What I've been reading
There is a great deal we have yet to understand about the war in Vietnam, even 30 years after it ended. Many people rushed to judgment about it even while it was still being fought, but Wiest and the contributors to this book argue that we are still sorting out exactly what happened, why it happened, and what it meant. I have read very little about Vietnam (I read a book called 55 Days: The Fall of South Vietnam by Alan Dawson in the late 1980s, and I think that's it), but it's really a fascinating war, both for what the reasons we went to war were and for how it affected the country. This book, which features several articles by different people about different aspects of the war, is a pretty good introduction to the historiography of the war, which is still in its infancy. (And it brings up the point that we still can't make a judgment on Bush's Iraq adventure. As much as I think it's idiotic, I recognize that we can only really assess it years from now. But that's a whole different topic altogether!)
Some of the articles are far too technical for my liking, such as the later chapters (8-13), which deal with the hardware and tactics of Vietnam. They provide very useful information, but are dry and pedantic, using technical jargon that felt overwhelming at times. The most interesting, to me, were the articles that give us a sense of the country and the people in it. Chapter 6, "A View From the Other Side of the Story," and Chapter 7, "Caught in the Crossfire," are written by Vietnamese, one a soldier and the other a civilian, and show the effect the war had on Vietnam itself. Lieutenant General lam Quang Thi, who wrote the view of the South Vietnamese soldier, has many interesting things to say. He's biased, of course, but he makes the point that the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) was a much better fighting force than it's given credit for. He argues that the Easter Offensive of 1972 proved that ARVN forces could fight NVA (North Vietnamese) forces and defeat them handily, and it was not the American troop withdrawal that doomed South Vietnam, but the loss of funds from the United States, which left the South Vietnamese in an untenable position. Like a lot in this book, the article challenges the conventional wisdom about the war.
Another interesting chapter is Chapter 14, "The 'Living-Room War'," which was written by Professor Daniel C. Hallin, a Professor of Communications at UC-San Diego. Professor Hallin argues that the media had far less influence on the American public's view of the war than is assumed, and he tracks opinion polls about the war to prove it. He makes the case that in the early years of the war (prior to 1967), the media was very gung-ho about the war, with the only exception being Morley Safer's report in August 1965 on the burning of Cam Ne. Even after this exposé, reporters continued to follow the government line that everything was swell in Southeast Asia. It is only after the Tet Offensive in January 1968 that the tone begins to shift, but it's only when President Nixon began to withdraw troops in 1969 that the media began to portray the war in a different light. Hallin shows that opinion polls had begun to swing against the war before this, and points out that media coverage of anti-war demonstrations in 1965-67 was very negative. In an interesting twist on conventional wisdom, he makes the case that only after the government began to be divided on the course of the war, which began in 1967, did the public pick up on it and begin to doubt our involvement. Then, the media followed suit. Once the government began expressing misgivings, the media changed the way they covered the war. I'm not certain Hallin is correct, but he makes a compelling case, both about the timeline, and also about why both sides of the debate want to keep the conventional view of events: the pro-war side can blame the media for the "loss" of Vietnam, while the anti-war side can laud the media for forcing the issue.
Sprinkled in among the chapters are interesting pieces of information, like how this was not a "guerilla war" as we understand it (that was news to me), because the Viet Cong were largely ineffective after Tet and even beforehand, they were more of a nuisance than anything else. The North Vietnamese army was always the dominant force opposing the South Vietnamese and the Americans, and it was only because the Americans couldn't (or wouldn't) adjust their strategies that the NVA was able to succeed. The book also has a fascinating chapter on the wars in Cambodia and Laos, showing again how confused the Americans were about the local situation. As you read the book, you get a sense more and more that despite spending years in Southeast Asia, the American military and government never really knew what to expect. And the final chapter delves in the myth of the POW/MIA, which is new to me. Why the government continued to perpetuate the myth that there were thousands of soldiers left behind is ridiculous, but again speaks to the idea that the American people can't handle the truth about certain situations. This idea is still prevalent today, unfortunately.
This isn't a great book, because many of the chapters, however interesting for the information they impart, are written poorly and read more like instruction manuals for how to (and not to) fight a war. Still, it's a very good place to start if you're interested in Vietnam. There is so much more we can learn about the conflict, not because we can apply the military lessons in Iraq (as one writer points out, the two situations are almost completely different), but because it shows how modern warfare has changed and the way wars are being fought in the post-WWII world. The book takes us back to Vietnam and examines how the post-war generation is dealing with their Communist legacy. One point the authors make, however, is that Americans seem to want to move on, which is an unfortunate attitude. There is a great deal we can still learn from Vietnam, and it would be nice to see more research into the war that damaged America's psyche so much. How can we heal if we don't examine it????