Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.
There is no doubt that Christian Appy achieved his stated objective of writing a book that records and brings forward accounts from all sides of the Vietnam War--doubly so when one notes that among the book jacket blurbs are raving comments from both left-of-Trotsky historian Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel. In Patriots, Appy succeeds in raising the bar for oral histories about the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, several notches higher. His book is, to appropriate a popular phrase, "fair and balanced." It contains personal reminiscences from 135 individuals whose experiences span the entire period of the Second and Third Indochinese Wars, starting in 1945 and ending in the present day. The book is divided both chronologically and topically, with some accounts grouped into the period during which an individual participated in the war and others presented together with similar subjects. With each subsection Appy gives a few pages of historical background to set the stage for the individual accounts.
Appy is a historian who has been an adjunct faculty member in the history departments of Harvard and MIT. This book demonstrates that he is also a master at presenting individuals with a petard and allowing them to light the thing themselves. This is especially obvious in his introduction to the section on morale and entertainers, where the author makes some adroit connections and then allows the participants to speak in their own words. In one instance he hands the explosive to Westmoreland himself. Although General Westmoreland gave only a short interview for Patriots, one that revealed nothing dramatic, Appy appropriately quoted a passage from Westmoreland's own book, A Soldier Reports, to illustrate the disconnect between personnel policy and strategy. In discussing policies designed to maintain troop morale, Westmoreland wrote in his book about post exchanges, the clubs, and rest and recreation sabbaticals, as well as other recreational facilities:
These creature comforts, plus other factors such as keeping your men busy and informed, having them participate in civic action projects, and keeping the complaint channels open, helped during the period 1964-69 to generate the highest morale I have seen among US soldiers in three wars. It was only after 1969 that the psychological stresses and strains of an apparently endless war began to show.
Appy, who is not a classically trained military historian, accurately notes that in this passage Westmoreland sounds "like the personnel manager of a very large corporation offering advice on how to keep short-term employees compliant and productive." As disconcerting as that may be, the author also has the insight to comment on what Westmoreland does not say, noting, "Nowhere does he suggest that it has any connection to a goal larger than surviving a one-year tour." If the principal role of a historian is to provide context for an assembled body of facts, this is doubly important for a historian working with oral history. Appy succeeds in this role throughout the book. This is no mean feat when a single chapter might bring together the memories of participants ranging from "Bobbie the Weathergirl" to James Brown, to Country Joe McDonald.
Yet the true beauty of this book is in the fact that it genuinely does provide accounts of the war "from all sides," just as promised. Not only from the left and right of the domestic American scene (although both are presented) but from the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese perspectives as well. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the just-mentioned section on entertainers. In contrast to the American morale programs of Donut Dollies, Playmate visits, and USO concerts, the North Vietnamese sent "entertainers" such as artist Vu Hy Thieu south to support their war effort. In taking the time to actually find a North Vietnamese entertainer, Appy shows his keen appreciation for the different philosophies guiding the two war efforts. Yet he allows the participants' words to come through clear to make that point. Some of Thieu's account bears repeating:
After graduating from the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi, I was offered a chance to study in the Soviet Union, but I turned down the opportunity so I could go south. In times like that everybody wanted to do their best for the country. I had to apply repeatedly because only one artist was being selected from each province. The two main criteria were talent and political orthodoxy.... In my group there were about ten artists and one hundred doctors and nurses. Our training was basically the same that the regular soldiers underwent. We trained for three months in the Luong Son Mountains. Every day I had to climb a mountain carrying a pack filled with thirty-five kilograms of stones and sand. I weighed about fifty-two kilograms then.
Appy also managed to capture the diverse voices of the war from the American side of the conflict. In Patriots one finds not only the proud and the powerful of both the left and the right, but a great cross-section of the "foot soldiers" of the war, both in and out of uniform. Appy brings out not only the Rusks, the Ellsbergs, and the Rostows, but also the voice of the common American combatant through interviews with men such as Dennis Deal, a lieutenant and rifle platoon leader at landing zone X-Ray in November 1965.
If the book has a shortcoming, it is its length--and no, it is not too long. With it being more than 500 pages, one would think this might be the complaint, but the book is so well organized, the interviews so poignant and apropos, that the pages fly by. No, the complaint about length is that it is not long enough. Appy used fewer than half of the interviews he conducted, primarily because his editors insisted upon a conventional length for marketing. So consider the end of this review to be an appeal--to Appy and perhaps more appropriately to his editors--to please publish a second volume of this work. The Vietnam War retains its importance, and Appy has an obvious gift in both his ability to capture the poignant and the relevant, and to place all of this within a solid historical context. We still have much to learn from this war. As one of Appy's Vietnamese hosts noted, "Do you realize we are the only nation on earth that's defeated three out of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council?" As we now work our way through our first real counter-guerilla war in a third of a century, we might do well to seek wisdom in the past.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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