‘For years now there had been no country here but war’, wrote Michael Herr at the beginning of Dispatches, his classic account of Vietnam. Not a war without end but – more corrosive and maddening – a war without beginning.
There are no precise origins for the Indochina tragedy. Some look back to the Japanese occupation of the Second World War; others prefer 1954 and the battlefield humiliation of the French at Dien Bien Phu; for America it mainly started in 1961, or perhaps 1965. But once it got going the war machine could do everything but stop – or win – until Communist forces seized control of South Vietnam in 1975. And for decades afterwards no one wanted to talk about what happened.
Max Hastings has spent years piecing together what happened, interviewing participants on both sides (Vietcong guerrillas, Southern paratroopers, Saigon bar-girls, Hanoi students, infantrymen from South Dakota, Marines from North Carolina, Huey pilots from Arkansas), researching American and Vietnamese documents and memoirs, comparing testimony from warlords and peasants, soldiers and statesmen.
An overwhelming tragedy for the Vietnamese people – of whom forty died for every one of the 58,000 American dead – and who paid a bitter price in privation and oppression for the Northerners’ victory. Equally a tragedy which divided America as never before, destroyed one president and contributed to the downfall of another, and delivered a lasting blow to America’s moral standing and pretensions to invincibility.
Was it a struggle which neither side clearly deserved to win? And have we forgotten its lessons about the use of military might to confront intractable political and cultural challenges? Come and listen to Max Hastings’s verdict, and to his evocation of a hot war played out by big powers amid jungle and paddy-field – as proxy for a Cold War which has never gone away.