- Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides
Scholars of the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) know that Christian G. Appy's Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993) relied heavily on his interviews with approximately one hundred U.S. combat veterans and his participation in a veterans' rap group throughout much of the 1980s. Appy has now broadened his focus well beyond American veterans to produce a riveting oral history of the war that includes many—though not all—sides. The "voices" are almost exclusively American and Vietnamese, with no representation from other important participants such as the Chinese, Soviets, South Koreans, or Australians.
But what treasures among the American and Vietnamese "voices"! Unfolding in a roughly chronological order from the war's nebulous origins in the 1940s to the last helicopter leaving the American Embassy in Saigon in April 1975, each of the 135 interviews helps in understanding the war's complexity and its aftereffects. The interviewees range from policymakers and [End Page 562] strategists to American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese "grunts"; from journalists and filmmakers to a North Vietnamese doctor who performed surgeries under a light from a bicycle-powered generator; and from CIA operatives and the war's first Medal of Honor recipient to antiwar organizers. By including those who protested against the war among the patriots, Appy compels readers to grapple with the definition of patriotism.
Insight and sharp-edged emotion abound on every page. For example, General William C. Westmoreland acknowledged that the war was unpopular simply because "our national interest was not at stake" (p. 540), while Barry Zorthian, the director of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office from 1964–68, recognized that "we lost the war on the ground, that's all. The idea that the press lost the war is bunk" (p. 293). Especially poignant testimony comes from those who suffered the most, the Vietnamese (if the U.S. lost the same proportion of its population as Vietnam, the Memorial Wall would contain more than twelve million names). The war, said North Vietnam's Ta Quang Thinh, who received crippling wounds in 1967, "was not only cruel, it was absurd. Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms. Don't you think that's absurd?" (p. 21). And Huynh Phuong Dong, a North Vietnamese physician who did not see her husband for a decade because he was serving in the south, noted that "the wounds of the past are not easy to forget" (p. 331). Every interviewee demonstrated, in one way or another, the truth of her judgment.
Although the interviews are the book's heart, they would not pump as much rich blood as they do without Appy's introductions to each chapter and interview. Collectively, these thoughtful and elegantly written mini-essays demonstrate astute editorial acumen in providing just the right amount of information to place events and individuals in their proper context.
Those who teach about the Vietnam/American War and want to generate deep thought, intense discussion, and enlightened understanding among their students could do no better than to assign this book.