The Pentagon Book Club
Not all of Sorley's fans, however, labor under the same misconceptions about what the Vietnamese call the American War. In the acknowledgments of his Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975, John Prados writes admiringly of the herculean labors of transcription that Sorley—a friend—performed to produce Vietnam Chronicles. But Prados's scholarly admiration goes no further. He squarely challenges the contentions of Sorley and others who have, over the years, attempted to recast US and allied efforts in Vietnam as a Lost Victory or an Unheralded Victory, among other wishfully titled studies [see Rick Perlstein, "The Best Wars of Their Lives," October 15, 2007]. Regarding Sorley's belief that victory was thrown away, Prados writes:
Most recent commentators of this school call themselves "revisionists," arguing that Americans are wrong to believe they lost the Vietnam war. This is not revisionism, it is neo-orthodoxy.
Something happened in the countryside, but it was not Saigon's victory....
The neo-orthodox commentators of the "lost victory" school make their claims as if the only important elements were pacification and Vietnamization, as if politics did not matter. Not only is this strange, given the kind of conflict—where supposedly everyone now understood the political to be paramount—but those same analysts take no account of Saigon politics.
For these reasons, General McChrystal would do well to forgo another reading of Sorley's text and instead wade into Prados's Vietnam. Steeped in the copious records generated by the US government during the conflict, Prados offers an expansive history, written in a lucid style, that scholars of the war will want to make room for on their shelves and casual readers can accommodate by purging a few faded volumes. Prados, a senior fellow of George Washington University's National Security Archive and the head of its Vietnam Documentation Project, surveys the wars in Vietnam against the Japanese, French and Americans, from 1945 through 1975, and makes smartly written sojourns back to the United States to listen in on White House phone calls and take it to the streets with returning antiwar veterans. Prados demonstrates the dire effects a foreign war can have on the homeland, as criminality abroad acted as a catalyst for an increasingly lawless government at home.
While he ably covers a lot of historical territory in the United States and Southeast Asia (with surprisingly thorough, if brief, treatments of the contiguous conflicts in Cambodia and Laos), Prados is strongest on Nixon's war in Vietnam—the period from 1969 onward—making his book a natural counterweight to Sorley's study of the same period. Through a staggering array of primary and secondary sources, Prados discredits the "better war" thesis and the "neo-orthodox" school through his clear and thorough examination of the increasingly hollow and corrupt South Vietnamese government and its failures to win over the people, which made supposed US pacification successes meaningless.
With devastating clarity, Prados demonstrates that neo-orthodox claims of an increasingly effective South Vietnamese military taking charge, from 1969 onward, are based on smoke and mirrors and outright fabrications. In truth, just as the US military was increasingly wracked by drug use, racial tension, AWOLs, fraggings (attacks on officers and noncommissioned officers, often by fragmentation grenade), combat refusals, mutinies and other disciplinary issues, Saigon's military forces were in dire straits, as draft evaders and deserters thinned the ranks, officers collected the pay of nonexistent "ghost soldiers" and child soldiers were, instead, put into uniform. At the same time, government corruption was rampant. (In one scandal top officials got away with skimming from a tax on soldiers that was designed to aid veterans.) Prados then couples his nuanced study of the ample shortcomings of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces with, more important, an astute analysis of the many "levels and layers of reasons" the revolutionary forces from North and South Vietnam won the war. It's here that Prados really shines and demonstrates what a historian at the height of his powers of scholarly synthesis can accomplish.
Paying attention to the Vietnamese—whether ordinary civilians being slaughtered in the name of pacification or Saigon's political elites emptying the public treasury—has never been a strong suit of American commentators on the war. Consciously written to render the Vietnamese visible in ways too few American histories of the war do, Mark Philip Bradley's important history Vietnam at War mines Vietnamese novels, poetry and films, as well as a plethora of recent and often overlooked works of scholarship, to paint a more complete picture of the lived experience of the war for the people of Vietnam. Bradley begins with the millennium-long Vietnamese anticolonial struggle against the Chinese beginning in 111 BC and then chronicles the rise of French colonialism in Indochina during the latter half of the nineteenth century; the often-ignored political and intellectual developments among elites and the economic upheaval and demographic explosion in the countryside during the early part of the twentieth century; and finally the wars of liberation against France and the United States.
