Review of “The Vietnam War” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

It was NOT the best of times — it was damn near the worst of times. The Vietnam war tore the fabric of American society asunder. Moreover, despite the loss of more than 50,000 American lives and more than 1 million Vietnamese lives, the war was nearly a total failure from the American point of view.

This book, informatively, if not cleverly, titled The Vietnam War, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, vividly brings that unpleasant time back to life. It is accompanied by a film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The book follows fairly closely the narrative of the famous Pentagon Papers that originally appeared in the New York Times. Although it doesn’t have much if anything new to say about the war, what it says does so forcefully and graphically. The authors effectively employ the broad overview of an omniscient narrator intermixed with poignant asides from some of the “little people” most affected by the war, such as the grunts who fought, the surviving family members of those who did not return, and some Vietnamese from both South Vietnam (our allies) and North Vietnam (our enemy).

1965 photo by Horst Faas showing U.S. helicopters protecting South Vietnamese troops northwest of Saigon

Especially moving is the depiction of the final days of the South Vietnamese Republic. The North Vietnamese army was ineluctably closing in on Saigon while the American government was doing its best to rescue the few remaining Americans. But it had all but abandoned its former allies to their uncertain fate at the hands of their enemies.

1975 photo by Hubert Van Es showing U.S. citizens escaping from Saigon

Discussion: Some reviewers have criticized this book (and the accompanying series on PBS) for shifting attention away from the militarism behind for American intervention and focusing on sentimental stories of survival and perseverance. As U. Mass History Professor Christian G. Appy recently asked in an article for “The New York Times”:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy.”

I don’t disagree with these criticisms. But the anecdotal approach taken by the authors to accompany the drier histories is not without merit, if accompanied by more rigorous analyses.

I do not agree, however, with the contention that America is still significantly divided over Vietnam. The country is divided over plenty, but I don’t see Vietnam at the top of the list. It would be more accurate, in my opinion, to say that America is still divided over the Civil War and the racism that informed both the conflict and its aftermath.

Civil War not yet over: Confederate flags at a rally on July 8, 2017

I also was disappointed that the authors did not give more attention to the use of Agent Orange by the Americans. Between 2 and 5 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the toxic chemical, which poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, and entered the food chain. Large tracts of that land remain degraded and unproductive to this day.

Moreover, birth defects in those who were exposed have been extensively documented, both among the Vietnamese and the American pilots who disseminated the agent. As Propublica reported, “the odds of having a child born with birth defects were more than a third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t.” You can read more about harm to American veterans here and here. Needless to say, the profound lingering effects on the Vietnamese are even greater.

Planes spraying Agent Orange 20 miles southeast of Saigon in 1970. Credit Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

This important “legacy” of the Vietnam War deserves as much attention as any other.

Note: There is a PBS website to accompany the book and television series which includes resources for veterans, a reading list, photos, videos, and music lists.

Evaluation: This book is a good introduction to the war for young people who did not live through those times and a decent, if sometimes unpleasant, reminder to those of us who did.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of the book, capably read by Ken Burns, who excels at media presentations. Many of the interviewees are also featured in the recording, which added auditory interest.

Published abridged on 8 CDs (approximately 10 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2017


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
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3 Responses to Review of “The Vietnam War” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

  1. It’s great to have those old pictures.

  2. Beth F says:

    We’re still in the process of watching the show. I totally agree with Jim, we are more divided over the Civil War than Vietnam.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I’ve read several books about the Vietnam War and I did live through some of it so this might not be for me. I agree that our country isn’t divided on the Vietnam War anymore.

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