A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
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Review by Tom Miller
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Thirty years after the evacuation of the American Embassy as North Vietnamese troops advanced on Saigon, Vietnam remains a controversial subject for Americans. The only war that the United States failed to win and the catalyst for a counter cultural backlash that has yet to fully run its course, Vietnam remains a symbol for failure, quagmire, arrogance, and disingenuousness. Given that background, it is understandable that Vietnam books tend toward the dark, gritty, angry, ironic, and cynical. Nothing about Vietnam was as sanguinary as say Iwo Jima, but Bill Ross' classic account of that battle, Iwo Jima, manages to be uplifting in the face of the savage fighting and unprecedented casualties. That's not the case with the best Vietnam books.
There have been thousands of books published on the Vietnam War over the past half century - going back to the earliest American involvement in the 1950s. Choosing the ten that best represent that conflict is a daunting task and the results will inevitably be debatable. As before, my selections were guided by a couple of simple criteria: 1) with so few choices, general accounts tended to trump specific studies, and 2) intelligent and engaging always trumped intelligent and dense. If you think we've missed something indispensable - and surely we have - let us know. With those caveats, apologies, and disclaimers, I give you the Top Ten Vietnam War Books (in alphabetical order):
The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam
The classic study of how the scions of elite families and graduates of Ivy League
colleges boldly - but blindly - led America into Vietnam. They knew less, alas, than
the illegitimate son of a red neck father and an alcoholic mother who was raised in a
poor working-class section of Norfolk, Va. - John Paul Vann.
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan
An Army officer and advisor to the South Vietnamese army in the early 1960's,
Vann saw firsthand that U.S. policy was based on fictions and wishful thinking
and could not succeed. When he couldn't get anyone in authority to listen, he
resigned his commission and returned to Vietnam as a civilian advisor. By the time
of his death during the Easter Offensive of 1972, he had become a senior advisor and a
legendary figure among old Vietnam hands. Sheehan won a National Book Award and
Pulitzer Prize for his biography.
Fields of Fire, by James Webb (Bantam, 2001)
Marine officer Webb's classic novel of Vietnam combat. Webb would later serve as
Secretary of the Navy and write several novels, but this searing study of the horrors of
combat remains his signature accomplishment.
The Pentagon Papers as Published by the New York Times, by Neil Sheehan, et.al. (Times Books, 1971)
Defense Secretary McNamara's secret history of the war. Its publication led to a
landmark Supreme Court decision and contributed to the Watergate break-in.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene
The fictional equivalent to The Best and the Brightest. Published in 1955 and set in the
waning days of the French war, this classic novel is an unheeded warning and an apt
metaphor for America's later Vietnam adventure. The quiet American of the title is a
CIA operative from a good family and possessing an Ivy League education, an abstract
vision of communist insurgency, and an innocent arrogance regarding his ability to
A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo
The memoir of a young Marine officer in one of the first combat units sent to Vietnam
in 1965, this remains one of the most powerful personal accounts of Vietnam combat.
Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall
French journalist Fall surveys the French war in Indochina from 1945 to 1954 in this
classic history. The warning signs are all here, but American policy-makers decided to
make their own mistakes. After all, the helicopter gave American troops a level of
mobility that the French sadly lacked.
Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, by Don Oberdorfer
An excellent account of America's Dienbienphu. The Communist Tet Offensive was
the decisive campaign of the war. As Oberdorfer makes clear, media coverage
transformed what was clearly a tactical victory for the U.S. into a strategic defeat.
Vietnam: A Narrative History, by Stanley Karnow
A comprehensive and balanced narrative history of the war. It could lose its status as
the best single-volume history this fall with the publication of Philip Caputo's Ten
Thousand Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (Atheneum, October,
2005). Stay tuned.
We Were Soldiers Once...And Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
The story of the first major engagement between American and Communist troops in
Vietnam. Told by Moore, the commander of the American battalion, and Galloway, a
young reporter accompanying the unit, it is a story of harrowing combat, sacrifice, and
heroism. From this confrontation, the American command extrapolated that air
mobility was the key to winning in Vietnam.
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