Bradley discusses the many ways that ordinary people struggled to "navigate and survive the complicated terrain of wartime South Vietnam." Weaving together disparate threads, from contemporary commentary about changing Vietnamese romantic and sexual mores amid wartime uncertainty ("It's no longer about appreciating love but escaping the sense that one has been abandoned") to social anthropologist Heonik Kwon's recent meticulous and skillful reconstruction of the complex and clandestine networks of social connections that allowed a wounded South Vietnamese officer to defect to the revolutionary side, Bradley offers a social history of wartime Vietnam and of a people in a state of acute crisis. Perhaps the most important aspect of Vietnam at War, however, is Bradley's effort to convey the ubiquity of civilian suffering during the American War—the decimation of the countryside, the mass population dislocations, the indiscriminate use of firepower, the collapse of farming, the savaging of the economy, the rampant inflation and the proliferation of a culture of corruption and prostitution among the desperate, war-ravaged Vietnamese. Given the scale of misery caused by the war, Bradley doesn't devote enough attention to the subject. But he makes a noble effort and, even in a slim volume, is stronger on the subject than many thicker histories.
In fact, very few of the more than 30,000 books about the conflict plumb the depths of Vietnamese misery during the American War. One volume that should, by any stretch of the imagination, be counted among them is Eddie Adams: Vietnam, but the book—a glossy collection of photos and text—in many ways defies conventions. Most books, for instance, don't begin with an admission of the photographer's opposition to the project. But Adams didn't have a say in the matter. He died several years ago, and Eddie Adams: Vietnam—edited by his wife, Alyssa, with text by Hal Buell, Adams's former boss at the Associated Press, as well as short interviews with contemporaries like Morley Safer, Peter Arnett and the late David Halberstam—was published against his wishes.
Adams is best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of Col. (and later Brig. Gen.) Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a defenseless, restrained prisoner at point-blank range in the head with a pistol. (It is the cover image of Eddie Adams: Vietnam.) It was a photo, Arnett notes in the opening of the book, that Adams "was sorry for." Adams would later commiserate with Nguyen (known to Americans as "General Loan") at a pizza parlor in Virginia operated by the former general, who immigrated to the United States with help from a friend in the CIA. Adams felt the photo had been used unfairly to vilify Nguyen and not only apologized for his picture but took great pains to excuse the general's actions. "General Loan was killing our so-called 'bad guys,' but the U.S. government kind of disowned him," Adams later lamented. In his introductory piece, Arnett recalls telling Adams that he had captured a moment of truth—executions were common but rarely photographed—yet "Eddie, Mister Patriot, just would not accept that. He enjoyed winning the Pulitzer Prize as well as the fame that came with it, but in his heart he felt that he had let the country down."
Adams, who served as a photographer in the Marines during the Korean War, was hardly critical of the US war in Vietnam and maintained a close relationship with the military. Yet while no equal of Philip Jones Griffiths's magisterial Vietnam Inc., a 1971 collection of more than 250 photos documenting the destruction of the Vietnamese people's way of life during the war, Eddie Adams: Vietnam almost inadvertently manages to convey the scale of Vietnamese suffering. When defending Nguyen, Adams noted that a picture can lie; yet it can also be said that multiple images can often offer a less cloudy vision of the truth. In Adams's book we see many disturbing scenes: a bound prisoner threatened with a bayonet; another with a spear at his throat; a noncombatant being punched; a woman beckoning Adams and fellow Americans to help her wounded husband, his arm vainly grasping at air as they fly away in their helicopter; a child suspect trussed up with a rifle trained on him, mangled bodies lying in the open; children crouching and wailing in fear as an armed US marine approaches them; a young girl, hands raised to the sides of her head, whose eyes lock on Adams's camera as she runs for cover; and a Saigon demonstrator being threatened with a bayonet.
Whatever his internal conflicts, Adams's fearlessness, skill and fine eye are evident in a picture he shot on April 25, 1965, in Quang Nam province. Crawling on his belly, Adams captured the abject terror on the faces of a mother, crouched low and clutching her baby, and a father, frightened and powerless, shielding his tiny child as marines, their weapons at the ready, stalk through their hamlet searching for the guerrillas who had fired at them from afar. That November, Adams pronounced the shot his favorite. Of all his many magnificent photos, including his iconic shot of the prisoner and Nguyen Ngoc Loan—which many consider the defining photograph of a conflict that produced not a few worthy contenders—this image may capture the essence of the American War as well as any other. The combination of helplessness and sheer terror in the parents' eyes, their inability to do any more for their children than to hold them close and act as human shields while a hulking group of heavily armed foreign teenagers draw fire and return it from their yard, says much about the American War in Vietnam and American warmaking in general.