Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is similarly marred. It's the longest and best-written history of the Indochina wars, but oh! did I get sick of his contempt for the devious French and the bumptious Americans! (It's not as if the British empire were run by the best and the brightest from Oxbridge.) Often it seems that the only admirable European to pass through Saigon after 1945 was Graham Greene, who famously detested the Americans for their "private stores of Coca Cola and their portable hospitals and their too wide cars," when one suspects that their real fault was more basic: they weren't English!
And "Sir Max" gets so much wrong! Among the errors he tosses into the first hundred pages: the nickname of Walter Bedell Smith; the American bomber flown by the French against the Vietminh; the American aid mission in Saigon; and the first US fatality in South Vietnam.* Like most people who passed through Vietnam without really seeing it, he thinks the rain forest is a "jungle" and that a rice field is a "paddy." He thinks that "brigadier" is an officer grade in the US and Vietnamese armies, and that the projectile fired by a mortar is a "bomb." Perhaps there should be a rule that no one can write about military service who hasn't at least been through basic training.
Equally, I was put off by his sneering. The gallant Green Berets are dismissed as "flamboyant special forces cowboys," one of an overpaid band of "spooks and geeks of every hue" who spilled into South Vietnam in the 1960s. He seems quite ignorant of the fact that the Central Highlands, a vast and rugged region that was crucial to the defense of the rest of the country, was home to nearly a million aborigines who much preferred the French and the Americans to the lowland Vietnamese, whether controlled by Saigon or by Hanoi.
The most astounding feature of the book is the dust-jacket blurbs praising it as "balanced" and "admirably fair-minded." It is neither, though Mr Hastings does occasionally balance several pages condemning the Saigon regime and its American enablers with a sentence reminding us that the North Vietnamese were as bad or worse. No college student reading this book (or worse, college professor brushing up for a lecture) will come away with a fair-minded assessment of the tragedy that befell South Vietnam.
But still! Vietnam should be read by every serious student of the Indochina Wars. There's just too much good in it to be ignored. And the tone does change for the better, not long after we pass the halfway mark. Hastings's treatment of the Tet debacle in February 1968 -- a disaster for both sides, though for different reasons -- does indeed strike me as fair and balanced. (Oddly, the same was true of last year's Ken Burns documentary. It's as if, for the first time, the Saigon press corps actually saw American and South Vietnamese soldiers fighting a battle with courage and skill.)
Perhaps the strongest feature of Vietnam is the journalist's eye that Mr Hastings brings to his story. Time and again, he finds the anecdote or the quotation that brings a long-ago moment to life, so that we can see real human beings caught up in this long-running disaster. My favorite among these is the story of the Northerner who became a South Vietnamese movie star, and who escaped in 1975 to find refuge in Canada as a two-dollar-an-hour laborer in a chicken plant, her only asset the address book with the names of some Hollywood stars she had met. She phoned William Holden, Burt Reynolds, and Glenn Ford to no avail, but finally she reached Tippi Hendron, who had a brief fame as the star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and Marnie. Ms Hendron brought the refugee to Hollywood, took her in, clothed her, and thereby set her on the path to become the actress Kieu Chinh.
And at the very end, Mr Hastings softens his contempt enough to concede that in the end it was American capitalism, not Stalinist communism, that has triumphed in South Vietnam. Though the old men of Hanoi still maintain their implacable control over the countryside, Saigon at least has joined the West. Two pages from the end, he writes: "Its glittering shops, each one a temple of consumerism, burst with brand names, jewelry, and designer clothes. It may plausibly be argued that, while the United States lost the war militarily almost half a century ago, it has since seen its economic and cultural influence reverse the outcome. Whereas the US armed forces failed with B-52s, defoliants, and Spooky gunships, YouTube and Johnny Depp have proved irresistible." Take that, Graham Greene!
* For the record: it was Beetle, not Beadle; the Douglas B-26 Invader, not the Martin Marauder of WW2; the Military Assistance Advisory Group; and Captain Harry Cramer, killed Oct. 21, 1957. I do apologize however for complaining about "mortar bomb": I'm told that this is a British military term for any projectile with fins, so Mr Hastings may be pardoned that error.
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