Summary: an elegant account of the cruelty of the Vietnam war
A recurrent theme of Max Hastings history books is the pity of war. He returns to that theme again with this work, a fine complement to Ken Burns’ extraordinary television history of the conflict.
Where other military historians – for example Hew Strachan – treat war as a near bloodless continental-scale chess match, or – a flaw with Fergal Keane’s Road of Bones – sometimes lose the reader in the extended descriptions of the squalid killings that make up a battle, Hastings manages the balance between the strategic overview of war and the horrific experiences of the combatants such that each illuminates the other. He is also careful to balance his account with not only French and American perspectives, but also with Vietnamese witnesses from both North and South.
The result is a fine account of the wars in Vietnam from 1945 when nationalist struggles against the French turned bloody, to 1975 and the fall of Saigon and with that the reunification of North and South Vietnam. This includes careful consideration of the most famous battles, including Dien Bien Phu and the Tet Offensive of 1968. But it also includes less well known, sometimes shockingly brutal, episodes. These include the guerrilla offensives by the Viet Cong in the early years of the war – in which communist cadres often assassinated their targets by burying them alive so as not to “waste” a bullet – and the final battles between North and South once the American left. Aspects of the war, such as the weapons and field craft of the combatants, the experiences of US prisoners, and the air war, are treated more thematically giving deeper insight into the ghastliness of what those who experienced it had to endure.
Hastings is particularly scathing about Nixon and Kissinger who cynically used the Vietnam war to further their own political agendas utterly unconcerned about the cost in both Vietnamese and American lives that this entailed. Indeed Ken Burns showed that Nixon went so far as to sabotage Johnson’s efforts to obtain a ceasefire in 1968 to increase his chances of winning the presidential election against his Democratic rival. That Nixon was not impeached for high treason is a matter of historical injustice. Kissinger remains an unindicted war criminal and does not deserve the fawning praise that everyone from Hilary Clinton to Niall Ferguson seems to heap upon this blood-soaked man’s head.
In the context of the US sponsored terrorism of the Phoenix programme, Hastings delivers a damning assessment of former Democratic US Senator Bob Kerrey’s war service. Kerrey lost a leg and won a Congressional Medal of Honour in Vietnam. But the balance of evidence suggests that he achieved little more than the butchery of civilians, including women and children, something that he has subsequently only partially acknowledged.
However Hasting is perhaps less objective in this book than in some of his other history work. He was, after all, a young journalist in Vietnam himself. Many of his generation came to the view that because South Vietnam and the US deserved to lose the war, North Vietnam must deserve to win it. This is a view he now believes to be deeply wrong. While not overlooking the cynicism, bumbling and atrocities of the US and the South, Hastings is careful to note that these were matched, such as in the massacres in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, by the North, and that the brutal totalitarianism of the North compared poorly with the relatively open society that existed in the South.
Perhaps, Hastings notes, if South Vietnam had survived, it would have transformed, as South Korea did, from corrupt dictatorship to vibrant democracy. However it is difficult to see how this could ever have happened. North Vietnam in this account has some of the aspect of Rome during the Punic Wars, such was its implacable determination to win irrespective of the costs.
Hence, Hastings acknowledges, while the young anti-war campaigners in the US and elsewhere were naive in thinking Ho Chi Minh a moral paragon, they were right strategically and ultimately, morally: the war was unwinnable and it is wrong to waste lives on such a struggle. As he notes in the last sentence of the book, if only US and British policy makers had remembered the lessons of this war before blundering into Iraq.