The best Vietnam War literature books by 4 authors I have interviewed and one that I wish I had

Who am I?

From an early age, I have made a life out of listening to, telling, teaching, and writing about war stories. I am intrigued by their widespread personal and public importance. My changing associations with these stories and their tellers have paralleled evolving stages in my life—son, soldier, father, and college professor. Each stage has spawned different questions and insights about the tales and their narrators. At various moments in my own life, these war stories have also given rise to fantasized adventure, catharsis, emotional highs and lows, insights about human nature tested within the crucible of war, and intriguing relationships with the storytellers—their lives and minds.


I wrote...

Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O'Brien, Butler

By Tobey C. Herzog,

Book cover of Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O'Brien, Butler

What is my book about?

My book includes extended conversations with four prominent American soldier-authors (Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, Tim O’Brien, and Robert Olen Butler) who fought in the Vietnam War. These individuals tell their life stories, discuss their writing process, and advise on the teaching of writing. In addition, the authors share their war stories, specifically what they did in war, what the war did to them, and how and why they wrote about their war experiences. These conversations, along with richly annotated life chronologies, reveal that these four prizewinning authors have diverse upbringings, values, war experiences, life experiences, writing careers, and literary voices. Together, their four life and war stories also present a mini-tableaux of the fascinating and troubling time of 1960s and 1970s America. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Tobey C. Herzog Why did I love this book?

Caputo’s 1977 Vietnam War memoir is important because it transcends the typical battlefield diary and fulfills the author’s literary intentions of portraying this soldier’s spiritual and psychological changes. In our 2005 interview, Caputo noted that he wanted to “recreate the war as concretely as possible,” which he certainly does through the eyes of a Marine infantry officer. But for me and many Vietnam veterans, Caputo, through his own story, also traces our soldier evolution through stages of innocence about war, disturbing war experiences, and choices between good and evil. Caputo’s narrative voice and detailed descriptions reflect his journalistic background, and the book’s moral underpinnings emerge from his “Catholic imagination.” On another level, the memoir also subtly reveals America’s own loss of innocence and growing cynicism about the nature and goals of the Vietnam War.  

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 Paco's Story

Tobey C. Herzog Why did I love this book?

For me, this book is the best of the Vietnam War “aftermath” novels, books dealing with veterans’ post-war physical and psychological struggles. Winner of the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, this novel, according to the author in our 2005 interview, was written to “get the hair up on the back of your [reader’s] neck.” Haunting, as well as times cynical, ironic, and brutally graphic, the author accomplishes his goal. Heinemann deftly portrays Army veteran Paco Sullivan’s cross-country odyssey, via interstate buses, in search of both spiritual and physical homes. This interstate nomad is a tragic character—mysterious and complex. At the end of this thought-provoking and uncomfortable novel, I am left with an unresolved question: is Paco a sympathetic victim of the war and America’s indifference to veterans or an active agent in his own physical and psychological turmoil? 

By Larry Heinemann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paco's Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Paco Sullivan is the only man in Alpha Company to survive a cataclysmic Viet Cong attack on Fire Base Harriette in Vietnam. Everyone else is annihilated. When a medic finally rescues Paco almost two days later, he is waiting to die, flies and maggots covering his burnt, shattered body. He winds up back in the US with his legs full of pins, daily rations of Librium and Valium, and no sense of what to do next. One evening, on the tail of a rainstorm, he limps off the bus and into the small town of Boone, determined to find a…


Book cover of Going After Cacciato

Tobey C. Herzog Why did I love this book?

A 1979 National Book Award winner for fiction, O’Brien’s first Vietnam War novel is, for me, his best piece of writing, and O’Brien in our 2014 interview concurred. Yes, it’s a timeless but freshly told war story about one soldier’s struggle to overcome fear and act courageously on the battlefield. The book’s attraction for me, however, is the complex, engaging, lyrical manner in which the story is told—multiple time sequences and narrative strands, realism mixed with magical realism, and the central character’s interplay of memory and imagination in recalling and creating events. The book is also a how-to manual on the art of storytelling. And like all great pieces of literature, a reader’s appreciation of O’Brien’s story and art increases with multiple readings. This is a book that engages readers seeking to know more about the Vietnam War, writers studying narrative craft, and general readers wanting to be entertained and challenged by a fascinating story.

By Tim O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Going After Cacciato as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the National Book Award, 'Going After Cacciato' captures the peculiar mixture of horror and hallucination that marked the Vietnam War, this strangest of wars.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris.

In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, 'Going After Cacciato' stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it's about the forces of…


Book cover of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories

Tobey C. Herzog Why did I love this book?

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this collection of short stories draws upon Butler’s fluency in the Vietnamese language, his experiences as an Army intelligence specialist living in Saigon during the war, and later his extensive contacts with Vietnamese communities in and near New Orleans, Louisiana. These stories are Vietnamese aftermath tales of émigrés adjusting to post-war life in America and yearning to retain their individual and cultural identities—a quest Butler described “as a pursuit of self” in our 2005 interview. For me, this book illuminates the culture, history, and communities that I, and most American soldiers, never attempted to know when we were in Vietnam and tended to ignore once Vietnamese resettled in the U.S. This book reaffirms for me that despite our many differences, we are all linked by the joys, sorrows, and hopes of our universal human condition. 

By Robert Olen Butler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert Olen Butler's lyrical and poignant collection of stories about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese was acclaimed by critics across the nation and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. A contemporary classic by one of America's most important living writers, this edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain includes two subsequently published stories that brilliantly complete the collection's narrative journey, returning to the jungles of Vietnam.


Book cover of Dispatches

Tobey C. Herzog Why did I love this book?

As a Vietnam veteran, teacher of war literature, and writer, I am disappointed that I never interviewed Michael Herr. I can only imagine what such an encounter might have been like with this larger-than-life figure, at least the persona (adrenaline junky, reporter on drugs) found in this fragmented collection of war reportage. With its New Journalistic style and content, the sensory-overload writing might be best described as a collection of literary illumination rounds (their underlying message—war is hell and addictive). As a freelance journalist, Herr arrived in Vietnam wanting to reveal the large ugly truths about the war, which he succeeds in doing, but I find the soldiers’ personal war stories more gripping and truthful. For me and even Herr, the real surprise is that this book ultimately chronicles the author’s own war story of innocence lost: the anti-war reporter becomes just as addicted to war as some of his subjects—“Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods” - Herr.

By Michael Herr,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Dispatches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With an introduction by Kevin Powers.

A groundbreaking piece of journalism which inspired Stanley Kubrick's classic Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket.

We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.

Michael Herr went to Vietnam as a war correspondent for Esquire. He returned to tell the real story in all its hallucinatory madness and brutality, cutting to the quick of the conflict and its seductive, devastating impact on a generation of young men. His unflinching account is haunting in its violence, but…


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Book cover of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

Clifford A. Wright Author Of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

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