Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#98: Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian G. Appy

New York: Penguin, 2004. 608 pages
This is perhaps the best book that I have ever read concerning Vietnam, the only other one that comes close is Tom Wells's The War Within. That text focuses on the anti-war movements and domestic politicians, while Appy's text is an oral history covering every conceivable group that took part in the war. The interviews are organized into several sections: Introductions, Beginnings (1945-64), Escalations (1964-67), The Turning Point (1968-70) Endings (1970-75) and Legacies (1975- ).

This is the first book about the war that I have read that includes many Vietnamese veterans, which is the best reason by itself to go out and find this book. Appy makes the statement in his introduction that American writing about the war has tended to focus on American soldiers and decision makers while paying little attention or downplaying the contributions or hardships of the South Vietnamese, or the hardships of the North Vietnamese. Reading multiple accounts from not only North Vietnamese civilians but also military veterans was eye opening. Appy's reason for the title is as follows: I was repeatedly struck by how forcefully patriotism shaped the lives and people on all sides of this war...and many of the people in this book have wrestled with patriotism's hardest questions." (xxvii)

The themes of country, faithfulness to its values, patriotism as a moral good or evil and faithfulness to individual values are as timely now as they were in the 1960s. One of the most moving interviews was with flight attendant Helen Tennant Hegelheimer. The Army, since there was no full unit rotation in and out of Vietnam, used commercial jets to ferry troops to the country. Whether or not this was to hide the escalation from the public, who knows. Hegelheimer said that the troops did not really cheer when they left Vietnam, there was just a group exhaling. She also said this: "These weren't guys who were going back to their '55 Chevys and their girlfriends...their youth was gone. You could see that." (107) Another woman interviewed, nurse Sylvia Holland, said that "I heard about sexual harassment in Vietnam, but never saw it...it was like being Queen for a Day everyday." (170). Compared with statements of treatment from Vietnamese women (and some American officials) this was interesting to say the least. Nancy Smoyer, a "Donut Dollie", who described the troops she met as "Cute little boys who were surprised to see girls and did not know how to act." (188) There is a great deal of innocence here and throughout the book, maybe the last gasp of it in American culture.

The American soldiers interviewed actually were matter of fact, not like the REMFs (Rear Echelon MFers) of the State Department and civilian apparatus. Those guys came off as a bunch of sleazebags. If anything, I wound up having less respect for LBJ, McNamara, Nixon and the rest after reading this. I used to think that the inability to push ones thinking beyond the next election was a product of the 24 hour news cycle, but that's bull shit. LBJ could (his Civil Rights Bill of 1965 proved that) but in matters of foreign policy he could not. Principles matter, but only if they jibe with what they think the country wants. This is democracy at work, but exactly who are the people to whom  they are listening? In this case, it was people protecting their status. We all do this; in situations governing war and destruction, that itself can be the most destructive thing one can do.

Chalmers Johnson, Chairman of the Center Chinese Studies at Berkeley from 1967-72 does point out that his problem with the protesters in the US was in some way class based, which is another theme of the book; Johnson was "a lot more sympathetic to black protests, and worked with black students in my classes." (423). One protester spent the night after a march in Washington at a house with only three beds and 22 people. "All of them wanted the floor. I thought 'Why?' They said a bed was to bourgeois...or I'd be in jail with a bunch of people and say "I have to get out and go home" and they would be happy to stay there...they could afford to stay there." (413) Class haunts this book, and usually those who grew up poor or Vietnamese really understand that. It goes back to the idea of protecting your status while not giving up what you have.

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