Ten Best Vietnam War Books

The Vietnam War generated a wealth of outstanding memoirs. A Rumor of War, Chickenhawk, Fortunate Son, Dispatches, Everything We Had, Born on the Fourth of July and Nam top the list.

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, image courtesy Holt Paperbacks

Entire libraries have been written on the Vietnam War – the American version waged from 1959-75. Here are ten outstanding memoirs from that controversial war written or told by the men who experienced it first hand.

A Rumor of War (1977) by Philip J. Caputo

Philip “P.J.” Caputo served as a Marine infantry lieutenant in Vietnam from 1965-66. His account of his days in ’Nam are both humorous and harrowing, with his story ending in 1975 when he covered the fall of Saigon for the Chicago Tribune. One of the more gruesome aspects comes in the book’s second section, “The Officer in Charge of the Dead,” where Lt. Caputo is kept extremely busy as a casualty reporting officer. “The interesting thing was how the dead looked so much alike,” he writes. “Black men, white men, yellow men, they all looked remarkably the same…The pupils of their eyes were a washed-out gray, and their mouths were opened wide, as if death had caught them in the middle of a scream.”

Chickenhawk (1983) by Robert Mason

Bob Mason presents a riveting tale of his days as an Army helicopter pilot, flying combat missions and hauling “ass and trash” in the deadly jungles of Vietnam in 1965-66. As a member of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), Mason experiences the Vietnam War up close and personal. One of the more humorous aspects of the book comes in the form of enemy propaganda, with the North Vietnamese jamming American radios with a hilarious staccato rendition of “f-you GI, f-you GI…” Back in “the world,” Mason later did a stretch in federal prison for marijuana smuggling.

Fortunate Son (1991) by Lewis Puller Jr.

Lewis B. Puller Jr. was the son of General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, one of the most decorated marines in the history of the Corps. A graduate of William and Mary, the younger Puller went to Vietnam as a Marine infantry lieutenant, tripping a Viet Cong booby-trap in 1968 which claimed both his legs, a hand and part of his stomach and buttocks. Fortunate Son, which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for biography, recounts Puller’s short time in Vietnam and his subsequent struggle to regain the high ground in the face of horrific war injuries and alcoholism. Puller unfortunately lost his battle, committing suicide on May 11, 1994.

Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr

Michael Herr covered the Vietnam War for Esquire magazine from 1967-69 where he had virtually unlimited access while in country. Following the marines and army grunts into various operations in the ‘Nam, Herr paints a vivid portrait of the war in a deft, pop, literary style. “‘Quakin’ and shakin,’ they called it, great balls of fire. Contact,” Herr writes on meeting the enemy. ”Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, f… it, plough it with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it or of it, guess who’s flying an inch above your head?”

Everything We Had (1981) by Al Santoli

Al Santoli, who had served as an Army rifleman in Vietnam, presents an oral history of the war as told by 33 American soldiers who fought it. Their stories are, for the most part, spellbinding with both the consequential and the trivial taking on a whole new meaning in the context of the war in Southeast Asia. ”To see your friends killed, hear about them being killed, it was…A little piece of you gets killed each time,” Santoli writes.

Born on the Fourth of July (1976) by Ron Kovic

Ron Kovic, born on July 4, 1946, served two tours of duty with the Marines in Vietnam. He came home from the second tour a paraplegic, struggling to piece his life together while recuperating in less-than-stellar VA hospitals. Kovic undergoes a radical transformation, from gung ho patriot to anti-war activist. Kovic was later played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s 1989 movie of the same name.  

Nam (1981) by Mark Baker

Mark Baker, who did not serve in Vietnam, presents a compelling memoir as told by a select band of men and women who participated in the war and lived to tell about it. Particularly wrenching are the homecoming stories, with one soldier arriving home in Chicago straight from Vietnam. “At 8:30 when my father left for work,” the ex-serviceman reported, “he woke me up to say, ‘Listen, now that you’re home, when are you going to get a job?’ I packed up and left. I haven’t been home since.”

The Killing Zone (1978) by Frederick Downs Jr.

Frederick Downs Jr. arrived in Vietnam in 1967 as a young Army infantry lieutenant fresh out of Officer Candidate School. Downs paints a horrific portrait of life and death in the jungle with the U.S. Army’s Fourth Division, complete with Viet Cong booby-traps, friendly fire incidents, deadly ambushes and unmotivated South Vietnamese troops. Downs himself is gravely wounded in the fighting, stepping on a Bouncing Betty landmine in 1968 that blows off most of his left arm and sends deadly shrapnel into the rest of his body. Downs later spent a year recovering from his wounds at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver.

Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984) by Wallace Terry

Wallace Terry covered the Vietnam War as deputy bureau chief in Saigon for Time magazine. One of the first black war correspondents in Vietnam, Terry witnessed the 1968 Tet Offensive and the savage battle at Hamburger Hill. Twenty black veterans relate their unique experiences, recounting the racism, confusion and heroism that marked their days in ‘Nam. One interesting aspect of the book are the recounted fighting techniques of some black soldiers, who adapted their own survival instincts learned in the ghetto and applied them to jungle fighting.

Warriors: An Infantryman’s Memoir of Vietnam (2004) by Robert Tonsetic

Robert Tonsetic served as an Army rifle company commander in Vietnam. During his 365-day tour of duty Captain Tonsetic and his grunts participated in the savage fighting of the Tet Offensive and beyond, battling a determined enemy in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia. It’s all here, the blood and guts along with the pathos, including unauthorized joyrides in Army helicopters and fishing rodeos using live hand grenades. “In retrospect, I believe that my generation was programmed for war during our most impressionable years,” Tonsetic writes. “My earliest childhood recollections are related to World War II.”

