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At the neighbourhood library, while paging through “BBC History” magazine I happened on an interview with Max Hastings about a book he’d just written on the Vietnam War. Having read some of Hastings’s other military history books, I thought it might be worth learning something more about a conflict more recent than World Wars One and Two. The first place I did look for information on the book was the area bookstore, supposing it might not be out in print over here yet. However, when I saw it was available in paperback in the store itself, I wound up buying a copy.

I’d heard before this about the documentary series from Ken Burns about the Vietnam War, but I’d also overheard dark suggestions that, having needed to take money from right-wing foundations, he’d had to go to lengths to try and make the cause look noble. (After having watched his Civil War series on Netflix, I then overheard suggestions he’d been charmed by Confederate sympathisers to the point of overfeaturing them, although maybe this risks becoming “too demanding.”) I did happen to notice the book’s introduction wrapping up mentioning Burns’s series, although Hastings did also say he was intent on including Vietnamese voices as the people who’d wound up stuck with what had happened. He’d also been “there at the time,” although he only featured in the book itself to the extent of appearing in the photo section as “Lyndon Johnson harangues journalists.”

The book covers thirty years of history, and in that sweep of time I suppose I kept finding out new details about periods I’d been at best generally familiar with before, then moving on to something else that would come to take up my attention. From the French attempts to retake what they didn’t yet think of as a former colony, I moved on to the entanglement of the Kennedy administration. (Hastings seemed skeptical John F. Kennedy was shifting towards leaving Vietnam, much less selling that to the American public at least before re-election, but he did bring up Lyndon Johnson had had the same chance at that.) A familiar comment that the Communists had come out of 1968’s Tet offensive in bad shape only for this to be missed in America did have me wondering if this was tilting towards encouraging the hawks, but from there I seemed genuinely surprised to read the entire Nixon administration had intended only to set up being able to leave the war in a way that would open a “decent interval” before North Vietnam conquered the south.

There is a lot of description throughout the book of what the war was like for the men fighting it in different ways, but in also describing what was happening to the Vietnamese Hastings sticks to the point things were better in South Vietnam, but far from good enough to be recognized by the average civilian and build something that could withstand the north. That the war involved countries not his own might give the book a sense of a broader perspective, but I suppose I’m also looking at it “from outside” even if the Vietnam War still sometimes seemed “the last war” in my own childhood depending on what I was looking at. It might have been a while later, though, before I really realised how some of the fiction I’d taken in then had been trying to refight it.

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