The best books on the Vietnam War

The Books I Picked & Why

We Were Soldiers Once... and Young

By General Harold Moore, Joseph Galloway

We Were Soldiers Once... and Young

Why this book?

I gravitate to books that stress the humanity of the war in Vietnam. This wonderful book, written by the commander of the unit involved in the battle and the brave US reporter that stood at his side, draws the reader in to understand and empathize with the young Americans who fought on that fateful field known as LZ X-Ray. 

Beyond being a gripping war story that will have you on the edge of your seat, We Were Soldiers also describes perhaps the most important single moment in the Vietnam War in which America first tested its helicopter war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. This battle solidified the flawed American strategy against a foe that had taken our measure. We Were Soldiers mixes deep importance with the eternal story of young men at war in an unforgettable way. Its style greatly impacted my own writing.


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The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

By Bảo Ninh

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

Why this book?

Too often the “enemy” in Vietnam is only a shadowy or perhaps superhuman figure in books on the war.  This book, though, is different. A book that is never quite sure whether it is an autobiography or fiction tells the haunting story of Kien, a North Vietnamese soldier – one of only a handful of his unit to survive the conflict. The book jumps backward and forward in time, lurching the reader; leaving the reader confused; just as Kien felt as the war tore his world apart. 

From hunting through the jungle for dead bodies to the strains of battle, to the beauty of family and leaving his love behind to go to war, to a broken life after the war’s end, The Sorrow of War makes the reader feel for the ultimate humanity of Kien and hurting for his loss.


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The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried

Why this book?

Perhaps the American novel of the Vietnam War. Veterans, like Tim O’Brien, often find it difficult to put their wartime experiences into words – but they also need to put those experiences into words to heal.  In a series of short stories that range from a cataloguing of what soldiers carried into battle to a visit to the battlefront by a soldier’s girlfriend to a soldiers’ baptism of fire, The Things The Carried takes the reader through heartrending, implausible, hyper-realistic, and gut-wrenching stories of what American soldiers went through in Vietnam. The prose is simple, yet breathtaking. The stories are unbelievable, yet real. 

This is perhaps the best book to make you feel like you are in Vietnam and also understand the war’s impact on soldiers.


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Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History

By Wallace Terry

Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History

Why this book?

This was the first collection of oral histories that I ever read from the Vietnam War. Reading history done this way, with the men speaking for themselves, opened a new world for me. It allowed me to understand that it is only by talking to and with our veterans that the true depth of the combat experience can be delved. Terror, camaraderie, death, honor, humor, compassion, and boredom – the full human story of Vietnam and war is on display in Bloods. And it was this book that taught me to be an oral historian. 

On top of that, Bloods also, of course, makes clear the uniqueness of the Black experience in Vietnam – fighting a war for America while the country wrestled with its eternal question of race. This book is good and important for so many reasons. 


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Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War

By James H. Willbanks

Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War

Why this book?

A perfect example of what a well-researched and written academic book on the Vietnam War should be.  Abandoning Vietnam tells the critical story of the military side of how America exited its conflict in Vietnam. In most western books on the Vietnam War, our allies in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, are missing. But this book makes clear South Vietnam’s manifold strengths and clear weaknesses and why our alliance with them failed. The failure of that alliance not only cost more than 50,000 American lives but cost the Vietnamese millions and cost South Vietnam its very life. 

We like to forget what happened there in the wake of our defeat, but this book won’t let you forget. Reading this pushed me to write my own, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN to further the story.


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