Beyond the Quagmire
New Interpretations of the Vietnam War
Edited by Geoffrey W. Jensen and Matthew M. Stith
University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2019, 432 pages
Book Review published on: August 23, 2019
During the past several years, the fifty-year anniversaries of many key dates associated with the Vietnam War have been recognized. As expected, these milestones have generated many new volumes on the Vietnam War. These volumes, in turn, have created a renewed interest in the war and have brought new voices into the passionate debates regarding the Vietnam War. One of these recently released books is Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam War. It is unquestionably a volume that will interest and benefit readers of varying interests and knowledge of the Vietnam War.
Within the pages of Beyond the Quagmire, editors Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith have melded thirteen essays focusing on specific aspects of the war. They organized them into three specific categories in the book. The first focuses on the political aspects of the war and their effects. In the second section, the essays focus on the combatants of the Vietnam War as they relate to race, gender, and environment. The final portion of the volume dissects the war in terms of history and memory.
The editors of Beyond the Quagmire have recruited an eclectic group of scholars to craft the book’s essays. (The editors each penned an essay for the volume as well.) The majority have crafted volumes tied to the Vietnam War in a wide range of subject areas. These areas include military justice, music of the Vietnam War, cultural memory of the war, gender in the Vietnam War era, and the politics of the Vietnam War. These authors have focused their essays on topics tied to their principal areas of study and research. The end result is a group of extremely diverse essays that are sure to appeal to a likewise diverse readership.
As with any compilation volume, readers will find that the quality of the essays varies. However, I found none of the essays unworthy of being read. Within the collection, I found the preponderance of the essays appealing and well-written. Several, in particular, especially interested me. The first was written by Doug Bradley and focused on the powerful impact of music during the Vietnam War. Not only does the author address its influence on the combatants of the Vietnam War, but he also discusses its effect on the American home front. Bradley’s essay is an excellent synopsis of the superb book he wrote with Craig Werner titled We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
Another essay that I found particularly intriguing was Sarah Thelan’s discussion of President Richard Nixon’s contentious relationship with the Vietnam antiwar movement. Within the essay, Thelan delves into the actions Nixon and his administration undertook to undermine those who opposed the Vietnam War. After dissecting this subject, Thelan subsequently analyzes how U.S. presidents from Reagan to present day have used the theme of patriotism to garner support for their agendas or controversial decisions. With regard to this very emotionally charged topic, it would be easy for authors to display their own passion in their writings. However, Thelan strives to conduct a balanced approach, which makes this essay extremely effective.
Finally, and clearly not as provocative as other works in the compilation, Ron Milam’s essay focused on American military advisors in the Vietnam War. Milam is certainly well versed on the topic as he served as an infantry advisor to Montagnard forces in 1970–1971. In his essay, Milam (currently an associate professor of history at Texas Tech University) concisely provides readers with an excellent primer on the American military advisor. It includes addressing their selection, their training, the roles and tasks they performed, and their relationship with the forces they worked with. This is an outstanding synopsis and should spark readers to seek other works tied to the subject.
In the editors’ introduction, they provide readers with their rationale for developing the book. They state, “So why another collection on the Vietnam War? Beyond the Quagmire opens new lines of debate while also developing focused and original essays that both individually and as a whole advance our understanding of a variety of troublesome and complicated interpretive threads regarding the conflict in Vietnam and in America.”
I believe the editors have achieved the above purpose with this superb compilation. Many of these essays are thought provoking and highly debatable, and they relook various areas of the Vietnam War with a fresh eye. Still, others are highly informative, which should lead readers to seek further study on specific topics. In total, it is a volume that looks at the past, successfully draws parallels to the present, and seeks to foresee aspects of the future. Beyond the Quagmire is clearly not just another collection on the Vietnam War.
Book Review written by: Frederick A. Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas