Other reviewers have coupled this book with Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (Flamingo) and I would agree that both are essential reads in order to understand the Vietnam War (or, as Bao Ninh would phrase it, the American War). But by the time O'Brien joined the ill-fated Americal Division in Quang Ngai province in 1969, most of the American troops were quite cynical about the war. The subject quote is how Bao Ninh chooses to end the book, which triggers comparisons with We Were Soldiers Once...And Young: The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam And both have either portions, or are entirely set in the Central Highlands. They are also quite different books, with Moore & Galloway's book being more straight military history, tactics et al., whereas Bao Ninh's addresses the inner spirit, but both capture that element of the war that was dominant in 1965, the youth, naiveté, and idealistic purpose of the initial participants. Another reviewer entitled his: "The All Quiet on the Western Front of the Vietnam War." And that too is a valid, and excellent comparison, for both books capture the terrible sense of dislocation that the participants of long wars feel in terms of ever fitting back into the life of a civilian society that they had left. Bao Dinh captured that sense, not only of dislocation, but of sheer amazement at having survived that long on page 43: "Even me, I'm nearly forty. I was eighteen at the start of the war in 1965, twenty-eight at the fall of Saigon in 1974. So, how many long years have passed? Ten or eleven? Twelve. No thirteen? Another year with the MIA team. Or was it longer? And more time wandering as a Veteran. Closer to fourteen years lost because of the war. And me already forty. An age I once thought distant, strange, somehow unattainable."
""The Sorrow of War" though is also unique to its time and place, and the particular aspects of this forever war. The beginning is most haunting, in the "Forest of Screaming Souls," in the Central Highlands. The main character, and Bao Ninh stand-in, Kien, despite incredible odds, has somehow survived the war, from 1965 to 1975, yet the war is STILL not over for him. It is 1976, he no longer need fear the attacks from American bombers, but he is back in the Central Highlands, on duty, trying to find the remains of some of the 300,000 (est.) Vietnamese MIA's, and give them a proper burial, so they will not continue to haunt the living.
Other reviewers have criticized the "jumbled" nature of the book, no straight story-line, yet I consider it one of its strengths. That's the way it is in the "real world." The author does a beautiful job of juxtaposing the sense of dislocation after the war with flashbacks to various scenes in the war. There are admirable passages on the fall of Saigon, as well as when his train is bombed, near Vinh. Perhaps the most amazing fact that I learned from this book was how quickly the Vietnamese were able to revive, and make operational the "Trans-Vietnam Unification Express", the train that went all the way from Saigon to Hanoi. Another whole excellently done sub-theme is his relationship with his girl friend, Phoung, who has the same name as the character in another excellent book on Vietnam, Graham Greene's The Quiet American: Centenary Celebration 2004
He said that the worst years of the war for him, when his unit took devastating casualties, were 1968-69, precisely the same time period I was there, "on the other side of the river" to use Blasé Pascal's formulation, also in the Central Highlands. But numerous aspects of the American experience were so different: the knowledge that if you made it one year (13 months for the Marines) the war was over for you, the normal ease of re-supply, and medical evacuation by helicopter. And although some still fly the black "MIA-POW" flag, we were not literally compelled to be in the Forest of Screaming Souls, though a more metaphorical black wall exists in Washington DC, which does haunt the lives of at least a few of the living, but regrettably, not enough of the political class in that town that has embraced another war, as seemingly endless as Bao Dinh's.
Overall, an essential read, the first that was produced from "the other side of the river."
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 24, 2009)