Email this review


The Civil War and the war in Vietnam have been drawn together often, usually on the point of divisiveness. That's part of what author Reston (Our Father Who Art in Hell: The Life and Death of Jim Jones) has in mind here, especially in comparing Reconstruction to the post-Vietnam era; but his main concern is for the military tactics of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and their bearing on the methods and ethics of the Vietnam War. Sherman's burning of Atlanta and his famous March to the Sea, with its sanctioned foraging by Union troops and further burning, has reasonably been called the origin of the contemporary concept of total war, so it looks like a good place to go for antecedence and guidance. But Reston recreates Sherman's path of destruction in some detail--he physically retraces the route, contrasting the new South to the one Sherman torched, and assessing the Southern myth of Sherman-the-barbarian as he goes along--and, along the way, he brings in the Vietnam analogues almost casually. The result is some fairly obvious stuff about anti-guerrilla warfare, the difficulty of keeping control over troops in such circumstances, etc. But it's when Reston reaches for big issues that the enterprise gets really shaky. One such is the assertion that whereas Sherman bore the brunt for the dirty work in the Civil War, ""the dirty work in the Vietnam aftermath has been done to all members of the Vietnam generation""--meaning not only those who served and those who avoided service by leaving the country, but also all those who were deferred for school or marriage: they thereby came of age believing that public service was something to be avoided, breeding a cynicism to be seen today in the preeminence of concern for private life and careers. Sherman, however, knew what he was doing: he feared the Confederate guerrillas both militarily and socially, seeing them as a class of irresponsible troublemakers, unlike the landowners and merchants. Sherman did not want to destroy the South, only to eliminate its most troublesome elements. And, as Reston allows, the foraging tactic was one adopted earlier by Napoleon, and was a tactic made necessary by the inadequacy of supply lines--it was forage or starve for the victors. Reston's occasional comparisons between Sherman and Westmoreland also collapse on Reston's own evidence, since Sherman, in his postwar memoirs, sought to justify his tactics, while Westmoreland tries to do more: to justify his battlefield mistakes. Finally, Vietnam was a war in which technologically sophisticated American soldiers went on search-and-destroy missions among an Asian people they never came close to understanding; the Civil War, whatever else it was, was a war among ourselves. Analogies can be pushed too far, and that's what Reston has done here.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1984
Publisher: Macmillan