The best Vietnam war books that explore waste and loss

Who am I?

As I write this, I massage aching bits of shrapnel still embedded beneath silvered scars. I’ve read many Vietnam War stories—praising the war, glorifying combat, condemning the war. My stories are 1st person limited POV, voice of a twenty-year-old sailor. My title is a spin-off of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. By the time I wrote my memoir, I realized that our national goals in Vietnam had been Muddy from the beginning. I too, traveled Jungle Rivers. During my time on the riverboat, I witnessed Rivers of blood—rivers of life, trickle across our deck. And yes, Jungle is a fitting metaphor for our life at that time.

I wrote...

Muddy Jungle Rivers: A river assault boat cox'n's memory journey of his war in Vietnam

By Wendell Affield,

Book cover of Muddy Jungle Rivers: A river assault boat cox'n's memory journey of his war in Vietnam

What is my book about?

Muddy Jungle Rivers is a close-up look at life on a gunboat during 1968, the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War. It’s the story of a seven-man crew captained by a volatile pro-war enlisted man. Like Philip Caputo’s A Rumor Of War, this narrative takes the reader into frustration, rage, terror, death, betrayal, and the search for redemption. Muddy Jungle Rivers has 29 chapters, maps, and photographs. Today’s generation watch their peers returning from combat and cannot understand why their loved ones have changed after being blanched in the cauldron of war. In Muddy Jungle Rivers the reader will glimpse the genesis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Steve Almond wrote the Foreword for Muddy Jungle Rivers.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir

Why did I love this book?

This is the first Vietnam War book I read. For almost ten years I remained silent about my military service—many coworkers did not know I had served, let alone two tours and wounded in action. Caputo’s voice and sense of loss and waste and rage touched so close to my feelings. His gift of words made me live again the countless hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror—for me, ambushes, mines, incoming artillery, and mortar rounds. Twenty years in the future, when I began writing my stories, I read Caputo’s book again because I hoped to emulate his sense of angst.

By Philip Caputo,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Rumor of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 40th anniversary edition of the classic Vietnam memoir―featured in the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick―with a new foreword by Kevin Powers

In March of 1965, Lieutenant Philip J. Caputo landed at Danang with the first ground combat unit deployed to Vietnam. Sixteen months later, having served on the line in one of modern history’s ugliest wars, he returned home―physically whole but emotionally wasted, his youthful idealism forever gone.

A Rumor of War is far more than one soldier’s story. Upon its publication in 1977, it shattered America’s indifference to the fate of…

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

Why did I love this book?

After my mother was committed, I went through five foster homes by sixteen. Wolff’s early years mirrored mine in some respects—broken home, high school dropout, military service a path forward. He even served in the Mekong Delta, arriving early in 1968 just as the Tet Offensive was trigged. I arrived one week later. Wolff’s tight dialogue and crazy exploits such as the color television resonated. But “Last Shot”—the last two pages really touched me as he reflects on a lost friend Hugh—no chance to live life and have a family. Many years ago my daughter went to Washington D.C. She asked if I knew anyone on the Wall. She returned with thirteen etchings. Each day I reflect on why I have lived so long and they never had a chance. Wolff shares that emotion so masterfully throughout his book.

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.

Book cover of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram

Why did I love this book?

As a child, I lived in abject poverty on a little farm in northern Minnesota. By ten years old I was trapping raccoons and shooting squirrels to help put food on our table. When I was in Vietnam, I felt a deep empathy for the Vietnamese fishermen and farmers who lived in poverty complicated by the vicious war. Years later when I began reading Dang Thuy Tram’s diary, I couldn’t put it down. The loss and waste and love for her comrades struck close to home and made me feel guilty for my participation in the war. In her writing, Dang brings to life so many of her Vietnamese comrades who were killed—making one stop to consider the cost of war. In a way the book reminds me of All Quiet on the Western Front written by a German soldier—the loss and waste.

By Dang Thuy Tram,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Last Night I Dreamed of Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is the moving diary kept by a 27-year-old Vietnamese doctor who was killed by the Americans during the Vietnam War, while trying to defend her patients. Not only is it an important slice of history, from the opposite side of Dispatches and Apocalypse Now, but it shows the diarist - Dang Thuy Tram - as a vibrant human being, full of youthful idealism, a poetic longing for love, trying hard to be worthy of the Communist Party and doing her best to look after her patients under appalling conditions.


Book cover of The Magnificent Bastards: The Joint Army-Marine Defense of Dong Ha, 1968

Why did I love this book?

My river boat division (Mobile Riverine Force Division 112) patrolled the Cua Viet River just south of the DMZ between North and South Vietnam during the timeline of this book so I could very much relate to the events, though the Marines took much heavier casualties than our boats did. Keith Nolan does an excellent job documenting the battles—as I read, I relived the bomb and strafing runs done by the navy aircraft carrier F-4 Phantoms (which I also wrote about in my memoir) Nolan’s very detailed account of the Marine battles on the north side of the river answered many decades-old questions for me. His use of dialogue and insights into the Marines keep the reader engrossed. 

By Keith Nolan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Magnificent Bastards as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On April 29, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army is spotted less than four miles from the U.S. Marines’ Dong Ha Combat Base. Intense fighting develops in nearby Dai Do as the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, known as “the Magnificent Bastards,” struggles to eject NVA forces from this strategic position.

Yet the BLT 2/4Marines defy the brutal onslaught. Pressing forward, America’s finest warriors rout the NVA from their fortress-hamlets–often in deadly hand-to-hand combat.At the end of two weeks of desperate, grinding battles, the Marines and the infantry battalion supporting them are torn to shreds. But against all odds, they beat back…

Book cover of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

Why did I love this book?

McMaster’s book confirms the corruption, lies, and hubris of national leaders, including the military during the Vietnam era. As a high-ranking officer in the army, I found his in-depth analysis of deception at the top levels very troubling. This is a must-read for every person interested in our history—especially to understand the mistakes of the Vietnam War—the quagmire that pulled us in. 

By H R McMaster,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dereliction of Duty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C." -H. R. McMaster (from the Conclusion) Dereliction Of Duty is a stunning analysis of how and why the United States became involved in an all-out and disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Fully and convincingly researched, based on transcripts and personal accounts of crucial meetings, confrontations and decisions, it is the only book that fully re-creates what happened and why. McMaster pinpoints the policies and decisions that got…

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