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.”