The best books about the Vietnam War that reflect or contend how they depict the reality of the war

Wayne Karlin Author Of Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam
By Wayne Karlin

The Books I Picked & Why

The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

Book cover of The Quiet American

Why this book?

Set during the 1950s during what the French called The Indochina War, Greene’s classic novel never-the-less prophetically brings to life the attitudes that would lead to America’s war in Vietnam.  Pyle, a bright young U.S. CIA agent, posing as a foreign-service officer in charge of a medical aid program, falls in love with Phuong, the mistress of Fowler, a jaded British reporter who is covering the fighting between the French and the Viet Minh. In their fight for Phuong’s heart (or at least her body), the two men are meant to represent contending Western approaches to Vietnam. Fowler feels the Vietnamese are indifferent to (and perhaps incapable of) Western-style democracy and any attempt to push them towards it would be not only doomed to failure but destructive of the Vietnamese; Pyle, an adherent of a Cold War brand of anti-communism, believes a “third force,” between the Vietnamese supporting the French and the communists fighting against them, could create a democratic alternative.  His attempt to fit the Vietnamese into his notions of what they should be (reflecting what that great wit Robert MacNamara later called our complete ignorance of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics) has deadly consequences, paid for in Vietnamese bodies, a chilling foretelling of the war to come. Yet Fowler’s relationship to Vietnam, although depicted as more attractively cynical and thus worldly, is equally shallow.  Greene, who makes Phuong the metaphor for Vietnam, creates her as a one-dimensional, heartless, and materialistic woman without any agency herself. Her strength is in her ability to adjust and survive, but in the end, she is as much the cliché of an enigmatic, elusive oriental femme-fatal to Fowler as she is a charming, passive emblem to Pyle. Can we separate the author’s attitude towards the Vietnamese from that of those two characters? The absence of any three-dimensional Vietnamese character suggests that we can’t. Yet it must be said, that in creating Phuong as a tabula rasa in whom each white character sees only the image he wants her to be, Greene accurately and painfully reveals what Vietnam the country was to those foreigners who came themselves or who sent their countrymen to live and die there.

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The Mountains Sing

By Mai Phan Que Nguyen

Book cover of The Mountains Sing

Why this book?

Although it is the most recently published of this group, The Mountains Sing has already been widely read, reviewed, and translated and is justifiably on its way to becoming a mainstay in the literature of the Vietnam War. The novel serves as a welcome counterpoint to Graham Greene’s Phuong and much other fiction about the war and Vietnam; what the writer wants to—and powerfully succeeds in doing—is to present non-Vietnamese readers not only with female central characters who break the Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon/Quiet American stereotypes, but whose voices take us into the heart of the country itself, the painful history of the nation as personalized through the story of the Tran family as they survive, overcome, and finally thrive. The novel moves from the Second World War to the present and is told in alternating chapters: Huong, a teenager whose mother and father have both gone to fight the war with America, describes her life in Hanoi in wartime, living under terrifying bombardments and deprivations, witnessing her mother and uncle returning from the battlefield traumatized and emotionally numbed, while also seeing how the war which split Vietnam against itself fractures her own family. At the same time, she listens to her Grandmother Dieu Lan tell the story of her life up to that time, through the Japanese occupation, the “Great Hunger” where millions of Vietnamese starved to death, the Land Reform period when forced collectivization in the North was the source of injustice and murder. The story of both these women, and their family, could be—and so represents—the story of millions of Vietnamese, but by concentrating on one family whom we get to know and care about, luminous descriptive language, and the creation of an engrossing plot, it becomes a story through which readers can find a Vietnam missing in so much of American—and in the case of Graham Greene—English fiction about the war. 

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The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien

Book cover of The Things They Carried

Why this book?

Probably the most known and well-read novel of the Vietnam War, and deservedly so. Although one could observe that the Vietnamese also appear only as a backdrop to the actions and reactions of the American characters in The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s devastating honesty in depicting the moral erosions of that attitude is one of the many ways he tried to convey that war as Americans experienced it—a reality that in fact did involve only seeing the Vietnamese as a backdrop. What makes the book truly unique though is the way O’Brien explores how the contradictory yet linked truths of war’s seductiveness and its horror can only be captured through fiction. He calls the book “a work of fiction,” perhaps to reflect the book’s structure which consists of a series of connected stories which contain the same characters and which can be read as independent pieces, but also because the book is as much a meditation about why and how people write fiction about war: how what he calls “story-truth” can sometimes be truer than “happening-truth.”  The characters in O’Brien’s fictional Alpha Company experience the terrifying, soul-deadening reality of the counter-insurgency war; the war against Viet Cong guerillas around and in the villages of coastal Vietnam, where most casualties are from mines and booby-traps, where most battles are reactions to ambushes, where the enemy they are fighting and the people they are supposedly fighting for are intertwined,  where the tunnel-undermined land itself seems to be the enemy, and where the whole war seems a purposeless hump day by day over the same deadly territory, never subdued and always equated with an alien and hostile population.  O’Brien takes them through that territory and then he follows them--including a character, a writer he calls “Tim O’Brien”—home,  traumatized, either frozen in self-imposed silence, or struggling to find ways to tell their story to a country they perceive as indifferent or hostile to them and incapable of understanding their experience.

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The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

By Bảo Ninh

Book cover of The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

Why this book?

Bao Ninh is a veteran of what we called the North Vietnamese Army; he fought for six years, mostly in the heavily jungled Central Highlands, and lost most of the people in his unit. The war his main character, Kien, fights, reflects that experience and so is at that level very different than the war Tim O’Brien describes. It is a difference not just because of the variance between the guerilla war of the coast and the more conventional warfare in the Central Highlands, but, as one would expect, it is the Americans who become background scenery to the Vietnamese experience instead of the reverse, and also because Bao Ninh’s other central character, rather than a young, male soldier, is a woman who bears the same name, Phuong, as Graham Greene’s character. Unlike that Phuong, Bao Ninh’s character is a complexly rendered human being who because of her own search for love is brutalized, raped, and finally completely traumatized by the war. Both The Things They Carried and The Sorrow of War follow the traditional story-journey of innocence tempered and wounded by experience leading to a bitter, knowing maturity. Both convey the emotional reality of the war and depict the pain and numbing caused by constant losses, the erosion of a sense of purpose, the trauma of veterans and civilians literally and figuratively raped, the way their experiences become a barrier that keeps them forever separate from the world to which they return—and the struggle to find ways of breaking the silence of that separation from that world and from their own hearts. It is that last factor which most deeply connects The Things They Carried and The Sorrow of War.  Kien, like “Tim O’Brien” is a writer; the story of the war is presented through the struggles of Kien to write that story as seen in the novel within the novel that he struggles to complete, driven by a sense of obligation to the dead and the damaged. “Kien refights all his battles, relives the times where his life was bitter, lonely, surreal, and full of obstacles and horrendous mistakes. There is a force at work in him that he cannot resist, as though it opposes every orthodox attitude taught him, and it is now his task to expose the realities of war and to tear aside conventional images.”  Bao Ninh mirrors O’Brien in that desire to write about the act of writing fiction; like O’Brien, his character Kien knows that it is only through stories will others be able to understand the sorrow of war.

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