Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam
East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet
|von Frances Fitzgerald|
Like the Kipling saying, this book portrays the tragic collision of two cultures unable to understand one another. Arguing that American values of freedom, democracy and optimism were inconsistent with Vietnam's values, culture, and above all, its bloody history and essentially agrarian existence, the effort was doomed from the start. THe Vietnamese's sense of government, history,politics and even conflict is completely different from our own, as is their cultural tradition of ancestor worship and their belief in what constitutes effective government (i.e. the mandate of heaven) and we never took these differences into account. Whether this is the fault of the military or the U.S government is really irrelevant, either way it was a crucial factor in the tragedy. Fitzgerald's book is of course an incomplete picture of the reasons we failed there, but is one of the most important and overlooked. While other books focus on the flawed military strategy of endless bombing, destruction and body counts, or the corruption of both Vietnamese regimes, or the arogance of the US military establishment, this book hones in on the cultural issue. Its also one of the best written books on the subject, regardless of the message, one written with passion and insight, and one that clearly shows that there are parts of the world that operated and still operate very differently from what we understand. While the world might be glowing with the promise of democracy i nthe new milennium, in the 60's and 70's it was still a place where ideological differences could sink even the best-intentioned efforts. Highly recommended, along with The Best and the Brightest, A Bright Shining Lie, and Stanley Karnow's Vietnam. This quartet of books would give you the most complete picture of the war and its history.
what nice people we were, to be against the war!
When I read this book, I thought: "A war with Ms FitzGerald against it can't be all bad." Re-reading it years later, I wasn't quite as harsh, but FitzGerald struck me as impossibly naive. She paid a visit to Vietnam and spun a mountain of history and speculation out of that molehill. You will seek in vain for the term "Viet Cong" in this book, finding only the mereticious terms "Front" or "NLF" or "National Liberation Front." As much as anything, that tells you where FitzGerald was coming from: the conviction that the war in Vietnam was being prosecuted by the United States against an honest band of local amateurs, quite independent of Ho Chi Minh and the communist party.
A Great Document of Human History
People who read often have favorite books as children; it is perhaps a measure of our times that this one was one of mine. Not just a competent and even fascinating account of the Vietnamese War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War), "Fire in the Lake" is also a work of artistry, for Fitzgerald is a writer who can make the conventions of the journalistic book into the song of epic poetry. The book is, in fact, a great tragedy--not just a report of historical events, but also a song about the defeat of a great people by another great people, a meeting that was utterly destructive, but just perhaps could have been something else. In the future "Fire In The Lake" will be looked back upon as one of the great books of that time, and whether it marked the end of something or the beginning of something else might be hotly debated.
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