There was a time when the only Vietnam war book I knew was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which inspired the laconic entry in my book journal, “This book destroyed me.” One of the things I liked about The Things They Carried—and what shattered my heart so completely—was that it reminded me of another renowned war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in that both works are written by authors who couldn’t seem to face the battles they’d fought head-on. Instead, they look at them upside down and sideways, taking bits and pieces and viewing their life in battle as jumbled, out-of-order photos in a box. It occurs to me that this is how our memories operate. The owl coffee mug I broke when reading The Things They Carried, or the stain in my thrift-shopped copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that surely represented blood, which seemed so appropriate, come to mind when I think back to reading either book for the first time, as well as other Vietnam war books.
While O’Brien’s book gave me the impression that I was getting a glimpse into what it must have been like to be in his shoes, I eventually wanted to learn more about one of the most contentious wars the US has ever fought, a war in which we sent young men to die against their will, a war in which our country did a less than admirable job understanding the peoples they were fighting against and alongside, and a war in which more than one million people died. So here they are: stories about a country that most Americans are unfamiliar with, anecdotes about the Vietnam War shared by both Americans and Vietnamese. There are both fictional and non-fictional Vietnam war books available, with some created for adults and others for children. They’re all deserving of a spot on our list.
Vietnam War Books: Fiction
The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen
This debut novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, could be classified as a Vietnam war novel in a half-dozen genres, ranging from war narrative to immigrant story, mystery to political, metafiction to historical, and even dark comedy. The story follows an unnamed North Vietnamese narrator who works as a mole in the South Vietnamese army and is moved to a South Vietnamese exile colony in the United States, where he stays.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
This fictional account of Kien, a North Vietnamese infantryman, follows his development as a writer, his struggles to overcome his combat memories, and the disastrous mess his life has become as a result.
Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann
It’s a fast-paced marvel that follows draftee Philip Dosier as he is drafted into the war, completes a tour of duty, and returns home. It’s one of the first fictional Vietnam war books, and it’s often touted as one of the best Vietnam novels. When stock, cliché characters could have easily been used, this autobiographical novel features rich characters.
Dirty Work by Larry Brown
This short story is almost completely composed of dialogue and monologues between two badly injured Marines in Vietnam. Although the author did not serve in Vietnam, he did serve in the Marines and tells a compelling story about a conversation between two men at a veteran’s hospital. The author delivers a dramatic story on the effects of combat with little more than their words and ideas.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
According to a 1956 review in The New York Times, Greene’s novel on Vietnam had characters who served as stand-ins for nations and political groupings rather than as real people. Greene’s conclusion appears to be that America was a “innocent” nation that did not understand the people with whom it was fighting. It is frequently cited as one of the best Vietnam war books, as well as one of Greene’s most widely recommended works.
The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford
You’ve probably never heard of The Short-Timers, a now-out-of-print novel, but you may have heard of Stanley Kubrick’s filmh adaptation, Full Metal Jacket. Hasford intended for this semi-autobiographical novel on his experiences in Vietnam to be the first in a trilogy. These ambitions were thwarted by his death, which occurred shortly after the release of the second novel.
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
Dog Soldiers is a tale about the Vietnam War and heroin smuggling that won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974. Stone concentrates on two people, one of whom is a sailor returning from Vietnam, and is often likened to Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. It is widely regarded as one of the best Vietnam books. The other is a war journalist. Throughout the novel, both suffer greatly.
Vietnam War Books: Nonfiction
An Intimate History of Killing by Joanna Bourke
This book, which covers World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War, does an excellent job of explaining the psychological effects of war on those who carry out the killing. Regardless of one’s feelings regarding the war, Bourke’s universal themes about soldiers’ attempts to cope with warfare are universal themes that many may relate to.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse
This Vietnam War history, which is based on first-person interviews and classified materials, does not hold any punches. Turse’s argument, as well as that of his Vietnam war novels, is that American acts of violence against Vietnamese people were not unintentional or infrequent; they were a planned aspect of the war, and soldiers were trained and instructed to participate in hate-based carnage.
Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans by Wallace Terry
American soldiers in Vietnam faced numerous challenges, but Black American soldiers faced considerably more. This is one of the Vietnam war books that goes into great detail about the essentials, such as how black soldiers accounted for over a quarter of all fatalities in the early years of the war and how they were discriminated against in terms of decorations, duty assignments, and promotions. This is an account of what it was like for a black guy to serve his country in Vietnam and what it was like to return home.
Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam by Frances FitzGerald.
This description of Vietnam, its history, and the impact of its war with the United States, written by journalist Frances FitzGerald, spent more than 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It went on to receive a slew of accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize. It was the first significant book written by an American about the Vietnam War, and it revealed how little the US knew about the country, its leaders, and its culture before entering.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts
Hayslip’s story is powerful, intimate, and ultimately human, as he grew up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It tells the story of Vietnam’s destruction and self-destruction through the perspective of a lady who was once a young girl growing up in a war-torn village and family, who as a teenager became a refugee in Saigon, living among both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. One of the most highly recommended Vietnam memoirs, this is a narrative of heartbreak and the struggle for the resolve to endure.The Pentagon Papers edited by George C. Herring
The renowned Pentagon Papers contained confidential information from 1950 to 1968 about US policymaking. This book contains a relatively small and manageable taste of the most telling materials, edited by a distinguished Vietnam historian.
A Journey of Body and Soul by Trach Ba Vu
This biography tells the tale of Anna Vu, as told by her father, and includes the hardships and poverty of growing up in Vietnam, as well as the girl’s hopes of becoming a doctor. In 1975, the family emigrates to the United States, where they experience a variety of problems, including Anna becoming a victim of unjust and unfair prejudice and stereotypes. This motivational narrative is both enlightening and enraging.
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
There may be no better book than Halberstam’s for anyone looking for Vietnam war literature to better comprehend why the US entered the conflict in the first place. It was published in 1972 and describes how the US foreign policy elite functioned at the time. He makes a compelling argument for lawmakers prioritizing bureaucratic issues over ideological or common-sense considerations.
On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam by Yasutsune Hirashiki
The author lived in Vietnam for ten years, beginning in 1966 as a freelancer and ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. This Vietnam memoir contains thrilling stories, near misses, and fighting experiences. But, at its heart, it’s about the soldiers who fought and died, as well as the reporters and photographers who accompanied them. Hirashiki’s book is regarded as one of the best in the field of war journalism.
Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda Van Devanter
Van Devanter does not shy away from vivid descriptions of the wounded and dying men she encountered as a nurse at the 71st Evacuation Hospital from 1969 to 1970, making it not only one of the best Vietnam war books, but also one of the best Vietnam memoirs from a female veteran. The book details her experiences in the war and thereafter, as well as her ultimate establishment of the Women Veterans Project at Vietnam Veterans of America.