8 Oct 2015   |   Reviews

5 Best Books on the Vietnam War

Perhaps the only decent thing to emerge from the Vietnam War is a body of literature unsurpassed by the writing that’s come out of any other war.

Take World War II, for example. There is Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse Five, and these are classics to be sure. Beyond that, on the fiction front, we quickly traipse into forgettable territory. The best histories of that war came from the next generation of participants.

Now, go back to the Civil War, which may rank as the least exploited war for literature. Why? Well, it took Stephen Crane (who was born after the Civil War ended) to write the best novel on that conflict. And have you ever read Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s memoir? No, of course you haven’t. Nor would you want to.

But Vietnam, ah, Vietnam. Now here’s some literature. There’s been a ton written about the war. I have not read all of the major volumes to emerge, and some will take exception to the authority of my list below, but I have read enough of the good stuff, and feel pretty strongly about these books. These are the books I tell people to read if they’re at all interested:

By Michael Herr

Not only one of the best books about the Vietnam war, but one of the best non-fiction books written by an American. Herr commands one of the great voices in American literature, and is so overwhelming, so powerful, that he can, like Hemingway, wreak havoc on the style of would-be writers who would fall under his spell. Before I gave up the dream, and after partly wrecking on Hemingway’s shoals, I found myself on occasion trying to write like Herr. Maybe that’s why I’m a PR guy today, and not a novelist. But enough about me. Herr. In Dispatches, he was writing, as Hemingway once said of himself at his best, better than he could. Herr spent a year in-country, following the grunts around and wrote sentences that blaze out of the Sixties like illumination rounds. He was in Hue at the Battle of Hue; he was up at Khe Sanh during the siege; he was based in Saigon, rooming with the likes of Sean Flynn and Tim Page. And no one will ever write a better book about Vietnam than Herr.

A Bright Shining Lie
By Neil Sheehan

Like Herr, Sheehan is a one-book wonder. They both did other stuff, but each of them dedicated so much to their respective monuments, they were spent at the finish -- for all time. (Would be great, of course, if either of these guys, proved me wrong.) Sheehan’s book is part biography of John Paul Vann, one of the war’s most compelling American figures - maybe the most compelling American figure -- and part history of what Sheehan rightly notes was the greatest cataclysm in the history of America since the Civil War. It’s an excruciating story, that saw the light of day as a three-part series in the New Yorker in the 1980s, and that comes to the table at a hefty 790 pages today. Heavy as it is, you can’t put it down. John Paul Vann was the first notable voice to speak truth to power, and if we’d heeded the intelligence that he tried to bring to the table in the early 1960s, what a different world we’d be living in today.

A Rumor of War
By Philip Caputo

I encountered this book as a 9th Grader at B.C. High in 1979 when upper classmen carried this one to and from class. The paperback cover looked cool, and the book -- a memoir of a Marine’s time in Vietnam in that first wave of ground troops to hit the beach in Vietnam -- is even cooler. Caputo articulates the experience for a generation, and no one’s done it any better, at least no one I’ve yet read. Caputo and his peers marched into the rice paddies with all of the high ideals prevalent in pre-Vietnam America, and dragged himself back out with his convictions in tatters. Caputo’s journey, on a personal level, mirrors what happened to the rest of his country as America soiled itself in Vietnam.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

O’Brien lost the Pulitzer Prize to John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest when this book was in the running in the early 1990s, and shouldn’t have. This collection of stories follows a cast of characters in an army infantry platoon, making its way through the thick of the war in the central part of Vietnam. Twenty-five years after first reading this one, I can still hear Rat Kiley turning up the heat on the truth so that his fellow soldiers can feel the experience as intensely as he did. Can still see the culottes on the soldier’s girlfriend who turned up in the midst of combat and went out with the Greenies on the Song Tra Bong. And can still picture the 4th Grader sitting in the backseat of his family car in 1956, on the way to the movies with a classmate / girlfriend who was dying of cancer. “They carried all they could bear,” O’Brien wrote, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” What a line.

Fire in the Lake
By Frances Fitzgerald

No, Frances Fitzgerald is not up here because I’m trying not to look sexist. And if I were doing a Top 10 list, I’d have Gloria Emerson’s book, Winners & Losers, in a heartbeat. Fitzgerald got so close to the Vietnamese in this book, became so magnificently acquainted with the culture, that you can’t quite believe she wasn’t drafted as a bridge between the feckless American command and the people they were supposed to be trying to help. She found out about the Vietnamese what we wished all our decision-makers had found out, and she shares all of it in a book whose pages are luminous with insight and regret.