|Vietnam Veterans of America|
An Extraordinary, Revealing Look at the Legacy of the Vietnam War—in Vietnam
In 1984 William Broyles, then the editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine, returned to the country where he served as a 24-year-old U.S. Marine Corps platoon commander in 1969. After he came home, Broyles wrote a book about it. His Brothers in Arms, published in 1986, is “part memoir, part narrative, part history,” Broyles wrote. It also is a pioneering and insightfully written look at Vietnam, the country, in the mid-eighties as it struggled to overcome the painful legacies of the American war.
George Black, a veteran British writer and author, brings up Brothers in Arms several times in his brilliant, illuminating new book, The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam (Knopf, 496 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). Black spent nine years researching and writing this book, during which he made eight reporting trips to Vietnam. He has produced—with apologies to Bill Broyles—a book that is part travelogue, part journalistic narrative, and part history.
At its heart, The Long Reckoning is, as its title indicates, a thorough account of the repercussions of the American war in Vietnam. Even as that country has rapidly modernized and enjoys a thriving tourism-heavy economy, many Vietnamese continued to be affected by being exposed to Agent Orange, as well as the consequences of unexploded U.S. bombs and other ordnance—and to a lesser but significant extent, the issue of accounting for American and Vietnamese MIAs.
Black proves to be an accomplished historian of the Vietnam War. He offers, for example, revealing insights into how communist military strategy changed drastically after hardliners led by Le Duan, the head of North Vietnam’s Communist Party, wrested control of the war effort from the famed Gen. Vo Nguyen (the mastermind of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu) and the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. And Black delivers an in-depth history and razor-sharp analysis of what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as the importance of geography and climate in the outcome of the war.
As Black shows, the Trail and Vietnam’s physical characteristics were particularly crucial in the outcome of the war in the area in which the book focuses on, the forbidding and notorious A Shau Valley in the Central Highlands. Situated about 30 miles west of Hue, the often fog-shrouded and menacing valley was bracketed during the war by the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail just over the border in Laos.
“Those who served in the A Shau, or merely knew of its dark associations,” Black writes, “agreed that it was the most terrifying place” in South Vietnam. “Even the toughest soldiers [and Marines] took to calling it the Ah Shit Valley or the Valley of Death.”
Black’s Vietnam War history and his sharply observed depictions of the 21st century Vietnamese landscape and the country’s society and culture serve primarily as deep background for the book’s main focus. It is the story of how during the last 30 years or so a relatively small group of American, Canadian, and Vietnamese scientists, academics, politicians, private foundations, nongovernmental agencies, and Vietnam War veterans have worked with the Vietnamese and U.S. governments to ameliorate the “multiple horrors” that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians—mainly peasant families in the countryside—have faced, primarily the ongoing effects of exposure to Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance.
Black’s touchstones throughout this tale are two extraordinary Vietnam War veterans, Chuck Searcy, an Army intelligence analyst during his 1967-68 tour of duty in Saigon, and Manus Campbell, “a Marine grunt from Bayonne, New Jersey” who served a combat-heavy tour in I Corps and has battled with post-traumatic stress ever since.
Both men wound up living in Vietnam and working selflessly and effectively to help ease the scars of war in that country. Searcy, a VVA life member, moved to Vietnam in 1995 and basically never left. He has worked in Vietnam for the post-VVA Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and for Veterans for Peace.
Searcy, as Black shows in no uncertain terms, has been an integral player in the ultimately successful 30-plus-year effort that has resulted in the U.S. and Vietnam working together effectively on MIA accounting and on Agent Orange. Campbell returned to Vietnam, Black says, “to confront his inner demons and help in modest ways to aid those he called the invisible victims of war — disabled kids and orphans, including those presumed to have been sickened by… Agent Orange.”
VVA, by the way, plays a role in the book, starting with founding President Bobby Muller’s work on reconciliation issues in the early 1980s. Current President Jack McManus, who was assigned to the gigantic USAF Operation Ranch Hand AO spraying program in Vietnam, gets a mention for his work helping to identify many sites that were inundated with Agent Orange.
Black at times tends to get a bit too deeply into the detailed weeds of the many complicated and complex efforts over three decades to study the impact of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam. But that’s a minor flaw in a book that is an invaluable addition to cataloguing the ongoing legacy of the Vietnam War among American veterans — and in Vietnam.
The French historian and filmmaker Éric Vuillard’s An Honorable Exit (Other Press, 160 pp. $23.99), first published in French in 2022, is a passionate, impressionistic, compact account of the First Indochina War, which began at the end of World War II and ended when Ho Chi Minh and his communist-led Vietminh revolutionaries defeated the French in 1954.
In this mostly serviceable English translation by Mark Polizzotti, Vuillard spins out his story without providing footnotes or citing sources, and with partly imagined portraits of French military, political, and business leaders. Throughout, he reads his subjects’ minds, makes up patches of dialogue, and lapses into first-person musings. And he emphasizes the venality, vanity, racism, and greed of the French, which led to the humiliating defeat that ended that nation’s longtime colonial rule in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
This account — which frustratingly to an American reader, often uses only the last names of French politicians and military figures — will be of little use to historians or serious students of the wars in Indochina. On the other hand, anyone who subscribes to Vuillard’s virulent distaste for the French war-making machinery and the directors of the powerful Banque de l’Indo-Chine (the Bank of Indochina) who mercilessly exploited the colonies since the bank was formed in 1875, will find much to admire in this stinging indictment of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.
|The VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring, MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us