A young Vietnamese girl stands on a precarious-looking and unfinished bridge. A vista of lush mountains of unique limestone formations lies before her. Her body faces the mountains, her posture upright, her glance is back towards a photographer.
The photographer is a travel writer for the Financial Times and in his May 20, 2023 article, he details an exhilarating 1000-mile motorcycle trek across Hà Giang, a city in the northernmost and arguably most beautiful province of Vietnam. The photographer captures what the world sees in Vietnam today: a tourist destination.
Nowhere in the travel piece is the Vietnam War mentioned.
By contrast, George Black poses this question in his book: Is Vietnam a country, a tourist destination, or a war?
Despite the country’s ascendancy on the world’s top tourist destination list, Black’s account of the country in The Long Reckoning, A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam would cast Vietnam as a war. Despite statements of the modernity of its cities, Black hews to a view that, for Americans who served in the war in Vietnam, their “reckoning” would entail remembering the war and their atonement efforts.
The official withdrawal of American combat troops came in March 1973 with President Richard Nixon’s announcement on national television. Black’s central theme is that the legacies of the war for Americans are threefold. Complicated feelings among those who served and survived, bombs or unexploded ordinances (UXOs) remaining in Vietnam that still maim or kill, and the effects on humans of the defoliant Agent Orange that the United States heavily sprayed over the middle parts of Vietnam.
Black centers on two American men: Chuck Searcy, a former military intelligence analyst, and Manus Campbell, a former Marine. To say both experienced misgivings about their military involvement is an understatement.
Upon coming back to the U.S. after service, both could not leave the war behind. Both would return to Vietnam years later. The former military intelligence analyst founded an organization in 2001 employing Vietnamese men and women to seek out and deactivate UXOs in hamlets or villages around the demilitarized zone, areas that endured heavy bombing.
The former Marine founded an organization in 2009 providing education and employment to children and those with disabilities — including those with disabilities traceable to Agent Orange exposure.
The book comprises three main narratives. The most compelling one belongs to Searcy and Campbell. The second narrative focuses on the storage, deployment, and harmful effects of Agent Orange to almost all who touch it. This narrative also exposes the U.S. government’s cover-up of its use.
A third narrative details the tortuous skirmishes, wins, and losses of American lives in the three regions around the demilitarized zone, namely Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên-Huế.
The author made multiple visits to Vietnam to collect this data and believes losses for American soldiers in these provinces contributed to the loss of the war for the U.S. This third narrative, and its many chapters, detracts from Black’s theme of reckoning.
Black, a journalist who has written books and articles in U.S. major news organizations, clearly enjoys writing about military history. This narrative about how the war was lost, however, belongs to a different genre of literature — the kind of postmortem that can already be found in numerous books about Vietnam. He compels most when he puts the war as background to the central story of Searcy and Campbell.
Black’s service is his meticulous research into the multilateral, multi-decade effort of getting the U.S. to own up the use of Agent Orange and its responsibility for lives it impacted, including those of its American soldiers. Black reports that the defoliant was sprayed over Vietnam at more than 20 times the dose recommended by its manufacturer.
Agent Orange, in fact, was one in a series of chemicals the US used, but it accounted for 60 percent of the 20 million gallons of herbicide that was sprayed over Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. The chemical deforested vegetation and caused deformities, birth defects, or grave health concerns among the Vietnamese and their offspring — including American soldiers and their offspring.
If bad actors can be identified in a war at all, Black makes a case that it’s the U.S. government.
Part of the reckoning for Searcy and Campbell is the realization of the lack of truthful information they received from the U.S. — information Searcy needed to disseminate as an analyst based in what was once Saigon; information Campbell needed related to enemy casualties as a Marine fighting on Hill 937 (“Hamburger Hill”) or in Huế.
One must ask while reading Black’s book: What defines a country? Is it its wars, its people, its customs, its countryside, or its culture?
For Americans, the book contributes to answering the question of where the U.S. went wrong or how it lost the war. Black’s particular thematic question might accurately be posed as: What do Americans do now that they lost? The question is self-referential because Vietnam acts as a shiny surface upon which the poser of the question sees themselves reflected. It’s less Vietnam’s story; it remains America’s story. It’s America’s story of Vietnam frozen in time.
Perhaps the girl in the Financial Times travel piece is an apt representation for the country of Vietnam. She stands on a precipice and looks forward to a promising horizon. Her glance backward towards the photographer is one of recognition. She knows her future and her past. Her past will often be defined by those who see her only as a war and as a history that refuses to stay in the past.