Test Vietnam Review

5/17/2010 • Black History, Drafts

In Country: Remembering the Vietnam War, edited by John Prados, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2011

If Consumer Reports published a guide to authors of Vietnam War books, in the column rating “Sentimentality,” John Prados would likely get a “below average”—just what you’d expect (and want) from one of the foremost Vietnam War historians and clear-eyed national security analysts. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados’ output has included two books that were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes—Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 and Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of U.S. Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II.

So, when at the urging of editor Ivan R. Dee, Prados began to consider a project to tell the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the men on the jungle floor rather than those in the halls of the Pentagon, Langley or the White House, you’d expect a measured, thorough analysis of how best to do it. And you’d get it. Prados, who is, in his spare time, a leading (OK, rock star) designer of military strategy board games, concisely lays out for his In Country readers the alternatives he could have taken and the thought process involved in developing his strategy for the book, which he says: “Is the ground truth—the reality of the strategies playing out, not being made. The voices are those of people facing agonizing necessity, often choices to be made in a split second.”

There is, as the author outlines, a very well-ordered rationale for the organization of the anthology of observations, which have been carefully culled from dozens of previously published works ranging from biographies, memoirs, oral histories, poetry, magazine articles (including a number from Vietnam) and official cables and documents. As the author notes, when two Vietnam vets meet, their first queries to each other are who were you with, where and when. With that in mind, the book is generally arranged to correspond along regional lines familiar to those who were in Vietnam.

Prados explains that he kept to a very minimum the number of accounts by historians, journalists, civilians and senior military leaders so that “the grunts’-eye view” stays in focus. Most of the individual excerpts in the anthology are very short. A brief introduction to each by the author sets them up and, in some cases, a brief postscript follows. Each entry is fully cited in the book’s appendix.

Regardless of any intricate organizing principles, readers can just let the book fall open anywhere and start reading. One after another, indelible images or revealing insights emerge. For example, Lieutenant Wynn Goldsmith’s April 6, 1968, unforgettable account of how the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination affected the sailors on his river patrol boat speaks volumes about the collision of racism and comradeship that was born in the crucible of combat.

A 1966 entry from Lt. Col. David Hackworth explains the origins and dangers of the “base camp mentality” in a frontless war: “When we’d originally gone to Phan Rang, the position was almost Charlie-free. But the longer we stayed, the more interest the enemy took in the place. By the time I left, they were regularly blowing up vehicles, lobbing an occasional mortar shell, and doing selective sniping. So, almost by design, the base camp invited enemy activity, and then drained the fighting strength of a unit in the effort to counter it.”

And none other than Colin Powell, in 1963 a young adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at Camp A Shau, paints an almost pungent picture of slogging in the muggy triple-canopy jungle on “an endless obstacle course, as we tried to make contact with the Viet Cong….We moved through a cloud of insects. Worse were the leeches. I never understood how they managed to get through our clothing, under our web belts and onto our chests, through our bloused pants and onto our legs, biting the flesh and bloating themselves with our blood.”

Long a master at telling the big story, and the story behind the big story, of Vietnam, Prados has brought together in this anthology more than a hundred disparate voices of men and women—American and Vietnamese—distilling from their individual stories essential bits of the warrior’s reality to compose a stunningly vivid portrait of the Vietnam War.

—Roger L. Vance