on 24 March 2005
Examine every Hollywood film ever released about the American war, every column ever written in every major western newspaper ,every documentary ever composed and see what they all have in common. Some will view the war as right but see it as a mistake, either a poor assessment of the risks by the US government or a failing of the press to fulfill their 'civic duty', usually the latter. The second group is much larger but equally unrepresentative of the markets they claim to serve. They also view the war as a mistake and believe that the motivations for war were honorable but view this instance as being pragmatically unsuitable. What both groups have in common is their depiction of the root causes of the thousands of war crimes committed by US forces in South East Asia as being the fault of 'bad apples,' psychopathic rank and file soldiers who brought out the evil that exists in all of us.
Neill sets out to destroy both politically correct discourses and does so with precise impunity. He first of all points out that before the January68 the entire commercial press reported the Vietnam war exactly as the generals desired. A response to the thuggish brutality of the communist north to destroy the freedoms of the helpless but grateful peasants of the south. January68 was the month of the Tet offensive when the Viet Cong stormed every major city in South Vietnam, shattering the lies of the US army press releases of a Vietcong on the retreat.
This does not mean as would often be assumed that he is uncritical of the Vietcong. He rightly attributes the defeat of the Vietcong as being down to the deeply flawed politics of the leadership. They couldn't organize among the urban working class in the south. All working class organizations had been banned in the USSR backed north. To convince the Vietcong to build working class organizations would have undermined their own dictatorship. So there was no proletarian insurrection to join the peasant guerrillas and the war dragged on for another 7 years with no decisive outcomes.
The atrocities committed by US troops are also put in their right context. Yes there were those among them who enjoyed violence, but he shows why in this situation their behaviour encouraged by such compulsory practices as cutting of the ears of those who had been killed. It was also made clear by the generals that shooting civilians to fulfill body count targets set by the white house would be rewarded.
He also shows that after the Tet Offensive 80% or more of US citizens have consistently viewed the war as 'fundamentally wrong' and not as a mere mistake. The analyses and facts of this book offer an extremely rare insight into the brutal war and put it firmly in its context.
on 27 April 2012
Impassioned, emotive, and rather sketchy, this is not so much a narrative of the Vietnam war as an attempt to draw it together with the contemporary US civil rights movement (of which the author was a member) and portray it as an expression of the anxiety of the American establishment about the domestic rise of socialism.
It relies heavily on anecdotes from published sources and, whilst these are often hard-hitting, they are not enough to establish his argument. He wants you to believe - and says as much - that a thesis set out in plain and simple terms (and which criticises everybody even-handedly) must be correct; but that approach can be a bluff. Whilst the parallels between fear of left-wing dissent at home and that of communism abroad are there for all to see, Neale does not actually establish a connection between the two - it all remains at the level of speculative assertion.
It's the same trouble Leftist historians have had since Lenin: when you have the 'see who benefits' theory to explain everything, who needs to bother with evidence? And what subsequent history proves, if anything, is that Americans didn't really protest against Vietnam because they opposed imperialism or wanted socialism; what they opposed (understandably enough) was the personal risk of getting killed. They remain happy for their government to do what it likes around the world, provided they aren't subjected to that risk again.
An interesting book, then, but not an authoratitive one.
on 16 April 2013
It was my first and only read into the Vietnam war, the book provides not only a good insight to the war but also the associated history of Vietnam which makes the book far more interesting. I enjoyed Jonathan's style of writing, I would highly recommend this book to people who want to understand why the Vietnam war started and an insight into the American solders and wider public views about the conflict.