5 March 2015

The 10 Best Memoirs of the Vietnam War

March 3, 2015

Recently I posted my picks for the best histories of the Vietnam War. While those books all provide excellent analyses of the war, another way to understand U.S. involvement in Vietnam is through the personal stories of those who lived it, whether on the battlefields or in the halls of power back in Washington. Here are my picks for the ten best memoirs of the Vietnam War:

Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (1977). Caputo was a young U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant who landed on the beach near Da Nang on March 8, 1965 as part of the first U.S. combat unit to serve in South Vietnam. He spent two years in the country, and in A Rumor of War he explains “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.”

Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers(2002). Ellsberg explains why he leaked thePentagon Papers, the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam commissioned at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The publication of the papers led the U.S. Supreme Court to hand down anhistoric ruling on the First Amendmentand provided ample evidence that the Johnson administration had misled the American public on the course of the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977). Herr draws on his experiences covering Vietnam for Esquire to paint a picture of a futile war that left men looking for ways to combat their fear and hopelessness. Time magazine named Dispatches one of the one hundred best non-fiction books of all-time. Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, one of the great movies about the Vietnam War.

Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), andYears of Renewal (1999). Kissinger’s three-volume memoir covers far more than events in Vietnam. But his recounting of his time first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state is essential for understanding the strategy the Nixon administration pursued in trying to achieve “peace with honor.”

Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War (2011). In 1968, Marlantes gave up his Rhodes Scholarship to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote What It Is Like to Go to War “primarily to come to terms with my own experience of combat.” The New Yorkernamed it one of itsfavorite books for 2011.

Robert S. McNamara (with Brian VanDeMark), In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). As secretary of defense, McNamara had a greater impact on America’s entry into the Vietnam War than any U.S. official other than President Lyndon Johnson. In Retrospect is his attempt to explain what we can learn from the mistakes of the Vietnam War. His confession of his own errors hardly satisfied his critics, of which there are many.

Wallace Terry, Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History(1984). Terry covered the Vietnam War for Time magazine. But Bloods isn’t his story. It is instead an oral history of twenty black men who served in the Vietnam, shining light on the particular challenges black soldiers and marines faced during the war.

William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports(1976). Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, argues that the war was lost, not because of his failures, but because Washington failed to give him the resources he needed. The New York Times wrotethat A Soldier Reports “does not explore the moral aspects of the war and displays virtually no understanding of the struggle as seen from the United States. But therein lies much of the book’s value; this is the view from inside the whale.”

Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War(1994). Wolff joined the U.S. Army at the age of 19 and was sent to Vietnam. Unlike most war memoirs, his does not recount harrowing experiences on the battlefield. His time in South Vietnam wassurprisingly uneventful.

Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Elmo Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son(1986). As Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. ordered the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant, to clear river banks in the Mekong Delta. A decade later, his son, Elmo Zumwalt III, who patrolled the delta’s rivers as a young lieutenant, contracted cancer, in all likelihood because of his exposure to Agent Orange. The admiral and his son, who died in 1988 at the age of forty-two, tell their story in My Father, My Son.

These ten books are by no means the only Vietnam memoirs worth reading. I could easily suggest another ten great memoirs. Plus, there are memoirs like those of President Johnson (Vantage Point, 1971) and President Richard Nixon (The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 1978) that aren’t devoted to Vietnam but have a lot to say about the war. So if you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.

James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) where he oversees the work of the more than six dozen fellows in the David Rockefeller Studies Program.

This piece was first posted on CFR's blog The Water's Edge here.

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