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.

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