Prominent journalist Max Hastings, author of numerous works of history, including Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, takes on perhaps his most ambitious project yet with the nearly 800-page Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. The war in Vietnam--and the associated wars in Laos and Cambodia--has generated an enormous body of literature, yet Hastings seeks to distinguish his history by delivering a more balanced account of the pain and suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people. Hastings notes in his introduction that "the merits of rival causes are never absolute," and his account holds relentlessly to that maxim. Vietnam portrays the French, Americans, North Vietnamese, Vietcong and other major players as equal partners in a three-decade-long disaster.
Starting with the struggle against French colonialism, Hastings shows that communist forces under the initial leadership of Ho Chi Minh found legitimacy in nationalistic struggle among the Vietnamese people and, to a certain extent, on the global stage. However, what later came to be North Vietnam's status as a closed, totalitarian society prevented outsiders from getting a full picture of the privation and cruelty inflicted on its people. While bombing campaigns and atrocities sullied the American cause, the assassinations, terrorism and tortures committed by the Vietcong received much less attention. North Vietnamese leaders conducted the war with vicious disregard for the lives of their soldiers, just as American leaders sacrificed countless lives for the sake of a "decent interval." In Vietnam, Hastings argues, neither side can claim the high ground. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.