An Old War in a New Light

Reviewing ‘Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy’ by Max Hastings (Harper, 2018).

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Photographer: David Duncan.

The greatest virtue of Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, out in paperback last month, is the bracing British cynicism he brings to a long-debated war. He strikes a kind of balance (albeit debatable) in his report of this controversial conflict mainly by being equally damning to both sides. Accounts of Vietnam are usually shaped by their stances: anti-war lobbyists lambasting the US and defending the North; conservatives blaming domestic weakness for undermining American ‘boys in the field’. In order to really understand this war, Hastings has skillfully stripped all that away and placed the war in a proper context. After all, ‘casual violence towards civilians and prisoners are inseparable from all conflicts’, but Vietnam has a unique and disturbing character all of its own.

Hastings confronts the war’s dark inheritance – that, for some in the
West to this day, Vietnam is a war, not a country – and tries to humanise those af- fected by giving a human face to the events. He uses his long history as a journalist to weave individual stories into the book’s rich texture, from the general who missed a coup when his alarm didn’t go off, to the Saigon prostitutes and peasants who had their lives swept up in the brutal conflict.

Hastings pins America’s failure on her military and political leadership. Clueless ground commanders are shown indulging in ‘folly of Crimean proportions’. But the rot starts at the head: Nixon and Kissinger are particularly excoriated for allowing ‘gratuitous years of carnage’, fighting a war they knew they couldn’t win. In Hastings’ view, America’s fatal mistake was thinking military strength could repair a political failure: the lack of a viable South Vietnamese state that commanded its population’s loyalty. While Hastings could have gone further in incorporating American domestic political considerations – he neglects, say, the impact of Robert Kennedy running for the Presidential nomination in 1968 – and in dissecting the ideological motivation of both nations’ soldiers, this is to quibble with a remarkably penetrating account of an intractable topic.

Coming away from this book, I felt Hastings had successfully presented the conflict so as to bring out both sides’ brutality. The ‘Tragedy’” in the title perfectly summarises the war’s corrupting effect on those caught up in it. Hast- ings places American atrocities such as Mai Lai or the use of Agent Orange against those of their Vietnamese opponents, with the undeniable victims, in both cases, the ordinary men, women and children of the warzone. The North and Vietcong ruled by terror, disembowelling and castrating peas- ants who opposed them, butchering babies and burying recusant families alive. What- ever one’s views on the ethics of the war, any image of noble freedom fighters is shown to be a gross simplification– the Vietcong could be monstrously sadistic, and marked their victory in 1975 by throwing 300,000 South Vietnamese in concentration camps. As so often, their victims were the native inhabitants.

As such, for understanding the Vietnam War, I recommend this book highly. For a balanced, well-researched take on the conflict, this is excellent. Hastings has written a harrowing account that leaves you in no doubt of the titular Tragedy, from the eyes of those who endured it.

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