More stuff from the remaindered books outlet which yielded the tiny Jon Ronson gem praised here last week. Another slimline volume. History this time. A short account of the Vietnam War. Not a subject I usually think about a lot. But it came up here quite recently when considering remarks made by Charles Bukowski in 1973 in response to television coverage of freed POWs returning from Indochina:
"The POW propaganda plant is still grinding against all sensibilities. We lost the war, got our asses kicked out by starving men and women half our size. We couldn't bomb, con or beg them into submission so we got out and while getting out, somebody had to come up with a smokescreen to make the populace forget we got our asses kicked."
Bukowski reminds us of how US media outlets focus so sharply on the American casualties of the conflicts into which that great nation so often wades, while saying far less about the vastly more numerous deaths of local civilians caught in the crossfire. These thoughts led me to the discovery of a 2012 article in which John Tirman discusses the question of why US citizens appear inclined to ignore the civilians killed in "American wars". Tirman notes that "the lack of concern about those who die in U.S. wars is... shown by these civilians' absence, in large part, from our films, novels and documentaries" and that "the entertainment industry portrays these wars... almost always with a focus on Americans."
I don't think it's fair to single out the USA as the only nation where this approach to describing armed conflict is the norm. My sense is that here in the UK, for example, the media and entertainment industries similarly combine to create narratives in which foreign civilians and enemy combatants are pushed towards the margins and the background.
One would hope, though, that history books authored in the countries on one side of a conflict would pay more attention to the civilian casualties sustained by the other side, as well as attempting to explore the perspectives of the people living on that other side. I'd like to keep nursing that hope, notwithstanding old warnings about there being no such thing as a truly neutral, objective or even-handed historian. At first sight, though, this recently acquired book about the Vietnam War seemed to suggest that its account of the conflict would be in keeping with John Tirman's observations about a lack of concern for the civilian victims of wars contested by the USA: the cover is illustrated with a photo of an American soldier's helmet; the blurb on the back of the book speaks of 58,220 American dead and 300,000 American wounded, without mentioning equivalent figures for the Vietnamese population. True, the middle paragraph of that blurb does suggest that the author has attempted to tell the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, noting that for "the people of North Vietnam is was just another in a long line of foreign invaders" and observing that "for two thousand years they had struggled for self-determination". But that insistence on citing the numbers of American casualties only does create the impression that this book is yet another predominantly US-centric account of the conflict. It is a pity that the publisher's people felt the need to take this approach, and they have done the Scottish author of the book a disservice, I feel, because the opening chapters do say rather more about the Vietnamese perspective than the blurb and the cover image had led me to expect. I feel, then, that the publisher's marketing people decided that they needed to sideline Indochinese civilians, combatants, history and politics in order to package a palatable product for an audience endlessly invited not to care about dead foreigners. The disservice done by this approach, then, is done not only to the author but also to those of us with the capacity to feel for the fallen on both sides of a conflict.