I have come up for air after submerging myself in Max Hastings’ massive Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins, 2018). The book is 755 pages of text plus 43 pages of notes and 24 of bibliography, which includes “only titles that have had a direct influence on my narrative.” It is the longest and most detailed of the books I have read on Vietnam—and I try to read every major work on the subject. Only volumes that devoted their entire content to single events during the war, such as Gregg Jones’ Last Stand at Khe Sanh (Da Capo Press, 2014) and Mark Bowden’s Huế 1968 (Grove Atlantic, 2017) offer more particulars on what occurred and who was involved.
Reading the book was, in many ways, like reliving my own history. I was in Vietnam at least four months every year between 1962 and 1975 and was repeatedly on the battlefield supporting combat units, both army and Marine Corps, in fighting all over South Vietnam. Ironically, the photo on the book’s dust cover is from the 1967 battle of Dak To that I was deeply involved in (see my 2017 New York Times article on the battle at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html).
I came away admiring Hastings’ no-holds-barred style that plunged the reader into the grisliness of combat. With journalistic detachment, Hastings gives the facts of bodies torn apart, severed limbs, organs ripped out, and soldiers burned alive. It’s not that I savor the gruesomeness of the battlefield. It’s that I want people to how ghastly combat is so that when they decide we must go to war, they’ll bear in mind the consequences to which they are subjecting our young men and women.
What surprised me most about Vietnam was Hastings’ reporting of wide-spread drug use and the failure of military discipline among U.S. forces in the early 1970s. During my many trips to Vietnam during that period, I caught hints that there were problems, but I had no idea how widespread they were. My best guess is that these curses were concealed from me, a visiting high-ranking civilian. I saw no evidence of them during my time with the troops in combat.
I was also shocked at the deliberate and cynical dishonesty of the Nixon administration. Hastings quotes at length the tape-recorded conversions between Nixon and Kissinger which demonstrated that they knew well what was going on in Vietnam and were fully aware that the U.S. was losing the war but chose to lie to the American public for political advantage.