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Books in Review, November/December 2018

‘Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy’: A Big Book with a Big Problem

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975Some critics are raving about the British journalist and historian Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (Harper, 896 pp., $37.50). One called this mammoth tome the “definitive history” of the Vietnam War.

My verdict is decidedly less positive. On the plus side, the research is extensive and the history is fine. However, Hastings hasn’t come up with anything of significance that hasn’t appeared in many other Vietnam War histories. And there’s a much bigger problem: For some reason, Hastings demeans the service of American Vietnam War veterans and offers a preposterously wrong assessment of the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Hastings, who covered the war as a journalist, did an enormous amount of work in compiling this door stop of a book. All that research adds up to a mix of not-new history based primarily on secondary sources, along with quotes from oral histories and from more than a hundred interviews Hastings conducted. He says that the book is not an attempt to “chronicle or even mention every [Vietnam War] action.” Rather, the aim is to “capture the spirit of Vietnam’s experience” for the general reader.

In that regard, this is in many ways the printed-word equivalent of Ken Burns’ 2017 eighteen-hour PBS Vietnam War documentary—except Hastings has produced his history without the benefit of writers, researchers, and others Burns had on his payroll.

Both the doc and the book make effective use of first-person words by combatants and other witnesses to the war. And they both contain generally balanced pictures of the war’s heroes and villains on all sides, although Hastings tends to come down particularly hard on the Vietnamese communists.

Throughout the book Hastings blasts the “cruelties and follies,” as he puts it, of the enemy’s military and political leaders. But he also calls out their American and South Vietnamese counterparts, and the leaders of the American antiwar movement.

For example: “Whereas the Northern communists created a highly efficient police state, its workings veiled from the world,” South Vietnamese premier Ngo Dinh Diem “and his family built a ramshackle one, its cruelties conspicuous. This achieved some success in inspiring fear but almost none in securing respect.”

Hastings has some praise for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. But there’s also this: “Nixon’s heinous offense, in which Kissinger served as his instrument, was to sacrifice twenty-one thousand American lives [from 1969-73] and vastly more Vietnamese ones in military and diplomatic maneuvers designed not to benefit anyone in Indochina but the president’s political interests.”

Hastings offers glowing and harsh words about the U.S. news media. American newspaper and TV correspondents, he says, “got bang to rights [remember: He’s a Brit.] the shortcomings of the Diem regime and its successors, but gave nothing like the same attention to the blunders and horrors perpetrated by the communists.”

Fair enough.

However—and this is a gigantic “however”—amid many stories of bravery and selflessness by American troops, Hastings makes sweepingly misleading generalizations about millions of us who served in the war. Word of warning to Vietnam War veterans: You are about to read what may be the most wrong-headed criticism of your service ever written by an established, credible observer.

In a chapter section with the subhead “Warriors and Water Skiers,” Hastings lets the world know that Americans served for “just one year” and officers for “only six months” in the field. He concludes that the one-year rotation policy did little to help unit cohesion. That’s true.

But why qualify that service with the words “just” and “only”? It seems to me that this is a dismissive way of saying that American troops put themselves in harm’s way in Vietnam for “only” a limited amount of time. It would appear that he does not know that American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Air Force personnel faced all-but-constant peril during their twelve (thirteen for Marines) months in country, especially during the height of the war.

That is no exaggeration. Consider this fact that you won’t learn from Hastings’ book: More than 40,000 American service members (exact number: 40,042) lost their lives in Vietnam from 1967-69, according to the official National Archives statistics. That’s an average of just 256 deaths a week. Put another way, only an average of  thirty-six American service personnel died every day during that three-year period. That’s only more than one death every hour of every day..

And that’s in addition to more than 300,000 Americans who were wounded from 1964-73. Two more facts not in the book: 153,303 wounded Americans received hospital care and 150,341 were attended to by medics or corpsmen instead.

Then there’s Hastings’ echo of Burns’ dismissal of the service of American support troops: “Maybe two-thirds of the men who came home calling themselves veterans—entitled to wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles—had been exposed to no greater risk than a man might incur from ill-judged sex or ‘bad shit’ drugs.”

What does “calling themselves veterans” mean other than mocking someone who was not in an infantry unit for serving his or her country in a war? What does “wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles” mean? That the “two-thirds” who didn’t see combat on a daily basis in a deadly guerrilla war could not have been traumatized by the death and destruction that took place all around them? That we support troops do not deserve to wear the Vietnam Service Medal?

And I won’t even hazard a guess what Hastings means by comparing my service in the Vietnam War (and the service of hundreds of thousands of others) to having “ill-judged sex” or taking “bad shit drugs.”

Hastings goes on to inform the general reader that “Support, technical, and logistics personnel could serve in some giant base compound without seeing any Vietnamese except laundry women and bar girls, their worse gripe the stink of JP4 fuel and urinal pipes.” He quotes a “paratrooper” as saying that at Cam Ranh Bay there “was surfing. There was big cars being driven. There was women with fashionable clothes and men with suits on.”

