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review 2017-09-28 05:55
The Only War We've Got - Daniel Ford

"THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is taken from the dispatches the author had been contracted to write for a national magazine in the U.S., based on his experiences as a journalist on attachment with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam between May and July 1964. At the time Ford was in-country, "there was a grand total of forty foreign reporters in the country - full-time and part-time, and of all nationalities, not just American." 

Ford had written his observations and reflections of all the people he met in South Vietnam --- soldiers, airmen, and civilians alike --- from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, to further north in the Central Highlands near the Laotian border, and eastward to the shores of the Gulf of Tonkin. 

Ford returned home before the end of the summer and within a few months, the Vietnam War would take on a greater urgency with the landing of U.S. combat troops on March 8, 1965. The chapters he had written and then sent home were never published after all. Indeed, it would be another 36 years before Ford would re-read those chapters. According to Ford, "[t]hey were a revelation: about the country and the sort of war we were fighting in those early days, and likewise about the young reporter who'd flown to Saigon with an innocence as grassy-green as the American involvement itself." 

I was inspired to read this book because of the PBS TV documentary series on the Vietnam War that has been broadcast both last week and this week. I was born the same year Ford went to South Vietnam and have no memories of most of the events associated with that war. I was simply too young to take all that in. But my earliest memories of Vietnam are from 1973, when I watched on TV the arrival in the U.S. of freed American POWs. I grew up with the feeling as the '70s proceeded apace that most Americans simply wanted to put Vietnam as far behind them as possible, and just get on with their lives. Thus, Vietnam became for me a vague abstraction. The Second World War, by contrast, for me was very real because my Dad had fought as a GI in Europe during 1944-45 and several other relatives had also served in the U.S. military during that time. It has only been in the last 20 years (when I read David Halberstam's book 'The Best and the Brightest', a history of the Vietnam War as it passed from being a French war of reconquest in Indochina to an American war) through a slow, gradual process that I began to want to know more about the Vietnam War. 

For all its 163 pages, "THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is a very engaging story replete with many of the B&W photos Ford himself took during his sojourn in South Vietnam. One passage that stands out for me concerns the meeting Ford had with a civilian aide worker who had 20 years' experience of work in underdeveloped countries. It is as follows ~

'I asked USOM Man [the name Ford gave to this civilian aide, because he didn't want to name him, for fear of possibly costing the aide his job] what better solution he had in mind. He said we should cut our military advisory group to its 1962 level - five or six thousand - put most of our money and energy into educating the people, training them to use modern agricultural techniques, and providing them with health care. "The people, " he said mournfully in his almost-German accent. "We need men and women who will work with the people, not more and more military advisors. Pah! What do military men know about the people?" It was a fair question and I decided to find out.'

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review 2017-05-26 01:24
Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu - Monique Brinson Demery

I came to this book in a rather indirect way. Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with the author, Monique Brinson Demery, in which she described her ongoing efforts to meet the mysterious Madame Nhu (1924-2011) and earn her trust. It was a fascinating story. One that stimulated some part of my memory that contained a scrap of knowledge as to whom Madame Nhu was and her role in the leadership of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963.

The Vietnam War, though the American phase of it largely took place within my lifetime, I knew little about. Nor did I for many years have an interest in trying to understand that war. I was but an infant when LBJ first committed U.S. military forces to South Vietnam in March 1965. And by the time our POWs had been repatriated from North Vietnam and the U.S. had washed its hands of Vietnam, I was in elementary school. Another couple of decades would pass before I began to look into the factors, personalities, and events that led to Vietnam being engulfed in what was a civil war between 1945 (when the French - the former colonial master - returned, intent on reasserting its authority in Indochina) and 1975, when the Communists triumphed and reunified the country. Reading "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam in the mid 1990s was my starting point.

Demery tells a story that gives the reader access into the life of Madame Nhu, her family (who had long figured prominently in Vietnamese history), Demery's own relationship with Madame Nhu (who could be both kind and intransigent when it suited her), and the history of Vietnam from the late 19th century to November 1, 1963 (when both Madame Nhu's husband and her brother-in-law the President of the Republic of Vietnam were murdered in a coup).

For anyone curious to know why Vietnam continues to impact itself upon the American psyche, this is a book well worth reading.

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review 2017-05-16 02:07
One Trip Too Many: A pilot's memoirs of 38 months in combat over Laos and Vietnam - Wayne A. Warner

"ONE TRIP TOO MANY" is a memoir that will appeal to both the thrill-seeker and fan of human interest stories. The author - who grew up in the U.S. Midwest during the 1940s and 1950s - shares with the reader his determination to become a pilot, which leads to him winning a competitive appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1959. He graduated from the Academy in June 1963 as a freshly minted Second Lieutenant, having earned his degree and a handshake from President Kennedy himself.

Later, following advanced flight training, Warner is sent to Vietnam, where he experiences combat from the earliest days of the American involvement in 1965. Warner proved to be a highly skilled pilot, adept at flying both multi-engined and single-engine aircraft. Indeed, Warner would return to Vietnam on 2 different combat tours. From late 1967 through the summer of 1968, he flew 121 combat missions in the sleek F-105 'Thunderchief' fighter-bomber, known affectionately as the 'Thud.' At least 16 of those missions entailed deep penetration raids into North Vietnam as far as Hanoi, braving anti-aircraft fire, radar guided SAMs (i.e. surface-to-air missiles), and enemy MiG jet fighters. These missions, designated Pack Six sorties, were extremely hazardous as losses to enemy action over North Vietnam tended to be extremely high.

