Vietnam an epic tragedy 1945-1975 by Max Hastings: book review

an attempt to understand the politics of South East Asia and greed that led to the massacre of soldiers


“you are here for an indeterminate period, to be re-educated by work. You will live the same life as those whom you have oppressed, you will suffer like them, come to understand them. We shall guide you in your search for truth.”

_ a commissar addressed the French officer prisoner.


Vietnam: an epic tragedy by Max Hastings, is a ginormous attempt to consolidate the history of almost 100 years in 650 pages. To begin with, I have little to zero respect for colonial powers, be it English or French they are all the same, shrouded by ego and fake pride based on just skin color. When we say tragedy, we need to take a pause and examine from which side we are seeing. Is it a tragedy for Vietnam, mothers losing their sons and daughters getting sold during the famine of 1945, while their French rulers are sleeping with stomachs filled with food! Or is it a tragedy of the soil who is losing men and women in a long drawn fierce battle against French first and then the US. Or is it a tragedy of the western world and the colonial powers who always thought of themselves as indestructible and superior to every other color except White, who lived a false life believing that it was their god-given right to oppress, torture, enslave, belittle people of color? Of course, the life of the Vietnamese was already a tragedy being ruled by alien unwanted powers. And of course, the wars of Vietnam were a series of mistakes, miscalculations, failure to understand the determination and urge to get independent.


Max Hastings's documentation of the Vietnam crisis is detailed, chronologically broken down into event by event order. Focusing primarily on the lives of non-combatants, during the war with French colonizers, that of the communist regime post-partition, followed by a war with the US. He begins with a brief introduction of the French rule in the country that led to the war, where the colonials like every other one, reduced the status of 70% natives into sharecroppers and tenants while a few hundreds of French occupied the plantations and imposed a rule identical to any other slave owing aristocracies. On one hand, they abolished draconian punishments of beheadings and trampling by the elephants and on the other hand they opened up opium factories in Saigon. The relentless debt cycle squeezed the life out of the already poor peasants and siphoning them out of the country to their motherland and investing that money in the ongoing wars of Africa.


“George Orwell observed that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it, whereas it was France's misfortune to take almost a decade to achieve this.”

The French misunderstood the ideological position of Ho Chi Minh for the longest time. He was first, a patriot and a nationalist, then a communist with the aim to remove the alien power and he got ample support from the peasants. The balance of willpower was already skewed, one side was protecting its colonial base and the other side wanted complete independence. After the end of the long-drawn First Indo-China war between France and China-Soviet-supported Vietminh, the country whose size is a little larger than that of Italy. It got divided into two parts, along the lines of the 17th parallel. The irony of the fate of the civilians was that neither the north nor the south was free from tyranny. The cultural supremacy that the French proclaimed was nowhere to be seen during their departure. Even then they didn’t bother saving their own men scattered in the jungles of the northern part leaving them to get captured, tortured by the hands of communists.

The brief period between 1954-1960 was nothing sort of a dark age. In the north, in communist fashion, intellectuals were decapitated. There was rapid destruction of the already destroyed economy due to lack of vision while making policies, iron grip over the access of resources and information almost veiled the territory from the rest of the world. In the south, the atrocities by the Diem regime were performed in broad daylight. The treatment of landowners by the communist cadres was horrific and blood-curdling with the hope of inciting fear in the minds of the peasants. This was seen much later and on a much smaller scale (thankfully) in the Naxalite regions of India (Red corridor) during the 70s.

Almost dramatizing the history of wars, Max Hastings focused more on telling the stories of the non-combatants, the peasant families who suffered all the way through. He tells a tale of the totalitarian regime of Ho Chi Minh, the absolutely shameless, corrupted government of Diem, and the humiliation of the US presidents Johnson and Nixon. The incompetency and brutality of Diem’s years were so widespread and jarring that an American reporter who was present at the National Assembly in Saigon remarked,


“the people upon whom we were relying to build, had no relationship with their own people.”

