Hastings’s emphasis on the soldiers’ war gives his book a lopsided feel. It underplays the drama of the political war at home, and the scale of opposition. There is only one reference here to the trove of official documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which was leaked in 1971 and helped to deepen the feeling of many Americans that they had been lied to by successive administrations in order to support an unwinnable war.
This is far from the first history of the Vietnam War, but the range of available sources has widened over the years and Max Hastings has made expert use of them. There is no shortage of memoirs and official papers that shed light on the war from every conceivable American angle... Although Hastings reported from Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he wisely keeps his own experience out of it: ‘My understanding was so meagre, my perceptions so callow.’ His assertions are mainly (but not always) well sourced. His judgments are on the whole balanced... He also makes clear that, contrary to Communist propaganda at the time, the war was not a series of glorious victories, but was marked by terrible suffering, horrendous casualty figures and strategic blunders, most of which can be attributed to Le Duan, the party’s reckless general secretary... It is impossible to convey the scale of the violence unleashed on the rice farmers whose villages became battlegrounds, though Hastings does his best.
Through vivid accounts of battle and suffering, Hastings shows that the American war machine devastated the society it intended to save, using enormous firepower that did more to demoralize the South Vietnamese population than to defeat the Communists. Sheer destructiveness also hurt the war effort in the eyes of the American and global publics, who, Hastings writes, were prepared to support the war “only if there was some proportionality between forces employed, civilian casualties incurred and the objective at stake.”
In spite of the richness of Hastings’s narrative, it has a flaw that keeps it from becoming the definitive study of the war that readers are waiting for. This is the one-dimensional take on communist politics, which presents the Hanoi leadership as dominated by one strongman, first Ho Chi Minh and later his successor from central Vietnam, Le Duan...Even for those who are not military buffs, the depth of detail depicting soldiers’ lives on the front lines will impress. Max Hastings’s picture of the grunt-level war combines with his view of high-level US decision-making to reinforce the belief that the Vietnam War was a mistake, from start to finish.
The journalist and military historian Max Hastings’s fast-paced and often compelling narrative will surely rank as one of the best products of this half-century reappraisal. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy is a monumental undertaking. Many books analyse major Vietnam war policy decisions. Others discuss military operations; still others recount personal experiences. Hastings does all three in a single volume, although he gives greatest attention to the on-the-ground activities of North and South Vietnamese, NLF and NVA, Americans, Australians and even New Zealanders... At its best, Hastings’s book deftly integrates decision-making with its impact on policy and people... Although remarkably comprehensive in its coverage, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy does not touch all bases. Little attention is paid to the civilian nation-building programmes that consumed vast sums of money and reveal much about US–South Vietnam failure... Immensely readable, sometimes quite acerbic in its conclusions, Hastings’s book admirably captures the experiences of many different people at different times in a long and complex war.
One of the overarching themes of Hastings' book is that neither side emerges from the story with much credit. Many in the West - particularly Left-wing intellectuals - were quick to assume that if their own country " had embraced a bad cause, the other side's must be a good one". Yet, as Hastings points out, the North's victory in 1975 "caused the South Vietnamese people merely to exchange oppression by warlords and landlords in favour of even harsher subjection to disciples of Stalin"...Exhaustively researched and superbly written, it is both a balanced and authoritative account of how and why the war unfolded as it did, and a gripping narrative on what it was like to take part. No villain - and there were many - escapes Hastings' censure; no political viewpoint emerges unscathed. This is history as it should be: objective, immersive and compelling.
Max Hastings is not deterred by the conventional wisdoms of Vietnam (this after all is far from his first brush with interpreting war). In Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, Hastings has brought his flair for military histories to the search for a deeper reckoning about the war and its complex legacy...What is important about this book are the fresh perspectives on the war that are given centre stage in the retelling. Hastings has managed to unearth a vast array of personal stories from previously unaddressed English, Vietnamese, Chinese sources that enrich the book in surprising ways. His objective is to answer the question of what the war was like for “Northern sappers, Mekong Delta peasants, Huey pilots from Peoria, grunts from Sioux Falls, air defence advisers from Leningrad, Chinese railway workers, and bar girls in Saigon.”
