In­sight among may­hem

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

he 50th an­niver­sary of the Viet­nam war has pro­duced an out­pour­ing of books, along with Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour tele­vi­sion spec­tac­u­lar, which sparked in the US yet an­other round of heated de­bate on the war. Max Hast­ings’s fast-paced and of­ten com­pelling nar­ra­tive will rank as one of the best works of this half-cen­tury reap­praisal.

Viet­nam: An Epic Tragedy is a mon­u­men­tal un­der­tak­ing. Many books about the war an­a­lyse key pol­icy de­ci­sions. Oth­ers dis­cuss mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions; still oth­ers re­count per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. Hast­ings does all three in a sin­gle vol­ume, al­though he gives great­est at­ten­tion to the on-the-ground ac­tiv­i­ties of North and South Viet­namese, NLF and NVA, Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders.

Amer­i­cans usu­ally date their Viet­nam war from 1961, when John F. Kennedy dras­ti­cally es­ca­lated the US com­mit­ment, or from Lyn­don John­son’s 1965 de­ci­sions to bomb North Viet­nam and send com­bat troops to the South. Hast­ings treats the first and sec­ond Indo-China wars as a sin­gle en­tity. The con­flict be­gins with Ho Chi Minh’s dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence from France in Septem­ber 1945 and ends with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

Con­tro­versy raged dur­ing the war it­self, con­tin­ued long af­ter it ended, and per­sists a half­cen­tury later. Hast­ings tack­les the key is­sues head on. Why did the US spend 58,000 lives and an es­ti­mated $US150 bil­lion on an area so re­mote and seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant?

He stresses Cold War ex­i­gen­cies and above all US do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. There is no Ron­ald Rea­gan-like ‘‘noble cause” here, no Burns’s good in­ten­tions gone awry. From Harry Tru­man to Richard Nixon, US lead­ers es­ca­lated the com­mit­ment rather than be ‘‘seen to quit, fail, or lose … to the com­mu­nists”, while ig­nor­ing the needs and in­ter­ests of the Viet­namese peo­ple.

Hast­ings is right in em­pha­sis­ing do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. What he does not al­ways pro­vide is the unique con­text that helps ex­plain each of the ma­jor de­ci­sions.

There is no men­tion, for ex­am­ple, of the in- Viet­nam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 tense pres­sure on Wash­ing­ton from Paris and Lon­don in 1948 and 1949 to help stave off a French de­feat in Viet­nam, the last time Bri­tain would urge US es­ca­la­tion.

He is un­spar­ing in as­sess­ing the rea­sons for Amer­i­can fail­ure in Viet­nam. Amer­i­cans fought the way they knew how to fight in an area and type of war sin­gu­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate for it. They re­lied on air power, ar­tillery and chem­i­cals laden with dioxin, all of which wreaked mas­sive de­struc­tion on the coun­try they were try­ing to save and alien­ated the peo­ple whose hearts and minds they sought to win.

They thrust aside the Saigon gov­ern­ment, for which many Amer­i­cans had con­tempt, and its army, in which they had no con­fi­dence. They in­un­dated South Viet­nam with money, ma­teriel and men, un­der­min­ing an al­ready frag­ile so­cial and po­lit­i­cal fab­ric.

The book also poses a ques­tion Amer­i­cans sel­dom ask: how did a back­ward, post­colo­nial na­tion such as North Viet­nam ul­ti­mately pre­vail in a war with the world’s great­est power? Hast­ings sin­gles out the iron will of Hanoi’s lead­ers, es­pe­cially Le Duan, who wrested lead­er­ship from Ho Chi Minh as early as 1960.

Even af­ter the mas­sive end-the-war of­fen­sives of 1964, 1968 and 1972 failed mis­er­ably,

Max Hast­ings’s book pro­vides a great amount of de­tail into the on-the-ground com­bat

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