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

Tobey C. Herzog Author Of Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O'Brien, Butler
By Tobey C. Herzog

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. 

The books I picked & why

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A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir

By Philip Caputo,

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

Why 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.  

Paco's Story

By Larry Heinemann,

Book cover of Paco's Story

Why 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? 

Going After Cacciato

By Tim O'Brien,

Book cover of Going After Cacciato

Why 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.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories

By Robert Olen Butler,

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

Why 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 Michael Herr,

Book cover of Dispatches

Why 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.

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