When I asked one of our group, a quiet Episcopalian priest from Virginia, whether he'd been to Vietnam before, he said, "Yes. Fifty years ago," and gave me a significant look. Ah, fifty years ago—yes. As it turns out, he isn't reticent about discussing his experiences then, when he was a captain in the infantry based near Pleiku, in the central highlands. He talks about the bombing of Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh Trail; sending troops into the jungles where they immediately became disoriented ("the maps they gave us were worthless"); seeing several thatched houses at once shot through and destroyed. I'm sure he has lots of stories.
Just before I learned this part of his past, we'd been talking about writing—how his wife enjoys journaling and how she encouraged him to bring a journal and write things down. Whether she meant memories from back then or just his experiences now, birding and seeing the country as it is today, I don't know. I wonder if he's doing that. As an essayist myself, I think a braided piece about being in the thick of war as a young man, searching for elusive guerrilla fighters, then walking quietly through jungles in search of elusive birds as an older man, with a life as a priest sandwiched in between, could be killer good.
In any case, the talks I've been having with him on the trail have been interesting, and I look forward to more over the next couple of weeks. They also make it clear to me how very little I know about the Vietnam War. I didn't even know, really, what the Ho Chi Minh Trail was, though of course I'd heard of it. This morning he described how they'd fly over and bomb it, and the next day the women—it was mostly the women—would be out immediately repairing it. And he described all the people, both civilians and Viet Cong, who traveled the trail on bicycles, carrying supplies into the south, masking themselves from view by tying branches to their backs or their loads. After seeing the immense loads that people carry today on their mopeds, and occasionally on bicycles, I have no doubt what a formidable force these people were.
But back to how little I know. I thought I'd compile a list of books about Vietnam and the war, but of course that's already been done, with aplomb, by the New York Times, in concert with Ken Burns's recent 10-part, 18-hour PBS series about the Vietnam War. So I'll just list a few of the titles that are covered in that article, focusing on works of fiction, that I think I might like to read. It seems I'm going to have my reading cut out for me when I get home! (The links below are to New York Times or Kirkus book reviews, from which the quotes also come.)
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
"Karl Marlantes’s first novel, 'Matterhorn,' is about a company of Marines
who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in
Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated
Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600
pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly
surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not
overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the
feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he
seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now
wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does.
Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through
what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to
come out of Vietnam—or any war. It’s not a book so much as a
deployment, and you will not return unaltered."
"Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a
distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void
in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it
compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new
The Things They Carried
"Mr. O'Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men
went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the
war—makes sense of why he has distorted that unreality even further
in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the
imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly
confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction
writer. In doing all this, he not only crystallizes the Vietnam
experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories."
Gustav Hasford, The Short-Timers
"A terse spitball of a book, fine and real and terrifying."
The Ugly American
A 1958 book about "the so-called educated elite of the [U.S.] diplomatic corps" and their "insensitivity to local language and customs. . . . " Writing in the Book Review, the veteran correspondent Robert Trumbull
called it a 'devastating indictment of American policy' and a 'source of
insight into the actual, day-by-day byplay of present titanic political
struggle for Asia.' " President John F. Kennedy was deeply impressed by the book, which may have been an influence in his creation of the Peace Corps.
If you're more interested in works of nonfiction, I encourage you to visit the New York Times list—it's long and varied. Me, I've just put in an order for David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, which covers how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, showing how “bureaucratic considerations triumphed over ideological or even common-sense ones.” I also have Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and American in Vietnam and Michael Herr's Dispatches in a box in the garage somewhere. (Have I mentioned elsewhere that it's high time I dealt with those boxes in the garage? It remains true.)