... Hastings succeeds in internationalising and democratising the war for us. We are not simply treated to the missions and misfortunes of the generals, politicians and diplomats who fought the war from on high, like a B-52 that dropped its payload on some distant and unseen target in the green below. He shows us how the war touched the lives of everyone in its destructive path from peasants to prisoners of war. And it’s not pretty...Hastings has written expertly on all these wars and more, making him an ideal purveyor of the message of how Vietnam is more like these other wars than dissimilar from them.
Where Hastings shines is in his ability to let those who experienced the war tell their stories. Like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their recent PBS television documentary The Vietnam War (2017), Hastings eschews big historical explanations in order to let those who lived through the conflict explain what they saw and how they feel. And they deserve to be heard. The pages of Hastings’s narrative are filled with the voices of more American veterans of the Vietnam War, civilians and combatants alike, than any previous work. And thanks to the generous translations provided by Merle Pribbenow, he brings more Vietnamese into the picture. All of this makes for a fast-paced, poignant and often eye-opening read, which reminded me of some of the sequences in Burns and Novick’s series... Ultimately, the ‘epic tragedy’ trope allows Hastings to remind the reader that the Americans have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. Their wars in the Middle East and Central Asia today prove it.
Max Hastings has been going to the wars for close on half a century. Fascinated since he was a boy by all things military, he has reported with distinction on many conflicts as well as writing as a historian about those that occurred before his time. It has been an obsession, but one that he has nurtured into a major talent. He has long since shed the romantic view of combat evident in his early book on Yoni Netanyahu, the hero of Entebbe, to arrive at a more complex understanding of war, the nature of soldiering and the limits of military force.
Now he has turned his formidable guns on the Vietnam war...It is a very sad story and one that Hastings tells very well.
Hastings is masterly at describing the conditions faced by young American soldiers, who, unlike the native Vietnamese, had never experienced anything like it. Temperatures could reach 49 degrees, with humidity 85 per cent. Leeches, snakes, mosquitoes and screaming gibbons abounded...A veteran historian of the Second World War, Hastings is second to none in his ability to describe military strategy with a clarity that makes things entirely understandable to the layman. And, unlike many military historians, he never gets bogged down in the minutiae; regularly, he breaks away from the daily grind of events and soars above the narrative, looking down on its principal protagonists with a god-like eye
This is a long book but not a bloated one; this war demands the detail that Hastings provides. His basic arguments are not particularly new, but the book itself is still original. What makes it so magnificent is its intimacy. Hastings possesses the journalist’s instinct for a good story, the tiny anecdote that exposes a big truth. Large tragedies are illustrated through very personal pain.
As one would expect, Hastings is especially good on the military history of the war... In Hastings’s hands the tactical and strategic dimensions of the war illuminate its political difficulties, rather than, as is more usual, the other way around. But he is equally adept at assessing the political and diplomatic deliberations that dragged the US into the mess in the first place
Exhaustively researched and superbly written, it is both a balanced and authoritative account of how and why the war unfolded as it did, and a gripping narrative on what it was like to take part... This is history as it should be: objective, immersive and compelling.
...crammed with the facts and figures, of dead and maimed, villages wrecked and atrocities committed, and tonnage of ordnance discharged. It surely will be the last word on the tactical and military chronicle of the war, the main reference book for schools and universities for future generations.
Although Hastings deals with the high politics brilliantly, it is his account of the war on the ground that lifts this book above its competitors. Unlike almost all other military historians, he is never boring and never gets bogged down in obscure data. And he has a peerless eye for colourful and revealing details: the North Vietnamese civilian diet of stewed rat and silkworm larvae; the US lieutenant who reads Conrad and Hardy during observation patrols; the marijuana and heroin use that reaches epidemic proportions among bored soldiers; the heady, erotic atmosphere of Saigon at night