Saturday, June 06, 2009

Vietnam: Strange Ground

At a dinner tonight I ended up seated next to an interesting older professor, a historian of modern SE Asia, probably in his sixties. A Yalie, he stayed in New Haven for graduate school, managing to avoid Vietnam despite being an Army officer with Ranger training. He had been a friend of mathematician Paul Olum, a highly esteemed president of the University of Oregon during the 1980's. (Olum and Feynman at Los Alamos.)

Talking with him about the Vietnam war reminded me of the oral history Strange Ground, by Harry Maurer, which I highly recommend. The recollections in the book read like the uncensored straight dope -- see, for example, this page.

Below is one of the few reviews of the book I could find online. I agree with the positive comments. As to the complaint that the book could have included interviews with Vietnamese or other participants of the war, well, the book is specifically about the American experience there.

Strange Ground is a collection of sixty seven first-hand accounts of the Vietnam war by Americans who were involved. It starts with an OSS mission to aid Ho Chi Minh against the Japanese near the end of World War II and finishes with the frantic evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The range of people included is immense — from alienated grunts in the infantry to gung-ho generals, from anti-war activists visiting North Vietnam to the wives of State Department officials in Saigon. The result is a broad sweeping view of the United States' involvement with Vietnam over three decades, but at the same time one with the feeling of immediacy that only such personal accounts can give.

My only dissatisfaction with this book was that it could have been so much better. As it stands it is like an album of photos of a tree: close up and wide-angle, black and white and colour, in sunlight and in shadow — but all taken from the same direction. Some of the Americans labelled all Vietnamese gooks and hated them, others felt the allure of Vietnamese culture and fell in love with the country. Nowhere, however, do we get any real idea about how these mysterious Vietnamese felt about the Americans. If Strange Ground had covered all the participants in the war — Viet Cong and ARVN and uncommitted peasants and French and North Vietnamese and Cambodians and even Australians — then it would have been a truly great book instead of just a very good one.

Strange Ground will be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the American experience in Vietnam.

No comments:

Blog Archive