Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History - Told From All Sides

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am

Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History - Told From All Sides

by Christian G. Appy

Ebury Press, HK$272

Critics skewer comparisons of Iraq and Vietnam wars as glib. But even Vietnam-era US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who deems the Iraq war unwinnable, has highlighted parallels.

This oral history furthers the argument that history is messily repeating itself. Just look at the statement about US ambassador Graham Martin: 'Martin had been sent to Vietnam because a lot of his critics and admirers thought he was the next best thing to a B-52. He was headstrong and absolutely impervious to persuasion,' says ex-CIA agent Frank Snepp, raising the spectre of outgoing Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld.

The enemy in Vietnam appear familiar, too. 'They could lick their wounds and come back and fight another day at their time and place,' says journalist H.D.S. Greenway. 'They weren't fighting to win every battle, but to wear us down and outlast us.'

Elsewhere, a South-Vietnamese combat photographer, a student political activist, a Berkeley Chinese-studies administrator, a Hanoi diplomat, and a Playboy Playmate pop up along with draft dodgers and artists. Vietnam purports to be the definitive word-of-mouth account of the longest war in US history, which claimed some three million lives.

The Domesday Book-like chronicle stems from an America-wide investigation by Christian Appy, the holder of a doctor's degree in American civilisation who's taught at Harvard and written a previous non-fiction Vietnam epic, Working-Class War. The result sheds light on areas neglected by Hollywood.

Take, for example, how South Vietnam buckled before the final North Vietnamese onslaught in 1974. According to Snepp, who flew over South Vietnam's five northernmost provinces, soldiers ditched their weapons and headed into the sea. 'It was total, utter panic ... Thousands of soldiers were in the surf,' he says.

Another eye-opening perspective comes from Louisiana-born reporter Yusef Komunyakaa, who claims no movie has ever done justice to the black presence. As many as 15 black GIs supposedly threw themselves on hand grenades to save their comrades, says Komunyakaa. 'You can't rehearse yourself for that kind of action. What is it in the psyche that would make one do that?' he asks.

Valour surfaces far less than terror in this collection, however, making it emphatically anti-war. Some episodes border on unbearable.

A female North Vietnamese sniper called Tran Thi Gung tells how, after she shot a GI, friends who rushed to his aid started crying. 'They cried a lot,' she says. 'This made them sitting ducks.' In another distressing scene, Snepp - a particularly open source - admits that he probably made his Vietnamese sweetheart, Mai Ly, pregnant. Just before the 1974 collapse, Mai Ly rings, asking him to get her out of the country or the communists will kill her and their baby. Immersed in a report for Ambassador Martin, Snepp asks her to ring back in an hour but misses the call, apparently triggering the promised consequences.

Like many Americans, Snepp focused on getting the job done at the expense of people, he confesses in retrospect. The cumulative effect of tortured voices like his is all the more harrowing because of the stupidity behind their predicament.

Paul Kattenburg recalls the 'abysmal ignorance' around the table at a National Security Council Executive Committee meeting. 'They didn't know what they were talking about. It was robot thinking,' Kattenburg says.

His aspersions amplify a declaration made by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh in a Montreal Mirror interview this year. The US bombed North Vietnam 'to keep the hordes of Red China from coming, not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought wars for 2,000 years and would fight one four years after the war was over', Hersh said.

The message is clear: just like the current fiasco, the Vietnam war was founded on little but arrogance. This book reads like a plea for sustained and humane critical thinking.