Yes, many support troops served in “giant base compounds.” But many of them slept in tents on firebases in the boonies. Many of them also went out on guard duty, on reactionary forces, even on missions to clear perimeters. They all flew in helicopters over enemy-held territory. Does Hastings really believe that this is the equivalent of having “ill-judged sex”?

If so, I’d like him to tell that to the family of Spec.4 Stephen Allsopp, who served with me at the 527th Personnel Service Company in Qui Nhon. The 21-year-old Army clerk was blown up by a VC sapper while on guard duty in the early morning hours of May 8, 1968. Hastings might also let the general reader know that Allsopp’s name (on Panel 55E, Line 38) is among the hundreds of names of cooks, clerks, truck drivers, and other members of the “two-thirds” fraternity etched on The Wall in Washington, D.C.

This is not to even hint that support troops faced anything like the dangers that infantry units in the field did almost every day during their (only) one-year tours of duty. My point here is that these dismissive generalizations about hundreds of thousands of Americans who served their country in Vietnam unconscionably mocks that service—and I would not be doing my job if I did not point that out in a review of this book for an audience of Vietnam War veterans.

Things only get worse when Hastings briefly addresses the issue of Agent Orange and its byproduct dioxin TCDD, one of the most toxic chemical compounds ever synthesized. After noting that “almost twenty-million gallons” of AO was sprayed in Vietnam, he says it is “hard to doubt that some Vietnamese and perhaps Americans, too, suffered ill effects.”

The phrase “perhaps some Americans” is ill-informed at best. But Hastings then doubles down on his doubts about the health effects of exposure to the chemical.

For “humans to suffer serious harm they would have needed to face heavy sustained exposure to dioxins on a scale that relatively few did,” he tells us. How does he know this? He first quotes “an ARVN veteran” who “recently noted that he and his comrades constantly handled defoliants, broadcasting them from hand-pump sprayers without ill effects.”

But that proves nothing. It’s akin to saying that because a person chain-smoked for sixty years and died in bed of old age that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer and other serious health problems.

Hastings goes on to cite a recent study of Australian Vietnam War veterans “which found the chemical not guilty.” He mentions “rival masses of contradictory evidence” on AO-caused cancers and other health issues and concludes with: “The defoliant was indisputably a loathsome instrument; yet that does not make it necessary to accept the more extreme claims about is effects on human beings exposed to it.”

Then he drops the subject.

Memo to Max Hastings: There are no “masses of contradictory evidence.” Exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin TCDD has been linked to a long list of cancers and other serious health conditions.

The NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences classifies TCDD as “a known cancer-causing agent.” Exposure to dioxin, NIH says, has been linked to “other diseases, including type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and chloracne, as well as developmental problems in children, reproductive and infertility problems in adults, and immune system damages.

These are anything but “extreme claims.”

Which is why the VA acknowledges that every person who was in Vietnam after the spraying began in 1962 was exposed to the extreme dangers of dioxin through the water supply. In other words, if you drank the water, brushed your teeth, or took a shower in Vietnam during the war, you were exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin.

That includes newspaper correspondents.

Arts Update


As 2018 comes to a close, two exceptional museum exhibits dealing with the Vietnam War also will end—and an expansive new veterans museum has opened its doors.

The National Archives’ “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit, which opened to the public the day before Veterans Day 2017 in Washington, D.C., closes January 6. The extensive exhibit shows off an important collection of documents and photographs from the Archives’ Vietnam War collection. That includes a 1946 telegram from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman asking for U.S. help in his war against France, and the actual August 10, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

There also are many old and newly discovered photographs, as well as sections devoted to POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, women Vietnam War veterans, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the war’s lessons, and the service of Vietnam War veterans. For more info, go to their website

“The Marines and Tet” exhibit at the Newseum in D.C, which opened in January and closes on December 31, is built around the photographs of John Olson, a former Stars and Stripes Army photographer. Olson, who received VVA’s Excellence in the Arts Award at the 2018 Leadership Conference, spent three days with the U.S. Marines in Hue. His photograph of a tank carrying wounded Marines in Hue is one of the most celebrated combat images of the Vietnam War. He won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his work.

To learn more about Olson’s work in Hue and with the exhibit, go to www.tet1968.com or the exhibit’s page on the Newseum’s website

The National Veterans Memorial and Museum opened to the public October 27 in Columbus, Ohio. The 53,000-square-foot museum’s mission is to honor the service of American veterans and their families. The opening ceremonies included remarks from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and a keynote speech by Gen. Colin Powell, who chairs the museum’s Board of Advisors. For more info on the $82-million museum, a public-private partnership built by the Columbus Development Downtown Corporation, go to www.nationalvmm.org






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