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Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War Paperback – 15 Apr 2019
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‘Masterpiece … manages with great skill to combine the accumulation of strategic and political disaster with the real experience of those fighting on the ground’ Antony Beevor, Spectator
‘Will surely set the benchmark for years to come… This may be his best… Exhaustively researched and superbly written, it is both a balanced account of how and why the war unfolded as it did, and a gripping narrative on what it was like to take part…History as it should be: objective, immersive and compelling’ Daily Telegraph, 5*
‘Magnificent… One by one, the sacred canons of right and left are obliterated. The war is laid bare, with all its uncomfortable truths exposed’ The Times
‘Powerful and chilling… Hastings is masterful at describing the conditions faced by young American soldiers… [he] is second to none in his ability to describe military strategy with a clarity that makes things entirely understandable to the layman’ Mail on Sunday, 5*
‘An altogether magnificent historical narrative’ Tim O’Brien
‘A masterpiece’ Frank Scotton
‘Magnificent, his best work … full of extraordinary and compelling detail and thoroughly informed by his own personal experience of so much of the war. It's written in unputdownable style, with a dispassionate, liberal-minded understanding of the detail of the war, which draws on testimony from every side and doesn't favour anyone. I've never read a better history of the wars in Vietnam, and it’s hard to see how anyone will be able to improve on this’ John Simpson
‘Neophytes and experts alike will find Hastings’s book stimulating, informative – and above all, riveting’ New Statesman
‘This fabulous work offers up a gut-wrenching glimpse of the reality of war’ The Sun, 5*
‘Impressive… A fast-paced, poignant and eye-opening read’ Literary Review
‘A work of considerable quality, marked by a possibly unique combination of military expertise, historical grasp and journalistic skill’ Observer
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Di-spite the NVA, the conflict was lost not on the battlefield but at home (USA) amid the cant and rubbish of the late sixties and early seventies.
This is an outstanding book and I congratulate Max Hastings on another best seller meticulous researched and wonderfully written.
The Vietnam War has always fascinated and will continue to do so. Ken Burns’ fantastic 10-part documentary has exposed a new generation to what Hastings calls, “an epic tragedy” where “peasant revolutionaries had prevailed over American will, wealth and hardware.” It could be argued that will was actually lacking but hubris and flawed strategies were present in liberal supply.
It is easy to be awed by the statistics of this conflict. By doing so, you fall prey to the same problem that America’s “best and brightest” did at the time…relying on metrics like body count. Meanwhile, despite horrendous casualties, the North Vietnam did not bend and America and the South relinquished control over huge swaths of the country.
It is hard not to talk stats. In 1996, America built 59 airfields and shipped 600,000 tons of supplies every month. For every American serviceman there was a hundred pounds of stuff shipped every day. At its height, the U.S. had 550,000 troops in country…that is a lot of bullets and toilet paper. Only one in ten actually fought. The rest were in support. One of these soldiers admitted to gaining forty pounds during his one year of service due to a diet of lobster and steak (two half-gallons of Gilbey’s gin cost $1.65 as all goods were subsidized).
Hastings gives due to what led to America’s involvement and the section on France is fantastic. In most histories, you get a few pages of Dienbenphu (which is an extraordinary slice of history – the Vietminh dragged five tons of weapons 500 miles to engage the French) but the author goes much deeper. This includes character critiques of French leadership in the field (he was “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance’).
Like America to come, the French had an “extravagance of firepower” but it did little good. Within the ranks of their vaulted legion were former members of Hitler’s SS and Wehrmacht who knew little of restraint. That did little good as well. Hastings dispels the notion that the French fought just a few key engagements. There were many and the loss of material should have given America an education.
Vietminh, Vietcong, NVA regulars fought with “discipline, patience, ingenuity, a genius for fieldcraft and especially camouflage, tolerance of hardship and sacrifice. Above all their was motivation.” Meanwhile, the US bombed the crap out of the country and played ‘silly bugger’ in the jungle while never holding onto land won...“Weapons, vast armies, never outdo commitment and sacrifice.”
If you are familiar with the war you will recognize the names Edward Lansdale (a former advertising executive of notable persuasive charm who used his skills in the CIA), Robert McNamara who applied managerial science to prosecuting the war (Donald Rumsfeld was like a reincarnation in how he dealt with Afghanistan and Iraq), and the colorful Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann (a troubled professional who lost his life in Vietnam) all who played unbelievable roles. Reporters, too, like Halbertsam, Arnett, and Sheehan had huge influence as the conflict dragged on.
