VIETNAM An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

VIETNAM An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Max Hastings
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
“VIETNAM, An Epic Tragedy” by Max Hastings is exactly what it purports to be: a chronicle of the tragic history of Vietnam, concentrating on the period spanning the French and American involvement in South East Asia from the return of colonial power following the defeat of Japan through to the iconic departure of helicopters from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. It is a monumental piece of work, which does justice to the subject matter, and is certainly the best complete history of the American involvement in Vietnam that I have read. Interspersing invariably pacey and regularly poignant personal accounts from all sides with engaging and elegantly understandable descriptions of great events, Hastings works his magic and lays the many complexities out in an attractive and comprehensible pattern. The constant message refrain on almost every page is the human cost of the wars – overwhelmingly paid by the Vietnamese.

Hastings begins by setting the scene in pre-war French Indo China and introducing many of the characters who were to shape history – most notably Ho Chi Minh, and Nguyen Giap, but many others as well from all sides. He brushes over the second world war, and races through the twilight of the French colonial regime with almost unseemly haste, seemingly anxious to get stuck into his main subject, the Americans. This is where the book really takes off, the level of detail and the cast of characters growing exponentially. In the hands of a lesser writer this would degenerate into a quagmire of repetitive events and confusing acronyms, but Hastings navigates this with ease and provides a compelling and lucid account of events. The description of the various phases and theatres of the war are clear, concise and convincing. His description of the fighting in Hue during Tet is in my opinion worthy of expansion into a book in its own right. Throughout the American involvement the book sheds harsh light on the arrogance of the US in taking over the conduct of the war from the South Vietnamese, reducing them to bit players in their own country, before eventually abandoning them.

The coverage of the war from both sides is excellent; Hastings has managed to get far more of an insight into the events in North Vietnam than any other writer I’ve read. The effect of the overwhelming firepower deployed by the Americans is shown in all its glory, and its failure is examined closely. The build up and draw down of American direct involvement and their corresponding efforts to “Vietnamize” the war is explained in detail. By far the most interesting aspect of this book is the in-depth coverage of the North Vietnamese conduct of the war; whilst the American experience is well documented the North’s side is less so. One point which is stressed regularly throughout the book is the unevenness of sentiment about the opposing sides: the Americans and South Vietnamese have been pulled to pieces so many times thanks to the freedom of reporters to do so, whereas the view of the North was viewed through the prism of censorship and blatant propaganda; far too much credulity was given to the communist version of events, whilst anything on the southern side was viewed with suspicion. Hastings does his best to redress this, with a clear and unflattering view of both sides’ activities.

The book reviewed is a Hardback running to 721 pages beautifully illustrated with over 60 black and white photos and occasional line drawn maps. Priced at £30, this is not a cheap purchase!

I’ve been reading the work of Max Hastings for most of my life – indeed one of the first ‘grown up’ books I ever read was “Bomber Command”, which had an effect on me which lasts to this day. I would even go so far to say that he’s one of my favourite historical authors; his style is truly engaging, his research is painstaking and his technique of interposing individual personal experiences with the broad strokes of history is flawless (many imitate his style, with varying levels of success, but none that I’ve read have ever matched his quality). His personal memoir “Going to the Wars” is one of the best accounts of the war reporter experience in existence.

However, as with many great authors, there is an underlying flaw. Max Hastings is an outstanding historical writer, a consummate chronicler of great events; what he most definitely is not is a historian (somewhat of a disadvantage when your bread and butter is writing military histories). He makes little effort to show both sides of an argument. Rather than laying out all the evidence, giving time to explain and elaborate on possible alternative explanations for the course of events, Hastings has already made his mind up before setting pen to paper and is so sure of his position he doesn’t bother to entertain any other cause. Much of the time I’m sure he’s right; however, where there is a question over a particular point this book will not aid you in understanding any point of view other than that of Hastings. This is most evident in the treatment of senior American politicians in the build-up of their nation’s involvement, where the descriptions of personalities and their actions are so one dimensional they are almost caricatures. Hastings has a particular view, and by God, that’s all you’re going to get. His depiction of McNamara is a particularly good example of this.

Hastings’ contention is that this was a war that shouldn’t have happened, one which was eminently avoidable and stoppable throughout its duration; not exactly an original point of view and one which glosses over many facets of the full panorama of events. The central weakness of the book is its unwillingness to countenance any opinion other than the author’s. That said, this is a book which anyone who is interested in the Vietnam war should read. It covers the events in detail and informs the reader of the whole vista of the war, whilst also giving sufficient personal accounts to invoke the personal tragedies and glories which abounded. As I have already stressed, Hastings is NOT a historian; however, what he is makes this book unmissable.

4.5 mushrooms: Buy this book, but keep in mind that there may be other explanations than those in it.

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