I was a young child living in America from 1965- 68. Although too young to make an informed judgement myself, nonetheless, the Vietnam War created an indelible impression on me. Every television and radio bulletin carried a butcher’s bill of the number of American , and North Vietnamese Army/ Viet Cong, casualties that day. The number was invariably high.
Television news carried colour footage of B52 / Superfortress bombing raids in which sticks of high explosive tumbled lazily out of bomb bays, of missile traces from F1-11’s and Phantoms, of vast artillery barrages, the gunners muffling their ears from each round delivery as a toddler might mask their ears at a firework display, and, of course, of the ubiquitous Huey Cobra helicopters sweeping into, or away from, action, infantrymen’s legs dangling , catching the cool air.
The peace movement was gaining traction. The popular reflex response was to brand anti -war demonstrators as traitors and commies.
Back in the UK in ‘68 I was struck by how the war was covered so prominently by the British News corporations. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, it was the first televised war to which the Americans afforded a level of journalistic freedom which they, and no-on else, would ever repeat.
Anti- war demonstrations also spread from America, to London and Paris. The March ‘68 Grosvenor Square demo in London was the tipping point in the UK against a war which Harold Wilson had wisely refused to become involved in, a snub which festered for years, and manifested itself in the US’s refusal to assist Britain in the Falklands War conflict.
An accident of language meant that the “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids have you kicked today,” and “Ho, ho – ho chi min” chants resonated and stuck in the chants of protestors, and were difficult to ignore.
Khe San, the Battle for Hue, the Tet offensive, the Ho Chi Minh Trail ,all ingrained themselves into my childhood consciousness and remain to this day.
At 650, densely packed pages, working your way through this book can sometimes feel like hacking your way through the jungle. Completing the book feels like fighting the entire campaign. But with a difference. For the protagonists there were no victors, for the reader a profound sense of satisfaction at having completed the work.
Hastings has been assiduous in his sources, far beyond the obvious in North and South Vietnam and America. First person testimony from American CIA operatives, and Russian Advisor veterans, as well as recently declassified Chinese material all adds to the mix.
I was surprised by his antipathy, and occasional hostility to Kissinger. The evolution of the US, and world, anti war movement is inadequately covered, no mention of Grosvenor Square London, or Paris, protests is made. Yet at some point in any book you have to make decisions about how much any reader can digest in one tome. That subject is a book in itself.
Hastings writing has the air of authority of a man who was there – he was. His style is not as easy as his contemporary history rival, Antony Beevor, instead we have a dense, fact heavy, analysis, a journalistic report rather than a critical overview, which is not to say that he does not make numerous, cogently argued, arguments.
His case that militarily the US did well, but politically it was doomed, is well made. His description of a dysfunctional, corrupt, incapable South Vietnamese regime is compelling, as is his point that the differences between South Korea and South Vietnam were slight, but one prospered, and one failed. The tight, secretive, disciplined, regimented, focussed approach of the North ensure that few of their failures or shortcomings became known within their own country, let alone beyond. In the South, the liberal, lazy, undisciplined, but open, regime unwittingly became PR for the North as every setback was beamed back into American and world living rooms on evening television news broadcasts.
There are numerous vignettes which ease the readers’ journey. The image of an Aussie soldier, caught mid defaecation, returning fire with his trousers down is a memorable one, as is the Australian minefield efforts being undermined by their opponents simply digging them up, and using them against their erstwhile owners.
The logistics of the war are fascinating, The Americans had more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. B52 raids were made from Thailand which was political sensitive but practically welcome. The raids from Guam involved eighteen hour round trips from a base operating at four times its designed personnel capacity.
This is a journalist’s take on a military campaign. He is uncompromising in his condemnation of an American regime which allowed thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to die when the futility of the endeavour was beyond doubt. Intriguingly he reveals that neither China nor Russia were as ideologically committed to Vietnam as the Americans thought, their influence much less than the Americans imagined.
Wartime Saigon is meticulously, and fondly, described. Awash with American war dollars, contraband, hustlers, US materiel, political intrigue, whores, brothels, liquor and drugs. The seamy side of the conflict is not dodged , fragging, drug addiction, cowardice , racial tension and corruption grew as the futility of the war became more apparent. But so also is the heroism of many recorded, on all sides. A significant number of American soldiers steadfastly did their duty. The North Vietnamese stoically accepted an appalling attrition rate of 10:1 knowing that each American body carried a far greater political value than numerical value, rightly confident that they could carry their losses, while the Americans could not carry theirs.
Hasting’s point that the open access that the Americans afforded the world media juxtaposed with the minimal, strictly controlled access that the North Vietnamese afforded the media, damaged the United States and put them at an unfair disadvantage is well made. If the cruelty and privations of life in the North had been better known, the resolve of the South to resist, and the compliance of the North’s citizens may all have been affected.
The Americans lost the war, yet post unification, the result was not as had been feared. After the inevitable blood-letting, the North’s organisation was welcome, the South’s more laissez faire modus vivendi embraced quietly, but with enthusiasm.
For practical purposes Hastings has written the definitive history of the Vietnam military campaign.