Hastings covers the terrible event of My Lai and many more that I had never come across. Atrocities happened on both sides but American claimed moral superiority making their efforts that much more damning. The account of Pfc John Potter is an eye-opener.
Defoliants, IEDs, corruption (off the charts!), drugs (11,000 arrests in 1969), the extent of bombings (O’Hare airport in Chicago was doing 690,000 flights a year, just three airports in Vietnam were doing 2.5 million), The Tet Offensive, desertion (in 1969, 2,500 soldiers were loose in the country “mostly engaged in crime”), and Nixon’s use of the war as a political benefit.
This is an amazing contribution to the war’s study. The conclusions are consistent and the arguments strong. It was the wrong war, fought wrong. Unfortunately, America appears to have learned very little from the experience.
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The Communists buried people alive who resisted them to save bullets. They hacked people to death. Summary executions of "enemies of the revolution" were done in order to create a Stalinist society. Westerners sometimes of a romantic view of the Davidian "freedom fighters" throwing off the Goliaths of the west, and label Ho Chi Minh as a Nationalist rather than a Communist. But the North Vietnamese policies were Stalinist policies, and no one but the most ardent Communists today would call Stalin anything other than a ruthless butcher. Hastings did well in discussing Ho's commitment to the Comintern even before WWII, and his purges of the Vietnamese peoples of the various nationalist groups who also fought the French. There were dozens of Nationalists striving for an independent Vietnam. The Viet Minh butchered them all. Americans who remember Afghanistan in the 80s will remember that we did not aid the Taliban, but rather a fractured network of Mudjahideen fighting against Soviet troops. However, the Taliban won the scramble for power in the post-war period and destroyed all other opposition groups. The Viet Minh had done the same thing 30 years earlier.
I believe Hastings put it best when he said something along the lines of "Those who feel like America was wrong had a tendency to take the extra step, and assume that their enemies were right" and that South Vietnam and North Vietnam embarked a bloody conflict that neither "deserved" to win.
Hastings frames it as a tragedy, so the language and prose he uses stir the heart and the stories he collected are truly heartbreaking. As a journalist, he knows how to write in a manner that a more perhaps "dry" history does not fully capture. Since he is a Brit, I felt that Hastings approached this story with less bias that Vietnamese or American historians tend to. American historians understandably tend to frame it as an American history. Hastings takes a more Vietnamese-centric angle with this work. We also see perspectives from the British officials throughout the work. I simply could not put this book down, because it is so well written.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who liked Ken Burns' documentary and would like to flesh out their understanding of the conflict.
Hastings faces head on the lingering questions about the war, gives the reader the facts as he found them and then his conclusions based on those facts. He finds few generals worthy of the name on either side. On the other hand he also recites in detail the actions of these generals that led to those conclusions. You can chose a differing opinion if you want.
The Vietnam War for Hastings was a 30 year tragedy, interspersed with courage, stupidity alternating with brilliance, and some humor as well. Thirty years is a lot to cover even in 752 pages. The beauty of the book is that Hastings succeeds in telling the larger story of the war along with many of the smaller ones as well. Like Cornelius Ryan, in his books, “The Longest Day” and a “Bridge Too Far”, Hastings is a former newspaper reporter, actually a war reporter that reported on the Vietnam War. What that means for the reader is mostly short well thought out sentences that tell an understandable story about a complex subject. The fact that the war itself changed every year and that a soldier’s experience depended a great deal on the unit he was with and the Area of Operations that the unit was responsible for is well told, well explained. Even more important Hastings finally gets the battles of Tet ’68 right. It was a massive victory completely misreported at home.
You can read my book, “Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive 1968” to find out what being an elite paratrooper was like in the late 1960's, when the country had a draft and well over five hundred thousand Americans were serving one year tours in Vietnam, or Frank Boccia’s book “Crouching Beast” to learn what happened at the battle of Hamburger Hill, but if you want to know what happened during the entire Vietnam War including more than a bit about the French debacle and lead in to America’s involvement, then read “Vietnam, an Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975”, by Max Hastings.
I should disclose that I was one of those interviewed by the author and I am quoted a couple of times in the book but that was the only time I ever met him.
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