Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War

David Chanoff + Doan Van Toai

Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2009 [1986]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
An oral history presenting the Vietnamese experience of the Second Indochina War, Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War offers a range of perspectives. It is dominated by North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas, along with some political and artistic figures; three of these are followed throughout the war. One southern Buddhist leader is included, but no ARVN or Republic of Vietnam figures at all, or much in the way of "ordinary" people.

Their stories give a broad feel for the experience of war, as well as some details. The way North Vietnam hid soldiers' deaths from families, with many only finding out unofficially or not at all until years later, and kept injured soldiers interned in camps to protect civilian morale. The folly of Diem's anti-Buddhist campaigns in 1963, which helped alienate many staunch anti-communists who had left the north in 1954. The terrors of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the training and operations of sappers, and the highs and lows of soldier morale.

The stories are mostly based on interviews carried out in the United States, so there is a bias towards people who fled Vietnam — many of the contributors are ethnic Chinese who experienced purges in the late 1970s, for example. Other sources include interrogation records of captured or "rallied" soldiers and some stories published in North Vietnam. A foreword, an introduction and an afterword, some notes before each section, and some descriptions of individual interviews provide plenty of background and context, historical, methodological and personal. This allows readers to make their own evaluation of bias in the sources and their selection.

Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War offers a balance to the dominance, at least in English, of American perspectives on the Vietnam War. It was published in 1986, however, just as Vietnam began opening up its economy, and there's surely an opportunity now for an expanded volume drawing on a broader range of sources and covering a broader range of perspectives.

February 2010

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%T Vietnam
%S A Portrait of its People at War
%A Chanoff, David
%A Doan Van Toai
%I Tauris Parke Paperbacks
%D 2009 [1986]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781845118532
%P 215pp