The best books on the Vietnam war and what it all meant

Who am I?

Alice K. Boatwright has lived in the US, England, France, and India – and her career as a writer about public health, education, and the arts has taken her around the world. She began writing short stories when she was young and holds an MFA in Writing Fiction from Columbia University. Her award-winning book about the Vietnam War era, Collateral Damage, was inspired by her own experiences during the war years in the US and the time she spent working on a project in Vietnam in 1993 and 1997. She is also the author of a short story chapbook, Sea, Sky, Islands; numerous stories published in journals, such as Calyx, Mississippi Review Online, America West, Penumbra, Stone Canoe, and Amarillo Bay; and the popular Ellie Kent mysteries, based on her experiences as an ex-pat living in an English village.


I wrote...

Collateral Damage

By Alice K. Boatwright,

Book cover of Collateral Damage

What is my book about?

How many years does it take for a war to end? Collateral Damage is three linked novellas about the Vietnam War era from the perspectives of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. Now in a new edition with an introduction about the 50th anniversary of the war and discussion questions for classes and book clubs.

The books I picked & why

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Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

By Frances FitzGerald,

Book cover of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

Why this book?

I loved this book because Fitzgerald is a journalist, not a historian, so her writing is vivid, fluent, and readable. This is so much more than a history of the war. She plunges into the complex story of Vietnam’s history and culture, setting the stage for America’s unfortunate involvement and the subsequent tragic events.
Fitzgerald first went to Vietnam in 1966, and, when this book came out in 1972, it was the first history of Vietnam written by an American. The New York Times called it “A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award, it was a bestseller.

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

By Frances FitzGerald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fire in the Lake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "a compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review)

This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam -- the traditional, ancestor-worshiping villages, the conflicts between Communists and anti-Communists, Catholics and Buddhists, generals and monks, the disruption created by French colonialism, and America's ill-fated intervention -- and reveals the country as seen through Vietnamese eyes. 

Originally published in 1972, Fire in the Lake was the first…


In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

Why this book?

Tobias Wolff is a short-story writer I admire very much, and I enjoyed his first memoir This Boy's Life, so I was very excited to read what he had to say about his experience in the Army and his tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s. This book captures much of the confusing stew of boyish patriotism, confusion, disillusionment, and disgust that I heard expressed by many others in those days.

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

By Tobias Wolff,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In Pharaoh's Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whether he is evoking the blind carnage of the Tet offensive, the theatrics of his fellow Americans, or the unraveling of his own illusions, Wolff brings to this work the same uncanny eye for detail, pitiless candor and mordant wit that made This Boy's Life a modern classic.


Born on the Fourth of July

By Ron Kovic,

Book cover of Born on the Fourth of July

Why this book?

Ron Kovic’s story powerfully mirrors the history of the 1960s. He was inspired by JFK’s passionate 1961 inaugural speech (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. . . “); devastated by JFK's assassination in 1963; joined the Marines right out of high school to do his part and landed in Vietnam in 1965; suffered paralyzing wounds there in 1968; and became a lifelong anti-war activist by 1975.

It’s on my list because of the way it traces the dramatic arc of those times. The flag-waving kids of the late 50s came of age with bitter feelings of betrayal by the government, which forced them to participate in what many considered an unjust and immoral war.

Born on the Fourth of July

By Ron Kovic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Born on the Fourth of July as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A former marine paralyzed from the chest down as a result of an injury suffered in Vietnam recalls his youth, battlefield experiences, and the agonies of his slow reentry into American society.


In Country

By Bobbie Ann Mason,

Book cover of In Country

Why this book?

This classic 1985 novel is a favorite because it broadens the focus to the impact of the war on the families. Set in 1984, the protagonist Samantha Hughes never knew her father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Her uncle, who survived the war, is living with PTSD from his experiences there, and teenage Sam is trying to make sense of it all. The expression “in country” refers to time served at the site of a military operation (in this case, metaphorically, in Vietnam). The Los Angeles Times called this novel "A moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish."

In Country

By Bobbie Ann Mason,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bobbie Ann Mason’s debut novel—"a brilliant and moving book... a moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish."  —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“How Ms. Mason conjures a vivid image of the futility of war and its searing legacy of confusion out of the searching questions or a naïve later generation is nothing short of masterful.” —Kansas City Star

Samantha “Sam” Hughes is in her senior year of high school in rural Kentucky. Her father, whom she never knew, was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Sam lives with her uncle Emmett, a veteran who appears to be…


When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

By Le Ly Hayslip, Jay Wurts,

Book cover of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

Why this book?

A memoir from the perspective of the other side, this book tells the story of a young girl in Central Vietnam who was recruited into the war and, by her teens, had suffered near-starvation, torture, imprisonment, and more, in addition to losing much of her family. Later she married an American and moved to this country, but since 1986, she has helped rebuild her homeland through the charitable organizations she established. 

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

By Le Ly Hayslip, Jay Wurts,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked When Heaven and Earth Changed Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of the most important books of Vietnamese American and Vietnam War literature...Moving, powerful.” —Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer

In these pages, Le Ly Hayslip—just twelve years old when U.S. helicopters landed in her tiny village of Ky La—shows us the Vietnam War as she lived it. Initially pressed into service by the Vietcong, Le Ly was captured and imprisoned by government forces. She found sanctuary at last with an American contractor and ultimately fled to the United States. Almost twenty years after her escape, Le Ly found herself inexorably drawn back to the devastated country…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Vietnam War, refugees, and death?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Vietnam War, refugees, and death.

The Vietnam War Explore 162 books about the Vietnam War
Refugees Explore 98 books about refugees
Death Explore 246 books about death

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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