One year and a political lifetime ago, PBS broadcast “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part TV series from documentarian Ken Burns and his colleague Lynn Novick. Critically lauded, the series pieced together, like a fascinating mosaic, official accounts, declassified memos and personal interviews, spotlighting a sordid yet pivotal chapter whose humiliations seem remote to most of us.

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. Ho Chi Minh, the godfather of the nationalist movement. Le Duan, Ho’s protégé, the bloodthirsty behind-the-scenes genius who longed for a reunified, Stalinist Vietnam. The corrupt and repressive Diem regime, propped up by fierce anti-Communists in Washington. Robert McNamara, the U.S. defense secretary and architect of the war who, despite his private doubts, escalated the violence. Lyndon B. Johnson, trapped within John F. Kennedy’s legacy of military “advisers” and the cage of his own hubris. Richard Nixon, whose paranoia drove him to lash out at his critics. Hastings writes, “Nixon exclaimed repeatedly to a White House aide in November 1969, as the press headlined the My Lai story, ‘It’s those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it.’ ”

And 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 futile juggernauts against an enemy almost supernaturally camouflaged by jungles, rice paddies, and mountains; the Tet offensive; My Lai; boat people fleeing the South’s surrender — the complete story is here, masterfully told, in the tradition of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Seymour Hersh.

Hastings delves deeply into the military strategies and, in particular, how the war shaped the collective psyche of the Vietnamese, with an emphasis on the crimes Le Duan committed against his own people. And with a Brit’s cool eye Hastings examines the Americans’ Achilles heel, quoting POW Doug Ramsey: “ ‘Being in Nam provided one with opportunities to pander to and magnify childhood macho self-images: the heroic swashbuckler, rifle in one hand and candy for the kids in the other, by day doing his thing for God, country, democracy and free enterprise … by night being able to sample all that Saigon had to offer.”

With each meticulously rendered chapter (some with gallows-humor titles, such as “Warriors and Water Skiers”) Hastings peels back the conflict’s onionlike layers: Cold War on high boil, an impoverished people stirred to forge their own fates, an empire so blinded by its own John Wayne mythology that it needlessly destroyed innumerable lives.

 

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975
By: Max Hastings.
Publisher: Harper, 857 pages, $37.50.