Saturday, 3 November 2007

Book Review

Because I've been traveling again in the course of my work, I've had time to read. This might sound a bit Irish - but evenings in a motel in the bush allow time - given the quality of what's on television.
I've just finished "Vietnam - The Australian War" by Paul Ham, released about a week ago. I couldn't put it down, and it's inspired me to write a brief review. - so here goes -
Few authors on the subject are as comprehensive in their research. One of Ham’s strengths is that he interviewed an enormous range of people from all aspects of the conflict. He publishes their comments providing a brief context, and generally lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
He is even-handed, in the sense that he shows no unwarranted respect for any traditional sacred cows. What seems to outrage him above all else is hypocrisy. He shows no mercy to many of the American commanders, and some of the Australian brass. He shows great respect and compassion for the fighting soldiers.
He provides interesting contextual positioning. Ham takes the time to present an historical context. This is often neglected by other writers on the subject, and without it, particularly in reference to Vietnamese history; much of the narrative of the “American” war is meaningless.
The book displays great scope and span. There isn’t much he neglects. He covers the Australian, American and Vietnamese perspectives, compares reactions to the war and its aftermath by Nashos and regular soldiers, gets behind the scenes into the political machinations of the day, and pulls all of this material together in a way that is very punchy and readable.
Some extracts – On Nashos returning – “..a unique aspect of the Vietnam War is the collective cruelty of a nation that ordered, with the threat of a two-year jail term, a 20-year-old lad to go to war – then damned him for going”.
- On what some commanders thought of the war – “They saw Australia’s involvement for what it was: a diplomatic gesture rather than a military necessity.
In essence, the troops were being asked to risk their lives to fulfil a diplomatic
courtesy to America.”
- On Agent Orange – “After forty years, one might think a politician would feel, at the very least, a responsibility to acknowledge past mistakes in relation to the chemical poisoning of soldiers. None has done so in Australia”.
- On casualities -
"The human cost of the war, in terms of personal grief and moral degradation, is immeasurable. In our helplessness, we surrender to statistics: 4 320 Australian soldiers dead and about 3,000 wounded; 42 58,193 Americans dead and about 300,000 wounded; 43 220,357 South Vietnamese troops dead or missing in action and 1.17 million wounded; 44 666,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops dead, 45 with the possibility that a third were civilians mistaken for enemy troops or deemed legitimate targets. Of South Vietnamese civilian casualties, about 325,000 were confirmed killed (rising to a million, depending on your source and definition of a 'civilian'), 30 per cent of whom were children younger than 13. In total, an estimated 65,000 North Vietnamese civilians died as a result of US bombing.46 The Viet Cong assassinated 36,725 civilians between 1957 and 1972;47 the North Vietnamese and/or Viet Cong assassinated 166,000 South Vietnamese civilians.48 About three million Vietnamese people are believed to have suffered herbicide poisoning. In total, 3.5 million people died in Vietnam over fifteen years."

This book will probably offend past members of the ant-war movement, politicians of the time on both sides, the American military and some Australian commanders. It won’t offend the troops.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best work on the subject I’ve read. I’d classify it as a “must-read”. If you can’t afford the (steep) $55 hard back version, wait for it to come out in paperback, or to arrive in your local library.

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