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Max Hastings has direct experience of the Vietnam war. In January 1968 he was in a group of foreign journalists treated by Lyndon Johnson to a collective interview that became a harangue. Over the next seven years he made trips to various battle fronts for the BBC and as the South Vietnamese regime collapsed he was in Saigon again, preparing to cover the triumphant arrival of the North Vietnamese army. “On the afternoon of the final day, however, I lost my nerve, forced a path through the mob of terrified Vietnamese around the US embassy and scrambled over its wall with some assistance from the Marine defenders,” he confesses in this huge volume’s introduction.
It’s a brave admission of momentary physical cowardice, especially for a man whose career has been marked by a fascination with all things military, as shown by the many eminent war books he has written. The world’s most significant conflict of the last half century took place in Vietnam and Hastings has now turned his mind to assessing it. This is very much a book about soldiers for soldiers. After interviewing dozens of veterans and trawling through scores of oral histories, as well as the memoirs of North Vietnamese and Vietcong cadres who became disillusioned after victory and fled to the US, Hastings chronicles every battle over a 30-year period. There’s inspiring but also grim material, tales of heroism, self-sacrifice and risk-taking, brutality and war crimes, frustrated and frightened soldiers, drug-taking and desertions.
The thread that runs through the book is Hastings’s effort to exonerate the US military, arguing that they had a better war than most other authors admit, and certainly than the western media reported at the time. While he produces plenty of evidence that their South Vietnamese allies often dropped their guns and ran, the Americans fought doggedly and at great personal cost, and made more advances than retreats, he claims. As further proof of relative success he cites the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army’s huge casualty figures, which were concealed at the time. Until the final victory in 1975 every offensive was thwarted and in almost every case the North’s losses dwarfed those on the US and South Vietnamese side.
Hastings’s emphasis on the soldiers’ war gives his book a lopsided feel. It underplays the drama of the political war at home, and the scale of opposition. There is only one reference here to the trove of official documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which was leaked in 1971 and helped to deepen the feeling of many Americans that they had been lied to by successive administrations in order to support an unwinnable war. Distrust in the administration and anger over casualties and the lack of clear progress were already strong by the spring of 1968 when Johnson announced he would not stand for re-election and his defence secretary Robert McNamara – once a true believer who had brazenly lied about the war – gave up in despair.
But opposition was widespread even before 1968, a point the book largely ignores, and it was not at that stage grounded in the banal reality that Americans, like other people, want to win and get upset if they don’t. Hastings sneers at those of the war’s early opponents who romanticised the Vietcong and Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, and quotes with approval Henry Kissinger’s contempt for the “inexhaustible masochism of American intellectuals” who blame every international problem on the US. But such views were confined to a minority. Most of those who protested against the war from the start saw it for what it was: an imperial effort to control the destiny of a small and distant country that was no threat to Americans, even if it “went communist” or came under Russian or Chinese control.
As early as 1965 the champion boxer Muhammad Ali (unmentioned in this book), who later went to gaol for refusing the draft, struck a popular chord by declaring “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America …They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father … Shoot them for what?”.
Hastings sees the war as a struggle over values: liberal democracy versus communist totalitarianism. He acknowledges that Ho and his colleagues were nationalists who fought hard and selflessly to overthrow the French who had colonised Indochina, (more cruelly than the British in their Asian colonies – Hastings can’t resist several anti-French taunts). He also writes that Washington’s South Vietnamese allies were a selfish, corrupt and short-sighted elite with few patriotic credentials. But he insists the North Vietnamese were communists first and foremost and when there was a clash between ideology and nationalism, Stalinist cruelty always got the upper hand. As evidence he recounts dozens of massacres perpetrated by the communists against peasants who had worked for the Saigon government or served in the South Vietnamese army or were related to people who had. At times he settles for moral equivalence. Both sides used equally cruel methods. The horror of war always tends to turn soldiers into killing machines. Commanding officers and particularly their political masters send thousands to their deaths with little hope of immediate gain. “The war was such as neither side deserved to win,” he writes.
But his larger point, to which he frequently returns, is that the communists were the more brutal side but had an unfair propaganda advantage in being able to hide this truth. Journalists could not travel around North Vietnam and report freely, let alone accompany the North Vietnamese army into battle and witness their ruthless tactics. There were no adrenalin-pumping helicopter jaunts of the kind the Americans were obliged to offer reporters on day trips from Saigon or brief “embeds” on the frontline. As a result coverage was unbalanced. “The triumph of Hanoi’s propaganda,” Hastings concludes, “was that hundreds of millions of people around the world, including more than a few Americans, believed that the impending North Vietnamese victory represented a just outcome.” He clearly hopes his book will prevent that verdict holding sway today.
• Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 is published by William Collins. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
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