All these led to the inclination towards the communist guerrilla movement, which was almost absent in the richer south. Finally, in September 1960, North Vietnam formally launched a war on the south, by attacking in waves and ambushing the government establishments with rapid forces. The period of the 60s also saw the escalation of the cold war, thus stirring Washington. Often being critical about the Vietnamese communist party, the author didn’t shed much light on how the warfare tactics and strategies were designed by them. Probably it was because of utmost secrecy that was maintained among the inner circle of the party and the language barrier.


What followed after that was a long hard battle, written in blood by both American troops and Vietnamese soldiers. Both sides despite having leaders didn’t have properly or adequately trained soldiers, thereby meeting imminent death minutes after they were dropped on the battlefield. As more and more US army got cornered the savagery of their behavior came to light. It’s a tragedy that none of the leaders envisioned in the course of a doomed war. Max Hastings didn’t write pages after pages of bland historical facts but rather lashed out mercilessly towards Nixon and his advisor Kissinger, as both of them were more famous for underestimating the powers of Asia rather than their partnership in a successful presidentship. The nature of violence is that it doesn’t stay just within the borders, it seeped to lands far away, which led to protests in America by the Americans itself.


It’s a tragedy indeed that America didn’t learn much from the second Indochina war. It repeated the same mistakes on a larger and costlier scale in Afganistan and Iraq and probably will keep on doing so. The inability to understand the fact that the US is no savior but rather a shrewd businessman who would go to any length to count its own profits.

ABOUT THE BOOK-

Vietnam became the Western world’s most divisive modern conflict, precipitating a battlefield humiliation for France in 1954, then a vastly greater one for the United States in 1975. Max Hastings has spent the past three years interviewing scores of participants on both sides, as well as researching a multitude of American and Vietnamese documents and memoirs, to create an epic narrative of an epic struggle. He portrays the set pieces of Dienbienphu, the 1968 Tet offensive, the air blitz of North Vietnam, and also much less familiar miniatures such as the bloodbath at Daido, where a US Marine battalion was almost wiped out, together with extraordinary recollections of Ho Chi Minh’s warriors. Here are the vivid realities of strife amid jungle and paddies that killed two million people.


Many writers treat the war as a US tragedy, yet Hastings sees it as overwhelmingly that of the Vietnamese people, of whom forty died for every American. US blunders and atrocities were matched by those committed by their enemies. While all the world has seen the image of a screaming, naked girl seared by napalm, it forgets countless eviscerations, beheadings, and murders carried out by the communists. The people of both former Vietnams paid a bitter price for the Northerners’ victory in privation and oppression. Here is testimony from Vietcong guerrillas, Southern paratroopers, Saigon bargirls, and Hanoi students alongside that of infantrymen from South Dakota, Marines from North Carolina, and Huey pilots from Arkansas.


No past volume has blended a political and military narrative of the entire conflict with heart-stopping personal experiences, in the fashion that Max Hastings’ readers know so well. The author suggests that neither side deserved to win this struggle with so many lessons for the twenty-first century about the misuse of military might to confront intractable political and cultural challenges. He marshals testimony from warlords and peasants, statesmen and soldiers, to create an extraordinary record.


Vietnam An epic tragedy 1945-1975 by Max Hastings is published by William Collins and to buy your copy go here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR-

Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings, FRSL, FRHistS is a British journalist, editor, historian and author. His parents were Macdonald Hastings, a journalist and war correspondent, and Anne Scott-James, sometime editor of Harper's Bazaar. Hastings was educated at Charterhouse School and University College, Oxford, which he left after a year.After leaving Oxford University, Max Hastings became a foreign correspondent, and reported from more than sixty countries and eleven wars for BBC TV and the London Evening Standard. Among his bestselling books Bomber Command won the Somerset Maugham Prize, and both Overlord and The Battle for the Falklands won the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Prize. After ten years as editor and then editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, he became editor of the Evening Standard in 1996. He has won many awards for his journalism, including Journalist of The Year and What the Papers Say Reporter of the Year for his work in the South Atlantic in 1982, and Editor of the Year in 1988. He stood down as editor of the Evening Standard in 2001 and was knighted in 2002. His monumental work of military history, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 was published in 2005. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Sir Max Hastings honoured with the $100,000 2012 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.


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