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Vietnam at War

by Mark Philip Bradley, Oxford University Press, 2009

Historian Mark Bradley is a serious scholar. A professor at the University of Chicago, Bradley already has an impressive list of prior works on the history of Vietnam, including Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Post-Colonial Vietnam, 1919-1950, and co-editing credit for Making Sense of the Vietnam War. His style is direct, his research is thorough, and happily, his writing is not overly burdened by some of the social and political theories that sometimes afflict the works of academic historians. All of these characteristics make Bradley’s newest offering, Vietnam at War, a serious piece of useful scholarship. It is therefore unfortunate that for the most part the book is also rather dry.

The book does have utility, to be sure. It is a densely written, carefully phrased, and meticulously researched and documented recitation about the wars fought by Vietnam, as seen from the Vietnamese side, albeit mostly from the perspective of the Communists. Readers of Vietnam magazine might be interested in that side of the coin, but it should be noted that most of the book is focused upon the political level of the conflict. One learns of the internal disputes between and among the Communist leaders, about larger issues of strategy and international maneuvering, and not so much about the experiences of those who were actually doing the fighting against the French, the South Vietnamese, and ultimately the Americans.

There are some interesting tidbits, of course, which somewhat balance this very short book. (At only 196 pages of text, in a small format, it is necessarily a shorthand effort.) While the chapter “Experiencing War” is disappointing in that it only gives a very few snapshots, there are some gems. Bradley quotes, for example, from one combat veteran’s postwar novel: “The ones who loved war were not the young men but the others, like the politicians, middle-aged men with fat bellies and short legs. Not the ordinary people. The years of war had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years.” It is a passage which could have been written in a postwar American novel about a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, or in southwestern Virginia, but it is not. These are the words of veteran Bao Ninh, from his 1991 novel Sorrow of War.

If, indeed, there is a chapter that stands out it is the coda, which appropriately, Bradley titled “Coda.” Here we see some of what happened, socially and culturally, to Vietnam after the wars. After we left. After Vietnam invaded and then occupied Cambodia for a decade. After Vietnam went to war against China. Bradley gives some insights in his coda which this reviewer has not seen anywhere else. Though this is probably insufficient to justify the cost of purchasing the entire book, if one is not interested in the internal dynamics of North Vietnamese politics.

Ultimately the book attempts too much with too little space for the average reader. As with the military dicta, “He who defends everywhere is strong nowhere,” Bradley attempts comprehensiveness by addressing politics, “the experience of war,” and the three phases of the war as seen by the Vietnamese, and the reader ends up feeling a bit empty nonetheless.

The real utility of this book may be that it could serve as a decent undergraduate introduction, in a history course solely devoted to the Vietnam War, so long as it is balanced by that other standby, George Herring’s America’s Longest War. Herring does well in synopsizing the American side of the conflict, and also reaches back to 1950 as a start point. If one were a professor, or even a high school history teacher, using both books together might be a viable means to introduce the next generation to the conflict.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here