The War, 1954-1975
Simon \& Schuster, $35, 766 pp.
Michael Herr’s justly celebrated book of war reportage, Dispatches, ends with the words: "Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there." It is one of those enigmatic lines you might admire until some teacher requires a three-page interpretation. In truth, only a small fraction of Americans had literally been to Vietnam and most of them were GIs who might as well have been on another planet for all they were told, or allowed to experience, of that foreign culture. Some had to "hump the boonies" out in "Indian Country," slogging with heavy packs from one grid coordinate to another in search of vaguely defined enemies before returning, if they were lucky, to a nation they had begun to call "The World." Others were stationed on large, fenced-in bases that imported so much asphalt, refrigeration, and rock ’n’ roll they might have been mistaken for minimum-security prisons somewhere in Southern California if it weren’t for the terrible humidity and the occasional sapper attacks. No wonder, years later, many veterans had to study maps to find out precisely where they had once been sent to take lives and risk their own.
Herr, of course, was not being literal. By the time Dispatches was published in 1977, Americans had long regarded Vietnam not as a country so much as a metaphor for war-a war so disastrous and divisive and apparently endless that it did not seem hyperbolic to suggest that it had spread back across the...
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About the Author
Chris Appy is the author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking).