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Books to Read After Watching Ken Burn’s Vietnam War on PBS

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Vietnam. That one word brings my childhood into focus. It was the nightly news for all of my remembered life in elementary school. My Mom’s cousin served. He resigned his commission and finished his tour as an enlisted man. He went on to be an expert in PTSD treatment of Vietnam-era veterans.

If you are planning to watch Ken Burn’s sure-to-be-excellent documentary series on the war, then some of these books may interest you. I confess, having studied the war in most of my political science courses in 1980–1984, I haven’t read too much on it since. I find it too painful, too raw.  There’s not enough distance. The men in those photos were alive in my lifetime. To me it is not “history,” it is “real.”

There are thousands of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on the Vietnam War. These are a few that I have read and that have had a lasting impact. As you can see, memoirs are a favorite of mine. I have not read much on the war recently, however, so some of these may need to be found used.

 

Nonfiction

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This is the companion book to an earlier PBS series on the War. It is an interesting read with or without the companion series. Although more information is available today than at the time it was written, it is still a useful book. Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow.

 

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Like the fabled “Class the Stars Fell on” (1915) and the equally distinguished class of 1846, the West Point class of 1966 produced the young officers of the Vietnam war who would go on to lead the Army.  This is a fascinating look at an extraordinary group of men. The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of  West Point’s Class of 1966.  by R

 

 

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One of the classics on America’s Vietnam generation of leaders, policy wonks and politicians, The Best and The Brightest is a behemoth by the standards of today’s Book Club mandated 300 page limit, but is well worth the time. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam.

 

Personal Stories

 

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Wives and children also “served” when the man of the family was at war and none served longer than the wives and children of POWs.  America’s highest ranking POW Ben Purcell and his wife, Anne, jointly told their story of the war. Ben of his captivity and Anne of her life at home and her efforts, with other POW wives, to gain attention for the POWs. While this book appears to be out-of–print it can be found online used for a reasonable price or in many libraries. I hope this documentary will encourage a re-release of the title. Love & Duty by Ben and Anne Purcell.

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As America’s longest held POW Jim Thompson lived thru more than mere hell. Back at home his wife felt trapped as well. This is their story.  Glory Denied by Tom Philpott

 

 

 

 

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Nurses played an extraordinary role in the war–as they have in every war since the Crimean War. This memoir is raw and gritty and unforgettable. If you were a fan, back in the day, of the television show China Beach, you probably read this book. Sadly, this is another to find used or in a library. It, too, should be re-issued.  Home Before Morning by Linda Van Devanter

 

 

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What was it like to be the young wife of a soldier in Vietnam? What about after that service ends–however it ends? Lonely Girls With Burning Eyes: A Wife Recalls Her Husband’s Journey Home From Vietnam by Marian Faye Novak. Another one to find used or at a library.

 

 

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See also my recent review of the personal memoir of Hmong refugee of the war, resettled from Laos to Minnesota. The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang reviewed here.

 

 

 

Fiction

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Former Secretary of the Navy, Naval Academy grad and one-time presidential candidate, James Webb, is also the author of several volumes of masterful, compelling fiction. Fields of Fire is on the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. I recall staying up half the night while reading this–I didn’t want to put it down. Fields of Fire by James Webb.

 

 

The Book of the T.V. Series

 

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The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. War and Ken Burns

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Books to Read After Watching Ken Burn’s Vietnam War on PBS

  1. Wow — what a great collection of books. I enjoyed the show last night. I knew none of the history, like France being involved there from WWII onward. Interesting to hear where Ho Chi Minh originated, as well as other things. 18 hours is a lot on any topic, and if I’m still curious for more at the end of the series, I’ll be looking for some of these.

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