Book Review: Patriots by Christian Appy

The conflict in Vietnam between the United States and Vietnamese nationalists from the 1950’s to the mid-1970’s generated a narrative in America traditionally focused on American geopolitics and societal cause-and-effect, often eschewing the role their Vietnamese combatants played in deciding the conflict. Under this structure, historians often severely underplay the role of the Vietnamese civilians, minimizing their impact on the outcome of the war. The inclusion of these histories would force historians to reconstruct the war from both sides. As Christian Appy asks in Patriots:

What may happen to our conception of the Vietnam War if we simply began to hear the accounts of American veterans alongside the memories of Vietnamese who fought with and against them? What if we witnessed those distant jungle firefights through the eyes of the people who regarded the battlefield as home and called this epic struggle “The American War? 1Christian Appy, Patriots (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), xv.

In order to better understand this war, and more aptly be able to convey its true role in transforming both nations, it is imperative to balance this top-heavy Americanized approach with a more encompassing history that properly weighs the impact the Vietnamese had on their own war of independence.

The majority of Vietnamese, more than anything, wanted national unification. While in America the war is a small part of a larger narrative of post-World War II meddling and intervention by the United States government, the conflict from the Vietnamese perspective, according to Appy, is best viewed as part of a “long chain of wars for independence that began in the year 40.”2Appy, xvii. The failure to include a proper analysis of the Vietnamese experience in the war would be akin, to say, the failure of British historians to study the mindset of colonists in the American Revolution.

The thesis of Appy’s work is that there was a plethora of people, the patriots foreshadowed in the title, that contributed to the war effort, not only from governmental posts in Hanoi and beyond, but in the jungles of Vietnam, the forests of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hospitals built in bunkers, and, of course, the temporary fortifications of the guerilla fighters in the South. In portraying the Vietnamese as seeking a national entity, a precursor to patriotism after all, Appy tells a story of superhuman acts performed by ordinary individuals which, in total, produced an undercurrent of support that no amount of American bombs or aid could defeat.  Appy interviewed over three-hundred-and-fifty people for his work, an amazing array of civilians, armed force personnel, and politicians from all sides of the war, attempting to paint a more complete picture of the conflict. In doing so, Appy discovers a pronounced dichotomy in attitudes towards the war, especially at its climax and conclusion, and also leaves one to ponder how the American government could not only have been so out of tune with the opposition voices of its combatants, but also with those of its own people.

The story of North Vietnamese dedication to the war effort comes in a variety of forms. Of course there were the soldiers, whose ceaseless harassments rendered their powerful counterpart’s strategies ineffective. However, the stories in Appy’s book that resonate the loudest are the inconspicuous yet highly imperative actions of the citizenry which formed the backbone of support of the Ho Chi Minh regime. The policy of the United States was that it was protecting the south from a regime that they did not want. The dirty lie was that this was a fabrication of the truth. The United States simply did not want Vietnam to fall under the government of Communists despite the fact that the vast majority of the population would rather have an all-communist and unified Vietnam than the capitalist-communist divided Vietnam that was agreed to in 1954. It was this resistance, bred through generations of people fueled by the desire for a truly free independent, united Vietnam, that would form the toughest resistance the U.S. government would encounter.

Historians have uncovered just dozens of the thousands of tales that could be aptly described as, in borrowing a phrase from John F. Kennedy, profiles in patriotism. For instance, Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff introduce us to Nguyen Danh, a Vietnamese nationalist who spent three years in the jungle preparing a road on the Ho Chi Minh trail for transport. There, they had just rice to eat and no shelter besides plastic sheets to cover them from the heavy rain.3Nguyen Danh, “On the Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War, edited by David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, 147-149. New York: Taurus Parke Paperbacks, 2009. Of course, there were others, such as Vu Thi Vinh, one of tens of thousands of young girls to work on the trail, cutting down trees, clearing trails, and diffusing bombs.4Vu Thi Vinh, “The Truong Son jungle gave us life” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 104. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. The true depths of the despair in life on the trail is evident in Vu Thi Vinh’s own words:

Needless to say, life in the jungle was extremely hard. When we weren’t supplied with rice we ate whatever we could find. We searched for crabs under rocks in the streams and occasionally we were lucky enough to come up with some cassava. Sometimes we had to scrape fungus and moss off of rocks. “Aircraft vegetables” we called them because they were the only edible things left after all the bombing. We were so hungry everything tasted good…the Truong Son jungle gave us life.5Vu Thi Vinh, “The Truong Son jungle gave us life” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 104. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

A common sentiment across the breadth of these essential war-efforts was the fact that they were rooted in a deep desire to defeat the South. Vinh would go on to say that “we were so young we didn’t know anything, but our patriotism was very high. We went to war willingly.”6Ibid.

