‘Vietnam’ by Max Hastings is masterful account of the war

This cover image released by Harper shows "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy: 1945-1975," by Max Hastings. (Harper via AP)

“Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975” (Harper), by Max Hastings

British journalist Max Hastings, noted for his critically acclaimed books about World War II, has fast-forwarded his research and writing talent to a war that many Americans would like to forget.

His 900-page work chronicles Vietnam’s tragic history from Ho Chi Minh’s proclamation of an independent state after the 1945 Japanese surrender to the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime 30 years later after the United States cut off ground and air support. Despite ample accounts of heroism and sacrifice on all sides, it’s a story in which each of the principal players — France, the United States, Saigon, Hanoi and the Viet Cong — comes away with well-deserved opprobrium.

Unsurprisingly, Hastings concludes that Vietnam was a catastrophe, one that took the lives of as many as 2 million to 3 million combatants and civilians. The war claimed 58,000 American lives, but the number of Vietnamese dead was 40 times greater.

This definitive narrative describes how the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu gave rise to the domino theory and the need to halt the spread of communist domination in Southeast Asia. There were more than 500,000 U.S. service personnel in Vietnam by the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, a stunning military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that was transformed into a propaganda victory.

After Tet, the war was never the same. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite declared the nation was mired in stalemate, President Lyndon B. Johnson said he would not seek re-election, and the U.S. abandoned any hope of victory and sought instead to extricate itself while avoiding explicit defeat.

The fighting would continue for another seven years, a period marked by the My Lai massacre, the invasion of Cambodia and the 1972 Christmas bombing, which Hastings says was designed for partisan political purposes and had no military justification.

The narrative includes detailed accounts of all the major battles, with riveting descriptions of what life was like for combatants on both sides. The reader relives the experiences of GIs plodding through booby-trapped jungle, North Vietnamese dodging B52 strikes while heading south on the Ho Chi Minh trail and helicopter pilots braving fire from hot landing zones while inserting troops or extricating the wounded.

Many of the campaigns covered in the book are familiar to those who served in Vietnam or followed the war in the media, but a rarely mentioned 1968 battle at Dai Do in which a Marine battalion suffered devastating losses gets special scrutiny. During three days of bloody combat, Marines displayed both courage and cowardice in a series of senseless assaults against a well-entrenched enemy. The author says the American commanders who “displayed folly of Crimean proportions” shoulder much of the blame.

Drug abuse, racial strife and the erosion of discipline and the will to fight took their toll on U.S. troops. By contrast, Hastings points to the stronger performance of the small contingents of Australians who were disciplined in their use of firepower and exercised better fieldcraft.

Neither side comes away with clean hands, but Hastings writes that news media were quick to record atrocities by U.S. troops and the brutality on the communist side went largely unreported, fueling antiwar propaganda that portrayed the North as the virtuous party.

Hastings’ narrative, along with Ken Burns’ masterful series on PBS, offers a well-balanced account of a war that ended more than four decades ago. The author weaves anecdotal and first-person accounts from both sides into the overall history to produce a compelling account that veterans of the war, those who felt its impact at home and readers born decades after the fighting ended will find hard to put down.

Today, with the rise of the internet and globalization, the outcome of the lengthy struggle may seem less cut and dried than it first appeared. Although Vietnam still endures harsh rural poverty and authoritarian rule, America’s economic and cultural influences are leaving their mark on its former enemy.

“Whereas the US armed forced failed with B-52s, defoliants and Spooky gunships, YouTube and Johnny Depp have proved irresistible,” Hastings writes.

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