Voices from Vietnam by Barry Denenberg: Book review

Voices from VietnamVoices from Vietnam by Barry Denenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent book for the post-Vietnam conflict era reader to gain insight into a very complex 30-year war that dragged the French and then the Americans into a conflict that underscores how colonial and neo-colonial efforts to maintain the status quo in the face of a grassroots independence movements failed miserably.

The synopsis of the war is punctuated by sections of letters written at each period during the conflict by our nation’s leaders as they attempted to persuade the American people that things were going our way, that we needed more troops, that if we only pushed a bit here or there, we would force the indigenous peoples to bend to our will. In the process, the reader gains an understanding of how self-delusion on the part of national leaders leads them to twist and falsify claims of victory, when then privately are haunted by a deeper knowledge that a quagmire has been entered, from which there can only be a retreat. The strategies enlisted by our government of initially supporting what appeared to be local elements in a civil war, descend over time into limited warfare, fortified enclaves, carpet bombing, mass defoliation, and the indiscriminate use of shelling, bombs and troops to take and retake the same territory time and again, while never setting a firm final objective cry of “Take Hanoi!” the way previous wars had centered on concrete goals such as “On to Paris!” or “Take Berlin!”

Most interesting are the letters from the soldiers, news personnel, nurses, doctors, and embassy personnel on the ground in Vietnam who lived with the day to day uncertainties and consequences of the war. The hopes of the short-timer are contrasted with the fatigue, depression, and disillusionment of the personnel on the ground. The letters home are never able to communicate the full depth of the feelings being shared by the nurses, the wounded, the new recruits and the observers on the ground, all of whom interpret their sections of the conflict in different ways.

Additionally, the book underscores how Americans misunderstood the goals, and desires of both the leaders and the peasants of Vietnam. On one hand the desire of an elite to maintain control of a country in which they were a minority, by military means, in contrast with the hand to mouth agricultural lives of the peasants who needed to switch loyalties, on pain of death, almost on a daily basis, depending on which military group was occupying their village.

Read the book with the knowledge that this is not the only interpretation of the Vietnam conflict and is certainly only a primer on the politics of the time. The author puts in snippets of the protests within the U.S. as well as comments on the effects of the draft and our concurrent civil rights movement within America as a backdrop to this war. It should be taken in as an eye opener for young readers about the terrible aftermath of any war which goes on to affect a nation for multiple generations after the papers are signed ending what might have been a situation better left alone.

Suitable for readers from 8th grade up through adult for discussions and meditation on wars, their purposes, and the baggage leaders take to the table when they become involved in any war.

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