Furthermore, the north was predisposed to fight the war in a way that would seem incomprehensible to outsiders but absolutely essential to those truly dedicated to the cause. For instance, the North set up a series of hospitals to house their wounded. These were far from the traditional Vietnam-era hospitals most Americans think of with ice cream and beeping IV machines. Rather, these were mobile units buried in bunkers. Dr. Dai, who from 1966-74 directed the largest of these units in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, remembers how transient they were: every few months they had to move all patients and supplies to new location to avoid detection by U.S. aerial bombers. They would seek locations in triple-canopy jungle to protect them from bombings and chemical agents.7Le Cao Dai, “Sometime I operated all night while the staff took turns pedaling the bicycle” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 139. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

The locations set up were not rooms or hallways or even structures with walls. They were carved into the dirt, and often one bunker housed four or five patients. It would take Dr. Dai hours to walk from one end to the other. Additionally, Dr. Dai notes that location was not their only problem:

There was a shortage of everything. Most of our equipment had been destroyed, lost, or damaged on our journey south. Probably only ten percent arrived and some of that was defective or incomplete. For example, the x-ray equipment arrived safely but we lost the protective lead apron. We didn’t even have scalpels or other surgical instruments. We finished out own out of used scrap metal from unexploded American bombs and shell casings or pieces of aluminum from planes that had been shot down. We even mad intravenous tubes from the rubber insulation we found around electrical wires on American aircraft. So the Americans provided us with many of our supplies.8Le Cao Dai, “Sometime I operated all night while the staff took turns pedaling the bicycle” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 139. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Those supplies the Americans did not supply, such as electricity, were resourced using primitive yet effective methods such bicycle-powered generators. The whole staff kept the hospitals running by taking turns pedaling. (The staff even had to grow their own food as the government only had enough to feed the casualties of war, not their caretakers.) The persistence of many civilians on the periphery of the conflict are what allowed those at the core to win; it was impossible for this to be the case for the Americans who did not have the same motivations for success in the conflict.

The ability to conduct the war on their own soil also gave the Vietnamese immense advantages. In addition to makeshift hospitals that were mobile, the Vietnamese also perfected other methods to avoid detection and confrontation when it would be inconvenient. In their base camps, for instance, artist Vu Hy Thieu recounted how the troops would frequently use a Hoang Cam Cooker, a device that dispensed the smoke from cooking that it became virtually undetectable to surveillance planes in the sky. Conversely, the North Vietnamese were able to infiltrate deep into the south with their own scouts, even using children to conduct espionage missions.9Vu Hy Thieu, “Nothing was more essential than our sandals” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 191. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

By contrast, the government of South Vietnam was not as tenacious or effective in their governing. To begin, the government was viewed as a puppet regime subservient to the whims of the presiding American administrations. Northern war tactics were aimed directly at further subverting the government of the south in the eyes of the commoner. For instance, the north condoned terror strikes and employed assassins to undermine the credibility of the government in Saigon. Nguyen Van Thich, a Viet Cong assassin in the late 1960’s, remarked that “assassinating and kidnapping GVN officials would help South Vietnam be liberated even faster…destroying the government infrastructure would help the party mobilize people to fight.”10Nguyen Van Thich, “VC Assassin” in Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War, edited by David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, 168. New York: Taurus Parke Paperbacks, 2009.

