Vietnam War through the lives of those pro­foundly shaped by it

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Mark At­wood Lawrence, the au­thor of “The Vietnam War: A Con­cise In­ter­na­tional His­tory,” teaches his­tory at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin.

Few his­to­ries of the Vietnam War shy away from con­tentious ques­tions or bold con­clu­sions. Was the United States right to wage war in South­east Asia? Why did Washington fail to achieve its ob­jec­tives? What are the key lessons of the Amer­i­can de­feat? Au­thors have clashed for years over the an­swers, mak­ing the war one of the most hotly dis­puted top­ics in all of Amer­i­can his­tory.

Ge­of­frey C. Ward takes a dif­fer­ent tack in his “in­ti­mate his­tory,” the ex­cep­tion­ally en­gag­ing, if not wholly sat­is­fy­ing, com­pan­ion book to “The Vietnam War,” the 18-hour doc­u­men­tary by famed film­maker Ken Burns pre­mier­ing Sun­day on PBS. Re­ject­ing clear-cut judg­ments, Ward aims in­stead to cap­ture the war’s am­bi­gu­i­ties by telling the story through the var­ied ex­pe­ri­ences and emo­tions of or­di­nary men and women whose lives were pro­foundly shaped by it.

“This was a war of many per­spec­tives, a Rashomon of equally plau­si­ble ‘sto­ries,’ ” Burns and his co-di­rec­tor for the tele­vi­sion se­ries, Lynn Novick, write in the book’s in­tro­duc­tion. Both the doc­u­men­tary and the com­pan­ion vol­ume, they as­sert, give voice to “seem­ingly ir­rec­on­cil­able out­looks” re­flected in “as many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives as our nar­ra­tive could ac­com­mo­date.”

This ap­proach will be fa­mil­iar to any­one who has watched Burns’s award-win­ning doc­u­men­taries or read the ac­com­pa­ny­ing books over the past 30 years or so. On top­ics rang­ing from the Civil War to base­ball to the Roo­sevelt fam­ily, Burns and his team have of­fered a broadly af­firm­ing vi­sion of Amer­i­can his­tory that pro­vokes less by stir­ring de­bate than by tug­ging at view­ers’ heart­strings with emo­tion­ally charged por­traits of in­di­vid­u­als at the cen­ter of their sto­ries.

It’s un­ques­tion­ably an ap­peal­ing for­mula, and Ward’s com­pan­ion book, a vis­ually stun­ning tome weigh­ing in at more than 600 pages, over­flows with mov­ing pro­files of not just sol­diers, sailors and air­men, but also doc­tors, nurses, pris­on­ers, jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists, mere by­standers and more. For ex­am­ple, Ward, who also wrote the script for the tele­vi­sion se­ries, un­folds the life story of Den­ton “Mo­gie” Crocker of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Af­ter grow­ing up on sto­ries of heroic fight­ing men, Crocker de­fied his ador­ing par­ents by en­list­ing in the Army in 1964, only to be cut down by ma­chine gun fire two years later, just short of his 19th birth­day, while try­ing to cap­ture a hill in South Vietnam’s Cen­tral High­lands.

On the com­mu­nist side, Ward tells the story of Nguyen Thanh Tung, a south­ern-born revo­lu­tion­ary who sur­vives the war de­spite shrap­nel wounds to her leg and un­speak­able losses along the way. Four of her broth­ers died fight­ing the French and an­other four bat­tling the Amer­i­cans. She also out­lives her two sons, both born in dank un­der­ground tun­nels where com­mu­nist forces took refuge from the fight­ing above.

These por­traits are ac­com­pa­nied by a spec­tac­u­lar ar­ray of pho­to­graphs likely to be the book’s most strik­ing fea­ture for many ca­sual read­ers. Pre­dictably, the vol­ume in­cludes many old clas­sics, in­clud­ing widely pub­lished photos of a South Viet­namese po­lice chief ex­e­cut­ing a com­mu­nist sus­pect and an Amer­i­can chop­per lift­ing off a rooftop dur­ing the fi­nal col­lapse of Saigon in 1975. But it also fea­tures hun­dreds of evoca­tive images — many of them fo­cused tightly on the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of ev­ery­day Amer­i­cans and Viet­namese — likely to be un­fa­mil­iar even to ex­perts on the his­tory of the war.

