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on 16 January 2014
Forget Stanley Karnow's Pulitzer prize winning Vietnam: A History, or Neil Sheehan's much celebrated A Bright Shining Lie, Canadian historian Gabriel Kolko's "Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience" is quite simply the best general history of the American war in Vietnam. As the title suggests this work is primarily a work of analysis, taking the reader from the Japanese occupation towards the end of World War 2 right through to the American defeat in 1975, it eschews the minutiae of specific battles or personalities for a total analysis of North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the United States including everything from the economic to the political, military capabilities and doctrine, quality of leadership, the structures of both societies and the international context within which the war was fought, as well as how all those factors interacted and changed over time.

The reader will leave this book with a pretty comprehensive understanding of the nature of the war that the Americans took over from the French in the mid 1950's and brutally prosecuted for over twenty years, and a considerable degree of respect and admiration for the quality of the North Vietnamese leadership, the North Vietnamese people as a whole and those who fought year after year in the southern half of the divided country against the unprecedented destructive power of the U.S. military allied with a corrupt, incompetent, bankrupt (morally and financially) South Vietnamese Government who couldn't exist without American backing. If the book has any faults it is in a degree of repetition, though to be fair that didn't become an issue until I re-read it for the third time.

The Phoenix edition of 2001 also includes a forty odd page postscript detailing developments in Vietnam after their victory in 1975, in which the normally sober minded Kolko brutally dissects the regimes market-"socialism" policy which he more or less regards as a massive betrayal of all the millions of Vietnamese who fought and died to liberate their country and build a decent and fair society.

I heartily recommend "Anatomy of a War" to anyone wishing to understand that war, and not only that war as the analytical methods that Kolko deploys so well here can be usefully applied to other conflicts.
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