As the American involvement in Vietnam increased throughout the 1960’s, it became more apparent to some that a tragic error had been committed by United States government officials. From the start, they had operated under the basic premise that the common South Vietnamese citizen preferred a standalone free South Vietnam over a united but communist nation. The failure to comprehend the near multi-millennia struggle to unite Vietnam under one flag by nationalists escaped the comprehension of many in the successive American administrations intent on building a new nation separate from the north. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke would remark later that “we fought the war for a separate South Vietnam, but there wasn’t any south and there never was one…We used to talk about nation-building, but no outside force is going to build a nation…there just wasn’t a government there in South Vietnam that had any popular support.”11Paul Warnke, “We fought for a separate South Vietnam, but there wasn’t any South” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 279. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Additionally, many felt that having U.S. soldiers in Vietnam actually destroyed any casus belli the south had in the first place. As South Vietnamese soldier Truong Tran remarked, “at least the Communists were Vietnamese.”12Truong Tran, “We could either lose or tie, but not win” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 504. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. He would go on to cite even more geopolitical realities facing the Americans:

We agreed to fight a war that we could either lose or tie, but not win. The best we could ever do is keep half the country. On the other side, the communists could either win or tie, but not lose. Since all Vietnamese hoped for eventual unification of the country, once again the North had a more persuasive goal. People might not want communism, but the communists could at least promise national unification.13Truong Tran, “We could either lose or tie, but not win” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 504. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

If you were a Vietnamese citizen during the post-World War II era, the Communists provided the best route towards complete unification. They had survived the Japanese, ousted the French, and were resisting an American force that promised, at best, a divided Vietnam. It is not surprising, therefore, to see such an undercurrent of Communist support even near Saigon.

The dedication of the supporters of the North Vietnamese stand, in retrospect, in deep contrast with that of the American and South Vietnamese throughout the 1960’s. Many did not understand why they were there, or worse, became deeply sympathetic to the cause of the north. Jim Soular, a pilot who served from 1966-67, also proposed that American ignorance about the Vietnamese people played a role in defeat by remembering that “we didn’t know anything about the Vietnamese when we went there and we didn’t know anything more when we left.”14Jim Soular, “A goddamn chopper was worth three times more than David” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 159. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Soular remarks that even efforts to “help” the South Vietnamese were actually counter-productive:

Even at that time in the war I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there. That it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors.15Jim Soular, “A goddamn chopper was worth three times more than David” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 158. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

The most common criticism of American attempts at nation building, even into the twenty-first century, has been a misunderstanding of local politics and a failure to properly gauge the will of the people.

Perhaps the lack of American morale was due to the ebbing of American patriotism in regards to this particular corner of the globe. This was not a war being fought for something the American public could grasp or that they could relate to. Many of the draftees of the war were being held to the moral standards of the World War II generation yet the war in Vietnam lacked the impetus of the conflict beginning in 1941. James Lafferty, an operator at a Detroit, Michigan law firm free draft counseling center, felt that this was evident in the draft proceedings:

If you’re just hanging around with no job prospects you might think the military isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. And in the early days, most young men didn’t know what the war was about. You know, during the Second World War, the draft served a very different function. Most people believed in that war and felt a patriotic urge to enlist in the army. So the draft was used mainly to screen out from service those who were too old, or were needed to work in the defense plants, or whose health was so poor they would have been a liability.16James Lafferty, “No draft board ever failed to meet it quotas” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 166. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

In retrospect, the contrast between Vietnamese nationalist children such as Vu Thi Vinh, who voluntarily cleared the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the reluctant, drafted American soldiers could not be more prescient. The soldiers of ARVN often fared no better, Chi Nguyen, a surgeon at a Saigon hospital from 1965-74, reported that “our people endured so much over the years that being wounded was not considered the worst that could happen…we amputated the limbs of some men who even expressed relief-for them, the war was finally over.”17Chi Nguyen, “Being wounded was not considered the worst thing that could happen” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 176. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Even those running the war on the ground in Vietnam seemed to be unsure what the true objective of the war was, and those who did covered up failures to ensure that the public, and the troops, would not become despondent. For instance, a 1974 questionnaire posed by veteran Douglas Kinnard surveyed 173 army generals who served as commanders in Vietnam. Almost seventy percent reported they did not understand the wars true aims or objectives.18Douglas Kinnard, “While we had the power, it turned out they had the will” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 321. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Kinnard would go on:

What it basically came down to was attrition. I think we were always working under the assumption that if you just kept hitting the enemy hard enough, he would quit. Everything was based on that assumption. But the assumption was totally wrong. The enemy was not going to quit, no matter how good our statistics looked. We had made it a war of wills, rather than a war of power. The problem was, while we had the power, it turned out they had the will.19Douglas Kinnard, “While we had the power, it turned out they had the will” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 321. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