The over­all ef­fect of the vi­gnettes and photos is to show how peo­ple far re­moved from the cor­ri­dors of power were swept up in events be­yond their con­trol, of­ten with tragic con­se­quences. The sto­ries sug­gest par­al­lels in the ways Amer­i­cans and Viet­namese were vic­tim­ized by ques­tion­able, even im­moral, de­ci­sions by po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers on all sides.

Ward is less suc­cess­ful when ex­am­in­ing those lead­ers, who get lit­tle of the nu­anced, sym­pa­thetic at­ten­tion re­served for the book’s cast of lesser-known char­ac­ters. Per­haps partly as a re­sult of Burns’s and Novick’s de­ci­sion not to in­ter­view for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials for the project, high-level pol­i­cy­mak­ers of­ten seem com­par­a­tively one-di­men­sional.

To be sure, Ward pro­vides a sprawl­ing, al­most en­cy­clo­pe­dic ac­count of de­ci­sion-mak­ing by politicians, diplo­mats and gen­er­als, the rel­a­tively fa­mil­iar stuff of many con­ven­tional his­to­ries of the war. Over 10 densely packed chap­ters, the book reaches back to the French colo­nial con­quest of Vietnam and the early de­vel­op­ment of Viet­namese na­tion­al­ism be­fore delv­ing into the peak years of U.S. em­broil­ment, from the early 1960s to the fi­nal com­mu­nist vic­tory in 1975. Ev­ery bat­tle, diplo­matic con­fer­ence, treaty and turn­ing gets its due.

In places, this nar­ra­tive is su­perb. Ward draws skill­fully, for ex­am­ple, on re­cent stud­ies by his­to­ri­ans who have con­ducted path­break­ing re­search into the Viet­namese side of the war. He con­vinc­ingly lays out North Viet­namese cal­cu­la­tions dur­ing the piv­otal years of es­ca­la­tion, show­ing how the hawk­ish com­mu­nist leader Le Duan dis­placed mod­er­ates, in­clud­ing the revo­lu­tion­ary icon Ho Chi Minh, usu­ally as­sumed to have been the mas­ter­mind of the com­mu­nist war ef­fort all the way un­til his death in 1969.

Still, Ward’s ac­count of de­ci­sion-mak­ing of­fers lit­tle that is en­tirely new and fails to probe many of the fas­ci­nat­ing con­tro­ver­sies driv­ing in­quiry into the war these days, a missed op­por­tu­nity to add some­thing of value be­yond the tele­vi­sion pro­gram. On two ques­tions — Would John F. Kennedy have avoided war if he had sur­vived for a se­cond pres­i­den­tial term? Was South Viet­namese leader Ngo Dinh Diem a le­git­i­mate na­tion­al­ist with a rea­son­able claim to lead­er­ship? — the book in­cludes fas­ci­nat­ing short es­says by lead­ing schol­ars. But those fea­tures un­ac­count­ably dis­ap­pear af­ter Chap­ter 2, de­spite the nu­mer­ous other is­sues wor­thy of such in-depth treat­ment.

Ward also dis­ap­points by ending his story with the fi­nal col­lapse of South Vietnam in 1975. The book thus fails to con­sider how Amer­i­cans have strug­gled to un­der­stand the war and draw lessons for the con­duct of for­eign and mil­i­tary pol­icy over the past four decades, a his­tory ar­guably just as im­por­tant to the na­tion’s pol­i­tics and psy­che as the con­flict it­self.

The com­pan­ion book, like the tele­vi­sion se­ries, is a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in that his­tory and will no doubt do much to de­ter­mine how the war is un­der­stood for years to come. This is mostly a wel­come prospect, for both book and se­ries are in­spired by hu­mane de­sires to over­come painful divi­sion and draw at­ten­tion to the hu­man costs of war. For many of the de­bates that con­tinue to make the war such a lively topic, how­ever, read­ers will have to go else­where.

NA­TIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Spec. R. Richter, left, and Sgt. Daniel E. Spencer await a he­li­copter that will evac­u­ate their fallen com­rade from the jungle-cov­ered hills in Long Khanh prov­ince, Vietnam, in 1966.

JEAN-MARIE CROCKER/FLOREN­TINE FILMS

Den­ton “Mo­gie” Crocker grew up on sto­ries of heroic fight­ing men. He was killed in bat­tle in 1966.

HORST FAAS/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FLOREN­TINE FILMS

South Viet­namese civil­ians hud­dle af­ter two days of heavy fight­ing at Dong Xoai in June 1965.

By Ge­of­frey C. Ward and Ken Burns Knopf. 612 pp. $60

THE VIETNAM WAR An In­ti­mate His­tory

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