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Sunday, October 01, 2017 1:00 am

Sweeping, unfulfilling

Detailed Vietnam War history underplays some significant debates

Reviewed by Mark Atwood Lawrence

Few histories of the Vietnam War shy away from contentious questions or bold conclusions. Was the United States right to wage war in Southeast Asia? Why did Washington fail to achieve its objectives? What are the key lessons of the American defeat? Authors have clashed for years over the answers, making the war one of the most hotly disputed topics in all of American history.

Geoffrey C. Ward takes a different tack in his “intimate history,” the exceptionally engaging, if not wholly satisfying, companion book to “The Vietnam War,” the 18-hour documentary by famed filmmaker Ken Burns, which premiered last month on PBS. Rejecting clear-cut judgments, Ward aims instead to capture the war's ambiguities by telling the story through the varied experiences and emotions of ordinary men and women whose lives were profoundly shaped by it.

“This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible 'stories,' ” Burns and his co-director for the TV series, Lynn Novick, write in the book's introduction. Both the documentary and the companion volume, they assert, give voice to “seemingly irreconcilable outlooks” reflected in “as many different perspectives as our narrative could accommodate.”

This approach will be familiar to anyone who has watched Burns' award-winning documentaries or read the accompanying books over the past 30 years or so. On topics ranging from the Civil War to baseball to the Roosevelt family, Burns and his team have offered a broadly affirming vision of American history that provokes less by stirring debate than by tugging at viewers' heartstrings with emotionally charged portraits of individuals at the center of their stories.

It's unquestionably an appealing formula, and Ward's companion book, a visually stunning tome weighing in at more than 600 pages, overflows with moving profiles of not just soldiers, sailors and airmen, but also doctors, nurses, prisoners, journalists, activists, mere bystanders and more. For example, Ward, who also wrote the script for the television series, unfolds the life story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker of Saratoga Springs, New York. After growing up on stories of heroic fighting men, Crocker defied his adoring parents by enlisting in the Army in 1964, only to be cut down by machine gun fire two years later, just short of his 19th birthday, while trying to capture a hill in South Vietnam's Central Highlands.

On the communist side, Ward tells the story of Nguyen Thanh Tung, a southern-born revolutionary who survives the war despite shrapnel wounds to her leg and unspeakable losses along the way. Four of her brothers died fighting the French and another four battling the Americans. She also outlives her two sons, both born in dank underground tunnels where communist forces took refuge from the fighting above.

These portraits are accompanied by a spectacular array of photographs likely to be the book's most striking feature for many casual readers. Predictably, the volume includes many old classics, including widely published photos of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a communist suspect and an American chopper lifting off a rooftop during the final collapse of Saigon in 1975. But it also features hundreds of evocative images – many of them focused tightly on the facial expressions of everyday Americans and Vietnamese – likely to be unfamiliar even to experts on the history of the war.

The overall effect of the vignettes and photos is to show how people far removed from the corridors of power were swept up in events beyond their control, often with tragic consequences. The stories suggest parallels in the ways Americans and Vietnamese were victimized by questionable, even immoral, decisions by political and military leaders on all sides.

Ward is less successful when examining those leaders, who get little of the nuanced, sympathetic attention reserved for the book's cast of lesser-known characters. Perhaps partly as a result of Burns' and Novick's decision not to interview former government officials for the project, high-level policymakers often seem comparatively one-dimensional.

To be sure, Ward provides a sprawling, almost encyclopedic account of decision-making by politicians, diplomats and generals, the relatively familiar stuff of many conventional histories of the war. Over 10 densely packed chapters, the book reaches back to the French colonial conquest of Vietnam and the early development of Vietnamese nationalism before delving into the peak years of U.S. embroilment, from the early 1960s to the final communist victory in 1975. Every battle, diplomatic conference, treaty and turning gets its due.

In places, this narrative is superb. Ward draws skillfully, for example, on recent studies by historians who have conducted pathbreaking research into the Vietnamese side of the war. He convincingly lays out North Vietnamese calculations during the pivotal years of escalation, showing how the hawkish communist leader Le Duan displaced moderates, including the revolutionary icon Ho Chi Minh, usually assumed to have been the mastermind of the communist war effort all the way until his death in 1969.

Still, Ward's account of decision-making offers little that is entirely new and fails to probe many of the fascinating controversies driving inquiry into the war these days, a missed opportunity to add something of value beyond the TV program. On two questions – Would John F. Kennedy have avoided war if he had survived for a second presidential term? Was South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem a legitimate nationalist with a reasonable claim to leadership? – the book includes fascinating short essays by leading scholars. But those features unaccountably disappear after Chapter 2, despite the numerous other issues worthy of such in-depth treatment.

Ward also disappoints by ending his story with the final collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. The book thus fails to consider how Americans have struggled to understand the war and draw lessons for the conduct of foreign and military policy over the past four decades, a history arguably just as important to the nation's politics and psyche as the conflict itself.

The companion book, like the TV series, is a significant milestone in that history and will no doubt do much to determine how the war is understood for years to come.

This is mostly a welcome prospect, for both book and series are inspired by humane desires to overcome painful division and draw attention to the human costs of war. For many of the debates that continue to make the war such a lively topic, however, readers will have to go elsewhere.

Mark Atwood Lawrence, the author of “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History,” teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote this for the Washington Post.