U.S. Combat Ranger Dennis Deal remembered that even when it was becoming apparent that the U.S. was losing, military leadership would temper the severity of the situation:

The generals who were running the show tried to cover up the fact that we all felt we’d been beaten; we vowed never to forget the people who denigrated this battle by calling our casualties light to moderate. That enraged us. Westmoreland would have sacrificed you in a minute. He didn’t care what kind of danger he sent you into.20Dennis Deal, “Man, if we’re up against this, it’s gonna be a long-ass year” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 135. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Increasing frustration with leadership was also stark in comparison with the more structured and secure military apparatus from Hanoi.

As each successive President from Eisenhower to Nixon increased the role of the U.S. military presence, they dug a deeper hole in an unwinnable war. H.D.S. Greenway of Time Magazine would later reflect this argument in a discourse with Appy:

They could lick their wounds and come back and fight another day at their time and their place. They weren’t fighting to win every battle, but to wear us down and outlast us. They weren’t fighting so much for territory but to win a political war and to mount something as effective as the Tet Offensive showed that all the American ideas of progress were an illusion. In a few years they could do the same thing. And when you get rid of our commanding general, and the President of the United States says he isn’t going to run for reelection, and the United States sues for peace in Paris, well I think that pretty well loads the balance sheet as a victory for them.21H.D.S. Greenway, “We would write something and the magazine would ignore it if it wasn’t upbeat” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 261. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

While many in the upper echelons of the armed services and government would blame the media or public opinion, it is clear that those on the ground would give more credit to the North Vietnamese. The American government tried to downplay the successes of the North Vietnamese and focus on statistic-based war agenda to achieve victory; ideas like crossover-points and kill-ratios became to have no meaning even for commanders. The gruesomeness on the battlefield stood in direct opposition of any falsely optimistic spin the government tried to put on it. As Viet Cong artist Quach Van Phong would say, “although we were on opposite sides, we shared the same battleground.”22Quach Van Phong, “An artist can be as important in war as a soldier” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 187. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Christian Appy’s Patriots captures the nationalist fervor from all sides of the conflict and gave a stronger voice (in the US) to the previously faintly heard whispers of ordinary Vietnamese nationalists. In his introduction, Appy declared it was his intent to show “how forcefully patriotism shaped the lives of people on all sides of the war.”23Appy, xviii. In a euphoric nation coming off the heels of solving major old problems and confronting new ones in its wake, the United States after World War II may have lost its way in deciphering the true motives of the Vietnamese. Nationalists in Hanoi did not want to play in the game of grander geopolitics but rather use the game to their advantage in the interests of total unification. As Sergei Khrushchev later said, “the Soviets thought Hanoi was controlled by Beijing and the Americans thought Hanoi was controlled by Moscow. In reality, the Vietnamese had their own ideas. They played their own game. The winner would not be the Soviet Union or China or the United States; it would be the Vietnamese.”24Sergei Khrushchev, “The Vietnamese had their own ideas” in Patriots, edited by Christian Appy, 87. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

The narrative of the conflict in Vietnam between Americans and Vietnamese nationalists from the 1950’s to the 1970’s has traditionally been, stateside at least, focused heavily on American contributions in its literature. Vietnamese voices illuminate a theme of patriotism and ultra-nationalism that was the deciding factor in what, in Vietnam, is referred to as the American War. American leaders often forgot that Vietnam would rather have had communist Vietnamese government at the helm than capitalist American puppets, even if the latter ideology is preferred over the former. The underestimating of Vietnamese nationalism was concluded by Appy to be a major factor in the tale of the war: “Ho Chi Minh often said that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for ten, twenty, even a hundred years, to drive out the Americans and overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Saigon. Such claims were not taken seriously by American leaders who persuaded themselves that eventually they could break the will of the Vietnamese. They never could.”25Appy, xxi.

<em>Patriots</em> by Christian Appy
Patriots by Christian Appy

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of two previous books on the Vietnam War. His oral history of the war, Patriots, was a main selection of Book of the Month Club and won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. He lives in Amherst.