Warner would go on to return to Southeast Asia in early 1969, after having trained to fly the A-1 Skyraider attack/search & rescue aircraft. Unfortunately, Warner would meet with tragedy in the Skyraider in March of that year.

There is much more to this inspiring and uplifting story, which I leave for the reader to discover.

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review 2014-01-16 01:02
Ho Chi Minh: A Life - William J. Duiker

A very detailed look into the life and times of one of the most influential- although often overlooked and underrated- individuals of the twentieth century. Sadly, it is not as personal as I had hoped it would be; by this, I mean that it offered much less a description of his personal life, as in interests, activities, etc. as it did the overarching political situation facing Ho Chi Minh in his struggle to both free and unite Vietnam. However, this disappointment may be unavoidable; sources on Ho Chi Minh's life are often lacking, and when in existence, are often very biased, particularly considering the near deified status he has been given in Vietnam, where many of the surviving records exist. After reading this book, I tend to think that Ho Chi Minh may have liked it this way. He would have preferred to have himself remembered less as an individual than as a symbol of communism and Vietnamese nationalism; in other words, that people would not look at him, but would look instead at the movements and beliefs that he stood for. In the end, I think Ho Chi Minh was a complex and misunderstood man. He was not a radical communist as many of his critics insist; but neither was he entirely a nationalist who merely embraced communism out of convenience. The main driving force in his life, however, was most definitely nationalistic. Although he was certainly no saint, as the Vietnamese government makes him out to be, he was certainly not the opposite either. There is much to respect in Ho Chi Minh; a man who gave everything in the cause of his country's freedom and unification. That is how Ho Chi Minh should be remembered- a flawed man, yet with much to respect. Overall, a very good read.

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review 2011-07-07 00:00
Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 - Pierre Brocheux,Daniel Hémery,Ly Lan Dill-Klein The authors immediately got my attention by summing up what makes the region fascinating to me: “Although geography does not create history, it does condition it . . . and this was one of the world’s great historical frontiers, along which contacts and exchanges occurred among material cultures, myths and religions, various writing systems, and of course, empires. It was within this complex region of intermingling civilizations that imperialist France constructed Indochina.” (1)

The complexities include colorful characters and conflicting agendas on all sides, such as those resulting in a couple hundred Vietnamese uprisings from 1802 to 1883 during the reigns of the emperors Gia Long and Tu Duc. France got seriously involved in the 1840s, first setting its sights on China and hoping to best the British by dominating “the vast hinterland” between China and India. The plan was to assume “exclusive, therefore colonial, control of the mouths of the Mekong and Red Rivers” as well as the shores of the South China Sea. From 1859 to 1879 the French Navy appropriated and ran Cochinchina; Saigon Harbor would rank second only to Marseilles in the “global network of bases able to provide coal, wood and supplies” to the imperial fleet in what became known as “the era of the admirals.” (21)

Economics and related quantitative data take more pages than I’d like, but the fact that I skimmed does not make those details less important. I learned a lot about the influence of French industry and banking but most enjoyed chapters exploring the geography and detailing colonial society.

The emphasis throughout is on Vietnam, where the first dynasty of historical record commenced in 2879 B.C. I recommend also reading Understanding Vietnam by Neil Jamieson, A Short History of Vietnam by Nguyen Van Thai and Nguyen Van Mung, and Overturned Chariot: The Autobiography of Phan Boi Chau, translated by Vinh Sinh and Nicholas Wickenden. Together the books provide an engaging exploration of the oft-slighted (in western accounts) intellectual and cultural brilliance of Vietnamese history and nationalism.

Originally published in France in 1995, Brocheux's first English edition was released in 2009. Before reading it I checked a review of the translation, and the review was not glowing. The language lacks finesse and is often awkward, occasionally slighting the finer points, not to mention it makes the going even slower through already dense material. Nevertheless, the general academic consensus has ruled this “a groundbreaking historical synthesis” that “fully explores the ambiguity of the French colonial period."

For readers wanting more specifics about what they're getting into, the conclusion sums up the main points as follows, and the text is mostly verbatim here, though the numbering is mine.

1. French Indochina was first and foremost an enterprise of political domination aiming for economic exploitation, and its establishment was incredibly violent.

2. Colonialism presented itself as the historical vector of modernization and everything the word signified at that time: industry, science, wage labor, machines, and a market economy.

3. The initially great success of Indochinese colonization was fundamentally determined by its promoters: plantations and mines, banks and trading firms.

4. Through most of the 20th century, Laos and to a lesser degree Cambodia would be considered territorial reserves of an Indochina thought of as fundamentally Vietnamese.

5. The colonial regime could not function without securing a partnership, however fragile, with the dominant native classes and the colonized elites, who hoped to use modernization for their own ends, which were in the long run anticolonial.

6. French Indochina was constructed on the evolutionary convergence of solidarities and antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated. It was until the 1930s a provisional compromise, strongly unequal of course, but not fictional, to such an extent that some Vietnamese defined themselves, at least for a time, as French Indochinese.

7. Most Vietnamese intellectuals considered modernization a means of resisting colonization and promoting political democracy.

8. Imperial France was overtaken in Indochina by a largely unforeseen national and international communist revolution, but regardless of politics, by 1945 colonization had become intolerable to all Indochinese.

9. As early as 1911, Jean Jaures was sounding the alarm: “If we carry on, we will reap nothing from these lands but hatred and disappointment.”
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