Some forty years after American withdrawal from Vietnam, the U.S. continues to be haunted by the impact of the war. Scholars and historians continue to debate the justification – or lack thereof – for U.S. intervention. The Vietnam War was among a host of factors that opened deep fault lines in the landscape of U.S. politics, lines that continue to widen but whose impetus can be traced back to one of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. In the intervening years, many have tried to make sense of the disillusionment, pain, and the fracturing of the American identity that occurred during the Vietnam War years.
The Vietnam War stands as one of the pivotal moments in recent U.S. history, a moment whose lessons we continue to parse and, unfortunately, have rarely taken to heart as a nation. There are an extraordinary number of works both fiction and nonfiction that seek to understand the impact of the war or simply excise the long-festering wounds that resulted. The books below are among the most illuminating and some of the best Vietnam War books.
An Intimate History
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
Ken Burns is one of the most acclaimed and well-known documentarians of his generation, best known for his meticulous and intimate examinations of subjects from jazz to baseball to the Civil War. His latest project, due to arrive via PBS in September, may be his most ambitious: “The Vietnam War.” Drawing on hours and hours of interviews with U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers, their families, former P.O.W.’s, anti-war protestors and many others, Burns is attempting the definitive account of the Vietnam War. This book, a collaboration with historian Geoffrey C. Ward, is the film’s companion.
Originally published in 1967, Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? is not only essential reading on the Vietnam War, but a significant piece of the American literary landscape. Through the recounting of a father and son’s hunting trip in the wilds of Alaska, Mailer systematically chips away this initially benign facade to reveal the conflicting emotions and creeping disillusionment that came to define a generation.
Tim O’Brien is best known for his acclaimed accounts of his experience in the Vietnam War. While his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, is well worth your attention, The Things They Carried is perhaps his most impactful work. Through a series of semi-autobiographical, nonlinear narratives, O’Brien presents a searing deconstruction of the war that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction into a sort of allegorical fever dream.
Originally published in 1977, Dispatches remains one of the finest examples of war reportage. In it, war correspondent Michael Herr recounts the fervor and horror of war – as well as the day-to-day lives of soldiers in a combat zone – in unflinching detail through stark, eloquent prose. Dispatches was an instant classic and provided inspiration for some of the finest films on the Vietnam War, most notably “Apocalypse Now.” Decades later, it remains a must-read.
John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
A Bright Shining Lie is a sprawling, powerful account of the peril and folly of the Vietnam War. The recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Neil Sheehan’s book stands among the best accounts of the war, bringing to light the experiences of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and witnessed firsthand the corruption, deception, arrogance, and incompetence that would ultimately define the Vietnam War.
An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath
Truong Nhu Tang: Former Minister of Justice with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai
Truong Nhu Tang first met Ho Chi Minh as a student in Paris. Tang would serve as a soldier in the Vietcong, eventually rising to the position of Minister of Justice and an important figure in the Vietcong’s so-called fight for liberation. However, by the end of the war, Tang had to fled to Paris, disillusioned with the cause he once championed and living in exile. A Vietcong Memoir is a remarkably candid account of his experiences and a necessary perspective on the war.
The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark
Written nearly twenty years after the war in Vietnam came to a close, In Retrospect is the definitive insider’s view on the questionable decisions and wrong assumptions that led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. As the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, Robert McNamara played a pivotal role in escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and this candid memoir comprises his recollections – supported by declassified documents – of the folly of those decisions and the destruction that ensued.
A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace
Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts
When and Earth Changed Places is a powerful and poignant accounting of what life was like for many Vietnamese during the war years. Le Ly Hayslip was 12 years old when the first U.S. helicopters landed in her village. She was forced to serve in the Vietcong before being captured and held by government forces. Ultimately Hayslip fled to America. This memoir intersperses her return to Vietnam years later against the horrifying account of her wartime experience.
The Definitive Collection of Fiction and Nonfiction on the War
If you were to read only one book on the Vietnam War, The Vietnam Reader should be it. Edited by Stewart O’Nan, The Vietnam Reader is a powerful collection covering the breadth of the Vietnam War and its impact. It draws from the entire spectrum of media concerning the war – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, song lyrics, film, photography, etc. – to present a kaleidoscopic and immensely readable view of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.
The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War
The image of a nine-year-old girl, badly burned by napalm, fleeing her village in South Vietnam is one of the most unforgettable images of the Vietnam War. It was a tragic and painful depiction of the very human toll of war. The Girl in the Picture tells the story of not only of how the photo came to be, but also of Kim Phuc – the girl in the picture – and the devastating impact of the war on the Vietnamese civilian.
Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam
Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway
In November 1965, some 450 soldiers under the command of then Colonel Harold Moore were dropped into a small clearing in the la Drang Valley. They were immediately surrounded by approximately 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The ensuing battle, the first major battle of the Vietnam War, was a savage and brutal affair. We Were Soldiers Once … and Young is a remarkable telling of military history. It also served as the basis for the 2002 film “We Were Soldiers.”
Drawing on his own experiences in Vietnam, Karl Marlantes spent thirty years writing the book that would become Matterhorn. The result is a harrowing, poignant, and deeply affecting account of war in all facets – from the tedium of routine and the building of outposts to the bursts of horrifying and visceral violence. While its focus may be on the tale of a fictional marine, it nonetheless rings authentic.