Being a wartime correspondent opens the door to heroism and heartbreak, as demonstrated in Siemon-Netto’s uneven but powerful memoir of his time covering the Vietnam War.
Already a seasoned reporter by the time he arrived in Vietnam in the 1960s, Siemon-Netto was well-positioned to watch a clash of cultures and governments not just on the front lines, but in the back country and city streets of a country he learned to love over the course of his five-year assignment. From counterinsurgent experts to street orphans living in his car, Siemon-Netto explored many facets of Vietnamese society and came to respect the tenacity and ingenuity of its people. In the course of his book, he both celebrates the Vietnam he knew and deplores what it became, saving particular scorn for the failure of will in the West—a “deficiency endemic in liberal democracies,” he says—that allowed North Vietnam to “win” the conflict. As would be expected from a longtime professional journalist, Siemon-Netto’s prose is clean and direct; it evokes the physical and cultural atmospheres of 1960s Vietnam without straining for effect. He introduces a large cast of characters—some fleeting, others persistent—and economically sketches their essential traits with admirable precision. However, while he straightforwardly expresses his political viewpoints regarding the will to carry on a protracted conflict against a determined enemy, the tone and thematic arc of the book aren’t quite as well-maintained. At times, the book becomes more of a travelogue with personal reminiscences that, often as not, don’t tie back into the overall narrative. By switching back and forth without apparent tonal or thematic justifications, the book’s overall thrust is diluted. Despite this lack of focus, however, Siemon-Netto’s sharp, intelligible prose and ability to evoke character and mood serve the book well, and many readers looking for a personal, free-form trek through a pivotal time in 20th-century history will be satisfied.
Strong prose and a lively atmosphere keep Siemon-Netto’s memoir from getting bogged down despite its scattered focus.