After visiting Vietnam for the first time over three years ago I've read many books about Vietnam, mostly focusing on the history in Vietnam since 1945. The best are:
- "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam" by Neil Sheehan. An absolutely outstanding non-fiction account of American involvement in Vietnam. It follows John Paul Vann, an early US Army adviser to the South, through his nearly 10 years in Vietnam. Vann was an early critic of US and Southern tactics and strategy. It reads like a novel, with extraordinarily deft prose. This book won Sheehan the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
- "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" by Le Ly Hayslip. This is the autobiography of a woman caught in the middle of the conflict, quite literally, in the mid-section of Vietnam near Da Nang. She recounts in harrowing detail she and her family's fight for survival over 20 years of conflict. A fabulous book written from a perspective I had never heard from before.
- "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. This book is a mix between fiction and non-fiction autobiography. O'Brien draws on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam to write stories that illustrate with great power the realities and feelings of his characters. The imagery and cadence is riveting and poetic. For example:
"They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."
- "Fields of Fire" by James Webb. Another work of fiction, but drawn on real experiences. Webb was a young Marine officer in Vietnam and spins a tale of men at war in a conflict that seems pointless and crazy. Webb spends a lot of time developing his characters, and action unfolds against the backdrop of the color he as given us -- people react to situations and each other according to their personalities. It's a powerful drama. Tom Wolfe gave it high praise when he said “In my opinion, the finest of the Vietnam novels.” An interesting side note is that Webb was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration. Last fall he was elected to the US Senate from Virginia.
- "Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina" by Bernard Fall. Written shortly after the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Fall recounts French frustrations and ultimate defeat in Vietnam in the "First Indochina War." Fall was a French journalist and academic and often traveled with the troops. I found the book a bit dull and poorly written, but the historical context is fascinating. The French experience was eerily prescient of the American one in the "Second Indochina War" 10 years later. Bernard Fall ultimately was killed by a land mine while accompanying American troops on patrol in 1967.
- "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene. A classic work of fiction also written in the 1950s. This is the first and only book I've read by Graham Greene. His worldview can be quite dark at times, but I found the book ultimately uplifting. Greene has a lot of things to say about life and the meaning we draw from it.
Conspicuously absent from this list are books written from the Vietnamese soldier's perspective. I currently have on my nightstand "The Sorrow of War" by Bao Ninh. It is another fictional account, but written by drawing on Ninh's personal experiences as a Northern soldier during the conflict.
I'd love to hear if My Public has read other books they can recommend about Vietnam and its history. I'm particularly interested in a book that details Vietnam's history prior to 1945, including the dynasties, history with China and beginning of French involvement.