Sunday, February 12, 2012

Forum- Book Reviews Written and Edited by Undergraduate Students - We Were There: Vietnam - Hal Buell, Ed. - Reviewed by Luke Rogers

We Were There: Vietnam. Edited by Hal Buell, New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007.

ISBN #978-1579125981

Reviewed by Luke Rogers

Ashland University

We Were There: Vietnam is a valuable text for anyone seriously interested in the Vietnam era. In this text, several journalists including Hal Buell, Malcolm W. Browne, and Tim O’Brien combine their testimonies with poignant photographs to help readers reach their own conclusions about warfare, war in the 20th century, and causes for war.

The narrators of We Were There were embedded among American or allied soldiers during the Vietnam War and as a result, their testimonies are excellent evidence of what life was like for the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. For example, Browne recalls an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) attack on a small South Vietnamese village. The ARVN commander leading the attack assured Browne the village he and his men were decimating with automatic assault rifles was situated in sections of the countryside that “[H]ave been Vietcong strongholds for years.”[1] After reading this passage, readers are forced to reflect on the nature of war and specifically, guerilla warfare. Maybe that South Vietnamese hut was actually a Vietcong information center. On the other hand, maybe that ARVN leader needed to report some sort of activity to his superior officers. Maybe those South Vietnamese peasants voluntarily allowed the Vietcong to cache weapons in their hut. However, perhaps the peasants only complied because the Vietcong would kill them if they refused. Browne’s essay does a tremendous job of demonstrating that there are no easy answers. In summation, Browne’s account guides readers into examining the positive and negative consequences of war and considering the specific difficulties associated with guerilla and counter-insurgency tactics.

Buell’s contribution, “The Napalm Girl” discusses the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Kim Phuc, and makes readers wonder about the marriage between technology and warfare in the 20th century. This text touches on the historically accurate fear that atomic war could erupt at any moment. We Were There also examines the devastating human and environmental effects of napalm. These discussions help examine the maturation of weapons of mass destruction and humankind’s response to that maturation. The illumination of the past helps leads future generations.

Finally, an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s “If I Die in a Combat Zone” raises questions about the causes of conflict in Southeast Asia. The United States went to war with Japan because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. However, the question of why the United States went to war in Southeast Asia has divided the scholarly and secular world for decades. Did America go to war to make the world safe for democracy? Did the United States intervene in Southeast Asia in order to preserve “its production of materials that the world needs” [2] as President Eisenhower alleged in a 1954 press conference? The irresolute nature of the Vietnam era is perhaps best surmised by O’Brien. O’Brien asked an experienced soldier in his company of soldiers how many soldiers had been killed or wounded in the company before O’Brien arrived. While his comrade would not have access to exact numbers, he would have been able to estimate effectively. Instead, O’Brien’s mentor answered, “It was best not to worry” [3] and assured O’Brien everything would be fine.

While I would recommend this book, I would recommend it only to mature readers with serious interest in the Vietnam War and warfare in the 20th century. I use the word mature because the graphic photographs of Buddhist monks’ self-immolation in protest of Diem’s repressive religious reforms, the execution style shooting of soldiers and civilians, wounded soldiers during battle, and the searing effects of napalm are not appropriate for children and might disturb casual readers.

[1] Buell, We Were There, 2.

[2] Peters, Gerhard. “The President’s News Conference April 7, 1954.” The American Presidency Project. 1999-2011.

[3] Buell, We Were There 238.

FORUM - A Book Review by and for Undergraduate StudentsThe Vietnam War: A Concise International History - Reviewed by Luke Rogers

The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. Mark Atwood Lawrence, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN #978-0-19-975393

Reviewed by Luke Rogers

Ashland University

The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, attempts to explain the causes, examine the course, and reflect on the consequences of international warfare in Vietnam.

Lawrence introduces his work with several questions, but then gives the text direction by narrowing his thesis to four major questions. For example, “First, what were the basic motives of the Vietnamese who fought against the United States?” [1] Perhaps more importantly, the author establishes positive rapport with readers by affording them intellectual independence. Lawrence concludes the introduction with, “If the book brings greater awareness to ongoing debates over the Vietnam War, its mission will be accomplished. If it sparks interest in further reading about the war and its meaning, so much the better” [2].

Lawrence begins his investigation with a brief summary of foreign intervention in Vietnam. A constant theme is the maturation of Vietnamese nationalism. For example, there was widespread resentment against the Chinese among the different factions of Vietnamese society. That resentment transitioned from the Chinese to the French and eventually to the American presence. Throughout the rest of the text, Lawrence simultaneously analyzes the American, South Vietnamese, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and Russian rationales for independent and interdependent decisions in warfare and politics. For example, Lawrence explains how American President Lyndon Johnson believed the United States could achieve victory by escalating bombing in North Vietnam and increasing American ground troops in South Vietnam. On the other hand, the North Vietnamese believed they could force an American withdraw by absorbing American fire power and waging successful guerilla campaigns. Lawrence uses this compelling combination to examine all the major events from initial European interloping into Southeast Asia to the fall of Saigon. Lawrence also analyzes the effects of foreign policy and conflict on American domestic culture.

The author is one of America’s leading Vietnam scholars and as a result, the evidence he presents in support of his thesis is reliable and accurate. Lawrence makes his thesis even more compelling by varying the type of evidence he uses to support it. For example, Lawrence utilizes primary sources, secondary sources, photographs, political cartons, and time-specific maps to examine all aspects of the wars in Vietnam. Finally, Lawrence encourages the reader to further verify his thesis by providing extensive footnotes and a continued reading list.

I would recommend this book to any adult interested in the Vietnam era. Lawrence effectively communicates relevant information without burdening the reader with unnecessarily detailed tangents. For example, Lawrence explains necessary military abbreviations such as ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, LZ, landing zone, and NLF, National Liberation Front, without bombarding the reader with an endless stream of military jargon. Finally, I would recommend this book to any student enrolled in a modern American history and or political science class. In an interesting addendum, Lawrence compares and contrasts the socio-political and military circumstances of yesterday’s Cold War and today’s War on Terror.

[1] Lawrence, The Vietnam War, 4.

[2] Lawrence, The Vietnam War, 6.