9
Liked it
Liked this? Share it!
Tweet this! StumbleUpon Reddit Digg This! Bookmark on Delicious Share on Facebook
20 Comments
  1. Posted December 7, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    good one

  2. Posted December 7, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    what do recommend for good fiction? other than o’brien

  3. Posted December 7, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    @Marlon Ross. My recommended Vietnam War fiction: James Webb’s Fields of Fire, Philip Caputo’s Indian Country, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters and Paco’s Story, John Del Vecchio’s The 13th Valley, Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried…

    There’s a lot of excellent Vietnam War fiction out there, including Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which traces the origins of the Vietnam War to its French Colonialism roots.

  4. Posted December 7, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Great historical article. Good job. Congrats for H.Content.

  5. Posted December 8, 2009 at 4:32 am

    Great history lesson.

  6. Posted December 8, 2009 at 7:37 am

    A Rumor of War is good. I’m reading Vietnam Diary by Richard Tregaskis right now, and it’s great.

  7. Posted December 8, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I hope to see some day that The Second Tour has broken into this top 10 Vietnam War list,

  8. Posted December 8, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    My granddad had a friend who went to Vietnam. There were bitter national divisions here. Anzac Day attendances declined at the height of Vietname, diggers were labelled as boozy relics and war service was seen as an atrocity. I’m not a bookworm but if I was inclined to read a book about the Vietnam War, it would be ‘A Rumour of War’. BTW, I loved the movie ‘The Deer Hunter’ :-)

  9. Posted December 8, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Phil Caputo recounts a meeting with Australian Army advisors in A Rumor of War. They have a few drinks together, with the Aussies demonstrating their prowess at boozing.

  10. Posted December 9, 2009 at 12:23 am

    my uncle gary died from a grenade shrapnel to the head in vietnam

  11. Posted December 9, 2009 at 8:29 am

    I\’ll surely search for these books… thank you for the info…

  12. rachael
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 8:00 am

    What about The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien?

  13. Posted December 22, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    @Rachael. The above list is for memoirs and works of nonfiction. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a collection of short stories on the Vietnam War, is clearly identified as a work of fiction on its title page. Mr. Rizzuti’s The Second Tour, as listed in the comments, is also identified as a novel, though I’m sure much of it is based on his own experiences as a marine in Vietnam.

  14. Posted October 13, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Excellent list. I loved Baker’s ‘Nam. I agree that Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” while not specifically a novel, still qualifies as one of the best works of fiction on the Vietnam War. I strongly recommend a Vietnamese perspective on what they call the American War: “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh is both harrowing and heartfelt. “Novel Without a Name” by Duong Thu Huong is another excellent Vietnamese view of that war. What they have in common with each other, and with many novels written by Americans who fought in Vietnam, is the sense of disillusionment and tragic waste that they are left with.

  15. Maya
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Hi, when I was in sixth grade I read a book with my class about the Vietnam War against the USA. I was a story of vietnamese girl in a concentracion camp I don’t know it’s called but it’s great and that’s why I’m here I remember the book was white and it had a torquoise oragami figure and the girl’s face or hair black or shadow I don’t really remember but please help me maybe you’ve seen it, it’s an excellent book. Please.

  16. Dan
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    I’m currently reading “Once a Warrior King” by David Donovan. So far, so good.

  17. 0311
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 12:17 am

    i’ve read pretty much every one both fiction and non fiction and those in between….robert roths “sand in the wind”…they all hit like a brace of nails fired by a nail gun…they all make me cry. i donno…all that anger and hatred which once felt so good…it just fukked me up in the end. thought i was ok then went and lived in the woods for 15 yrs. or so and still live alone at the edge ofr the grid. cant find a partner….the lemon tree…it was a true love story. i have never felt anything even close in all these years.

  18. Posted August 15, 2012 at 12:41 am

    @311. Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War) also authored the novel Indian Country, in which the main character fashions a place for himself in the wilds of Michigan, setting it up almost like an outpost or firebase.

  19. JL Jameson
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 4:35 am

    I would second the recommendation of “Once a Warrior King” as a portrait of the men who fought a part of the war that has been largely neglected in most of the lists. It tell the story of the Mobile Advisory Teams (MAT) that lived in the villages with the local forces (RF-regional Forces, PF-Popular forces and the PSDF-People’s Self Defense Forces). These men, normally deployed in a four or five man team, were often the only American forces within miles and usually without the support of US artillery and air assets. They were on their own in “Indian Country”. David Donavan has written the ‘Gold Standard” story of these men and their war. Read it…….You’ll see the war from a freshly different and very interesting prospective!

  20. JL Jameson
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 4:35 am

    I would second the recommendation of “Once a Warrior King” as a portrait of the men who fought a part of the war that has been largely neglected in most of the lists. It tell the story of the Mobile Advisory Teams (MAT) that lived in the villages with the local forces (RF-regional Forces, PF-Popular forces and the PSDF-People’s Self Defense Forces). These men, normally deployed in a four or five man team, were often the only American forces within miles and usually without the support of US artillery and air assets. They were on their own in “Indian Country”. David Donavan has written the ‘Gold Standard” story of these men and their war. Read it…….You’ll see the war from a freshly different and very interesting prospective!

Leave a Reply
comments powered by Disqus