these complex challenges could be met by an overwhelming application of power, as if by using a flamethrower to weed a flower garden."
Anyone reading this book today cannot help but think about the current military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of military power at the expense of solving — or trying to solve — the primary political issues.
Hasting's ends with this quote from Walt Boomer, who fought in Vietnam as a young Marine and later rose to four-star rank: "What was it all about? It bothers me that we didn't learn a lot. If we had we would not have invaded Iraq."