The Vietnam War
An Intimate History
Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
London: Ebury Press, 2019
Paperback xiii + 826 pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Mike O’Brien, June 2020
This is the book that accompanied the 10-part 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It was first released with the film in 2017. Its basis was interviews with over 100 participants from the United Stated, North and South Vietnam. It also has had the advantage of the many documents recently released by both sides. Just as the Ultra secret changed our perception of the Second World War, these papers have changed perceptions, particularly of the actions of US actors in a nation prone to release its secret documents in time.
This is not, and cannot be expected to be, an account of Australian and New Zealand involvement in that war - our official histories and many complementary books do that task. So, you could say this is an American story or more accurately an American and Vietnamese (both North and South) one. That gives us a balanced accompaniment to the film series.
Balance is a key word, particularly when the wars in Vietnam are concerned. There a host of deceptions – and lies - on all sides of this conflict: French, Việt Minh, South Vietnamese, Việt Cộng, North Vietnamese, American and a host of others. Lies and deceptions do not sit well alongside a huge cost in lives lost and shattered on all these sides. Reconciliation in full will perhaps never be reached.
At some stage, perhaps around the end of March 1968, President Johnson seemed to reach the conclusion that the Vietnam War could not be won and that steps needed to be taken to reach an agreement to end it. The calculus of international relations meant that the combatants on all sides would continue to fight on and be sacrificed on the altar of negotiation. Ward’s verbatim accounts of Presidential conversations provide a chilling narrative of this cynicism.
This book is very well written. Its engaging commentary moves from the strategic level of the war to the intensely personal. It is evocative, cogent, disgusting in its literal sense and difficult to move away from. It tells a story rather than connecting footnotes. It narrates a war without redeeming virtues and it does it well.
Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language written with diacritical marks to distinguish the often otherwise identical syllables and to indicate their pronunciation. To omit these accents is to debase a language - would one write French words or placenames without their accents, again part of the written language. To do so is cultural imperialism. It happens in this book and too many others. It is fine to write déjà vu as a chapter heading but not to write Viet Cong: it is Việt Cộng.
That quibble aside, I strongly recommend this book. It is for participants in the war – they may not like the story of an unlikeable conflict - and more importantly for those who were not participants -who need a better idea of what happened – and could hopefully prevent its repetition.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.