Hastings is perfectly suited to write about the Vietnam War. He witnessed its peculiar tragedies at first hand, arriving in Saigon in 1971 as a reporter at the age of 24. It’s fitting that a journalist should chronicle this war, since journalists played such a prominent part. The fact that Hastings is British is an additional advantage, since American writers are often blinded by their insularity ... This is a long book but not a bloated one; this war demands the detail that Hastings provides. His basic arguments are not particularly new, but the book itself is still original. What makes it so magnificent is its intimacy. Hastings possesses the journalist’s instinct for a good story, the tiny anecdote that exposes a big truth. Large tragedies are illustrated through very personal pain.
With Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975, British military historian Max Hastings offers a literary analogue to PBS’ series; in his introduction he acknowledges a debt to Burns and Novick. But while equally stellar, Hastings’ book skews differently, an outsider’s detailed, under-the-hood investigation into the United States’ unwinnable war; China and the Soviet Union’s chicanery; and a people determined to strip away the bonds of colonialism, even to the point of self-immolation. Richly drawn, the dramatis personae leap from Hastings’ pages. There’s moral rot aplenty, on all sides ... while the tragic arc is familiar, Hastings paints his mural in fresh hues, his strokes concise yet colorful, guiding us through each trauma-wracked episode, from the acrimonious collapse of French imperialism to the Geneva Convention’s partition of Vietnam to mounting war ... the complete story is here, masterfully told, in the tradition of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Seymour Hersh.
Max Hastings’s Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 reads like a gripping work of fiction. The storyline is as fluid as it is riveting, and the main characters are finely delineated ... The suffering and losses endured by civilians are vividly illustrated, humanizing them to a degree few accounts have ... But then Hastings falls into the trap of essentialism, egregiously reducing Hanoi policymakers to narrow, ugly caricatures bordering on travesties ... Fear of the regime, Hastings suggests, was the average Notherner’s only motivation, a proposition so hyperbolic as to be preposterous. The assessment of Southern leaders and combatants is no less galling ... a critical flaw of the book is its failure to seriously engage the ever-expanding documentary record on the Vietnam wars. In at least one instance, Hastings references a document cited elsewhere without crediting that source. As all this suggests, Hastings opted to sacrifice scholarly rigor for the sake of sensationalist retelling. Gratuitously graphic descriptions of massacres and other atrocities permeate the narrative ... For many of the wrong reasons, some readers will love this book. And that is tragic, too.