Thursday, November 16, 2006

More Vietnam

I thought I'd follow Tripp's post on Vietnam literature with a few recommendations, some of which may be less familiar than the books suggested below (certainly less known than Sheehan's great Bright Shining Lie).

Michael Herr's Dispatches is probably the best of the Vietnam books and certainly ranks among the best war memoirs ever written. If that sounds over the top, so be it - read it and make up your own mind. Herr writes in a sometimes literally hallucinatory manner that requires a bit of acclimation but is very successful at conveying the bewilderment and loss that seem to cling to every person to emerge from Vietnam. His set piece on Khe Sanh is stunningly good. One of the few books that I have read multiple times (at least since becoming an adult - my six or so times through Lord of the Rings in junior high do not count).

John Laurence wrote The Cat from Hue nearly thirty years after he left Vietnam (where he served as a correspondent). This one is a bit overlong but I've always been surprised that it does not have a wider audience. I found myself thinking about it for days after finishing it and still take it down from the bookshelf to reread some of his passages.

Tobias Wolff is better known for his (overrated, in my opinion) memoir This Boy's Life, but his collection of Vietnam essays In Pharoah's Army is quite good, with two or three pieces that are jaw-dropping. "A Federal Offense" is worth the price of admission by itself, particularly for those among us who are fortunate enough to have children. Wolff is particularly good at surprising you with humor in themidst of some truly awful situations (a trait NOT shared by the other three authors listed here). I am a sucker for a good title, as well, and Wolff has a great one here.

Finally, William Prochnau's history of war reporting during the early years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Once Upon a Distant War, is a fine book for the story it tells. It gives an overview of the build-up in South Vietnam that reads like a novel. What puts it over the top, though, is the portrait it offers of the young war reporters we have come to know as authors of their own well-known books of reportage, such as Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, or from other theaters, such as Peter Arnett. The portraits of the young reporters are fascinating: Arnett, whom I knew only as a reporter in Desert Storm, was completely fearless and rescued his fellow reporters from street violence and intimidation more than once. It is particularly interesting to see that authors like Halberstam and Sheehan, who are now known as Vietnam protesters, began the war as ardent anti-Communists and only broke with the official U.S. line when it became apparent that they were being misled and used to mislead their home audiences. If only the media today had those kind of stones.


Brack said...

An inadvertant omission from your list, I am sure:

Tripp said...

Once Upon a Distant War is awesome and the Iraq War is begging for a treatment like this. So very good.

And I cannot speak highly enough of the immortal Casca

Anonymous said...

For an interesting perspective, might I recommend:

Tripp said...


A good recommendation, I've meant to read that, but I have not to date.