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Book Review 

by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

The title of this book refers to the notion that everyone involved in the Vietnam War -- on all sides -- was motivated by patriotism. That idea might offend some people, as we tend to demonize our enemies, but after you finish Patriots you'll see that it is entirely appropriate. With more than 40 years having passed since the start of the Vietnam War, Christian Appy's exhaustive research has earned him the right to issue this challenge to the reader. "In what ways," he wonders in his preface, "might patriotism be a force for good or inspire noble sacrifice, and when does it become a club for stifling dissent and a rallying cry for unjustifiable destruction?" Obviously, it's still a relevant question.

Appy's 2003 book -- just out in paperback -- is an oral history of the war consisting of interviews with some 130 people who were embroiled in it one way or another. You hear from Communist officials, American generals, soldiers serving on both sides of the horrific front lines -- even a stewardess who wished new troops good luck as they disembarked for their yearlong tours of duty. In letting his sources tell their own stories, Appy does not judge: Anti-war activists' stories are presented alongside the most ardent hawks'. Some of these stories will break your heart, like Bong MacDoran's, a grown woman who, as an infant, was rescued from a mass grave filled with her massacred family and neighbors. She was adopted by an American family.

Appy, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, does insert himself as the narrator, with elegantly concise passages linking the history of Vietnam from the 1950s until that last helicopter left Saigon in 1975. You can bet that 100 years from now, historians will still be referring to this book. Patriots is an American epic.

Some still believe that there is no such thing as a bad war, that American policy is, by definition, infallible. Those people should read this book. Appy's sources prove that the Vietnam War was, indeed, a tragedy of errors. It's a conclusion shared even by those who supported the war most ardently while it was underway.

Bud Krogh, one of the henchmen whom Richard Nixon ordered to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, is a good example. (Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, which shook the nation's confidence in the war in the early 1970s.) "In hindsight, I'd say what Ellsberg did was extraordinarily courageous," says Krogh, who did hard time for organizing break-ins to the office of Ellsberg's therapist. "At the time, I felt that it was a treacherous act of a traitor, but I've come to see it differently. I came to appreciate that Ellsberg was a patriot."

As with so many things, the Vietnam War started with good intentions -- to block the spread of Communism. But those intentions were naive; most top United States officials could not even locate Vietnam on a map in the 1950s. "They came in with this nutty idea," recalls Paul Kattenburg, a Vietnam specialist who served there under Eisenhower, "that we could manipulate other states and build nations, that we knew all the answers."

But the record shows those good intentions gave way to that presidential imperative never to fail; many now believe the same peace agreement reached in 1973 could have been agreed to in 1969, saving nearly half the American lives lost.

"At a very deep level, we were betrayed by our elders," says Fred Branfman, an American aid worker stationed in Laos during the 1960s. "One of the most profound things that happened to this country was that an entire baby boom generation, at least on an unconscious level, knew that their parents were prepared to see them die for a cause they didn't believe in."

Those wounds have not healed. The recent dispute over whether John Kerry was right to oppose the war after returning home has ripped open the scab once again. Yet Patriots shows that the war's critics were right. It's hard to accept that you were crippled -- or that a loved one died -- for a lie, but by the mid-1960s, that's just what it was.

"I've always considered myself a good soldier, whatever that means," says Jim Soular, an American helicopter engineer in Vietnam who now lives in Montana. "But everything I'd been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam."

Nguyen Duy is one of Vietnam's leading poets; he fought against Soular as a Communist soldier during the war, and today, like Soular, the war looms large in his mind. "During the time I was serving in the army, my only wish was to return to that poor but peaceful village [where he grew up]. When I came back after the war, everything had turned upside down. That peaceful beauty had vanished."

Soular and Duy, both motivated by patriotism as young men, came to similar conclusions about the war. "About 12 years ago, it was really strange," recalls Soular. "I was looking in the mirror shaving and I realized that I don't hate the Vietnamese. All I have is this deep, deep sense of sorrow that this whole thing happened. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about Vietnam -- not just what happened to Americans, but what we did to Vietnam."

Duy pours his sorrow into his poetry: "In the end," one of his stanzas reads, "in every war, whoever won, the people always lost."

Publication date: 10/21/04

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