Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited
edited by Andrew Wiest. Oxford/Osprey, UK, 2006, hardcover $32.95.
Although it ended more than 30 years ago, the Vietnam War is, as Andrew Wiest suggests, still very much with us. This is particularly true in light of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and their inevitable comparisons to the war in Vietnam. Even without that added impetus, there are still enduring disagreements about the justification, planning, conduct and long-range impact of the war in Southeast Asia. Wiest, in this excellent anthology, sets out to “take fresh looks” that may challenge “the historical orthodoxy of the conflict.” To do this, he has compiled an impressive collection of 15 essays from a wide array of participants, journalists and historians. In his well-written introduction, Wiest emphasizes the Vietnamese aspects of the struggle, making it clear that this was not just an American war, but one that had its roots far back in Vietnamese history and one that, in the end, had a global impact. He asserts that the war was a “war of varying and mutable contexts, ” but charges that most American planners and decision makers could never get past the “context of superpower conflict,” which blinded them to the complexities of the situation and led to a singular military solution that was doomed to failure. In this collection, Wiest attempts to address those complexities through a wide range of perspectives, opinions and experiences.
The first essay, by Martin Windrow, addresses the “first” Indochina War, demonstrating the difficulties that the French incurred as they tried to reimpose colonial rule following the end of World War II. The second essay, by Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese Army colonel who was present at the surrender of the South Vietnamese government, provides a look at the war from the other side. This view is contrasted by that of Lam Quang Thi, formerly a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army. The juxtaposition of these two perspectives from former enemies is powerful. In an equally meaningful way, Le Ly Hayslip addresses the civilian perspective and what it was like to be caught in the crossfire between the warring sides. Other contributions cover topics as varied as the Australian and New Zealand experience, the influence of the media on public opinion, the impact of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the fighting in Laos and Cambodia. In subsequent essays, acclaimed journalists and historians address the conduct of the war, to include strategy and tactics, the combat experience on the ground, the river war in the Mekong Delta and the air war. In the closing essay, Arnold Isaacs addresses the “legacies of a lost war,” not only for the United States but also for the Vietnamese—those who fled their homeland and those who stayed for the struggle that ensued after the “liberation.” Isaacs also reflects on how the “echoes of Vietnam” have “reverberated in the debate on Iraq.”
The essays are extremely well written. Richly illustrated with color and black-and-white photographs and sufficient maps which very effectively complement the text, this book is highly recommended to veterans, historians and anyone else still grappling with the war and its meaning. Andrew Wiest wrote in his introduction that he wanted to demonstrate that the study of the Vietnam War remains a vibrant and important field in which all the answers have yet to be determined. He and his contributors have more than proved that with this excellent book, which is an outstanding contribution to the study of that divisive and complex war and its lasting legacies.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.