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The books I read to understand the Vietnam War

Fifty years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, these stories live on

Cover images for bw-vietnambooks (Mariner/Penguin/Riverhead)
6 min

Once, while I was working at a political event, a veteran of the Vietnam War told me he was sorry for what had happened there. It had been, he said, a long time ago. But he still spoke as if he were apologizing to me. This came after growing up with parents who did not share their own stories. “It was a long time ago,” they, too, would say.

When I set out to write about Vietnam myself, I realized there was much I didn’t know. Why were Americans even there, in a small Southeast Asian country a whole ocean away? What led nearly 800,000 Vietnamese (among them, my parents) to jump aboard rickety boats to escape? How should I understand the American veterans I encountered whose eyes seemed to frown when they realized I was Vietnamese?

Obviously, I had very little direction from those around me. Books were the next best thing, though they didn’t always achieve the intended effect. In college, I mentioned to a classmate that I was struggling to write a story about the Vietnam War. He said he knew just the thing and lent me a copy of “The Quiet American,” by Graham Greene. Published in 1955, the short novel is set at the tail end of the First Indochina War. The French are losing. The communist Viet Minh are gaining ground. The titular quiet American believes there must be a “third force” that would lead the country to democracy. Soon, it becomes clear that he sees the United States as that third force, a conviction that will cost him dearly.

When I returned the book, my classmate asked what I thought. I couldn’t quite tell him how disappointed I was. For a novel about Vietnam, there was little Vietnam in it, to say nothing of how Greene saw Vietnamese people: on the one hand, as childlike, and on the other, as background decor. Indeed, one wonders if the story would have been more or less the same if Vietnam were switched out for any other country. In “The Quiet American,” Greene is abstract and philosophical — coldly so. As a writer, he doesn’t seem invested in the country. And why should he? The British didn’t set foot in Vietnam.

But eventually Americans did. In 1965, the first U.S. troops were sent to Danang, starting an eight-year involvement that would define an era.

If we are not to trust Greene, to whom should we look to understand the Vietnam War?

One of the greatest chroniclers of the war is undeniably Tim O’Brien. Blending fact and fiction, “The Things They Carried” (1990) follows a Minnesotan, also named Tim O’Brien, who’s drafted into the war. Through him, we read stories of his platoon and his reflections 20 years later. Unlike Greene, O’Brien entrenches his work of fiction (this is what the title page calls it) in the physicality of war: the exhausting task of carrying rucksacks up hills, the strange sounds in the jungle, the overflowing river that drowns a friend. Above all, what makes the book powerful is its depiction of the psychological cost of warfare. Survivor’s guilt, regret, post-traumatic stress — these are the things O’Brien’s characters must bear when the war is over.

The Sorrow of War,” by Bao Ninh, translated by Phan Thanh Hao, makes a useful counterpoint to “The Things They Carried.” While much has been said of the scorn and hostility American veterans faced on their return, little is available about the lives of North Vietnamese veterans. What happened to the winners? In “The Sorrow of War” (1994), a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, returns to Hanoi after the battles are over. Surprisingly, he gets no hero’s welcome; instead, he’s met with indifference and even suspicion. Lacking work experience and money, wounded physically and mentally, former soldiers have little prospect for a normal civilian life. In the years after, Kien is left wandering the city’s streets, drifting between bars, thinking not only of his wartime experiences but the lover who abandoned him. Reading it in dialogue with O’Brien’s work, one gets the sense that in war we are all losers.

For another North Vietnamese perspective, look to the work of dissident writer Duong Thu Huong, specifically “Novel Without a Name” (1995), translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. In the book, we meet 28-year-old Quan. When he’s assigned to check in on a fellow soldier who was sent away after a mental breakdown, Quan takes the opportunity to stop by his home village. There, he finds the enthusiasm and patriotism from years before replaced with despondency and strained relations. “Novel Without a Name” differs from O’Brien’s and Ninh’s works in that it declines to look back, instead situating readers in the middle of war. Quan’s disillusionment unfolds before us, an experience that proves disorienting and surreal.

Missing from all of this, of course, are the voices of the South Vietnamese. Indeed, there are very few accessible books by South Vietnamese veterans. Their experiences are, however, recorded in the more academic “South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After” by Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen. A 2016 collection of oral histories and analysis that is, at times, heavily theoretical, it details the training of South Vietnamese soldiers, their experiences on the battlefield and their lives after the war — mostly in their own words. Nguyen’s book is important given that many veterans (on all sides of the war) are running out of time to tell their stories.

Fifty years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and 48 after the fall of Saigon, the question is: Why read these stories? The obvious answer is so that history doesn’t repeat itself. But that seems too easy. Maybe it’s that stories are all we have to preserve the many who were lost to the war. More than 58,000 Americans died during the Vietnam War, along with more than 3 million Vietnamese. In the face of such tragedies, stories, perhaps, are the best memorials we have.

Eric Nguyen is the author of “Things We Lost to the Water.”

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