‘Nam Lit — Five Landmark Books About America’s War in Southeast Asia

The Vietnam War may very well be the most written-about American conflict. Author, journalist and literary expert Mark Massé offers MHN his short-list of five must-read books from the era. (Image source: Dana Stone via Bettmann/CORBIS. View license)

“The Vietnam War produced a remarkable record of thousands of works of fiction and nonfiction, significantly more books than about any other American conflict in history.”

By Mark H. Massé

WARRIOR VOICES have resonated through the millennia, from the earliest historical accounts. War stories have been a staple of literature, documenting courage under fire, cruelty to others and self, and the toll that haunts veterans long after their military service has ended.

The Vietnam War produced a remarkable record of thousands of works of fiction and nonfiction, significantly more books than about any other American conflict in history.

New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins states that the best Vietnam War literature “captured the ways the conflict splintered the psyches of the men who fought it and how it rattled around in their minds, and in the minds of the people who loved them, long after the fighting ended.”

Any ranking of literature about the war is admittedly subjective. Yet one would be hard-pressed to challenge the following listing of seminal books about America’s conflict in South East Asia.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Twenty-seven years after it was first published in 1990, TTTC remains popular on high school and university reading lists. Though some consider this O’Brien’s memoir, in part because the narrator’s name is the same as the author, it is a work of fiction. Michael Herr, the author of the groundbreaking 1977 book Dispatches, was prophetic when he blurbed TTTC as “a heartbreaking and healing masterpiece; time will make it a classic.” Literary critic Ken Lopez, compiler of a comprehensive list of the best novels about the conflict, noted that O’Brien’s book was “worthy of comparison to Stephen Crane‘s Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage. A simple tale told from the perspective of one foot-soldier, that rings with authenticity and universality.”


Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Described as an epic war novel as was James Webb’s Fields of Fire (1978) and John Del Vecchio’s The 13th Valley (1982), Matterhorn (2009) is unique in that it was published some 36 years after the U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973. The book was written by a highly decorated Marine veteran, Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale University. Matterhorn’s realistic narrative focuses on internal conflicts within the ranks, such as racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But the classic tale is driven by the “all-consuming terror of combat” and its universal war themes of “courage, camaraderie, and sacrifice.”


Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some listings of Vietnam War literature, such as The Guardian’s book blogger Mark Hooper, rank Herr’s book as the penultimate text on “men and war in our time” (John le Carré). Originally conceived as a novel by Esquire and Rolling Stone freelancer Herr, the book was published as an impressionistic work of nonfiction, a “hallucinatory” war story that inspired Vietnam War films such as Apocalypse Now. Herr was praised for his courage in accompanying troops into harm’s way in major battles and fire zones. But he paid a severe price for his vivid war reportage with debilitating post-traumatic stress upon his return to the States.


A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of this compelling memoir by Caputo about his experiences as a platoon leader and 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, in Vietnam, 1965-66. The author described it as “simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them.” In 1977, William Styron in the New York Review of Books wrote: “Caputo’s troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature.” Today, the Goodreads website praises Caputo’s book, noting that “in the literature of war that stretches back to Homer, it has also taken its place as an esteemed classic to rank alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and The Naked and the Dead.”



The Quiet American by Graham Greene

According to Goodreads, the book, which was originally published in the U.S. in 1956 and twice adapted to film, “remains a terrifying and prescient portrait of innocence at large.” Fowler is a jaded Brit reporter who encounters Pyle, a young U.S. intelligence agent on a dangerous mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Viet Minh guerrillas. Pyle’s idealistic policies “blunder into bloodshed,” and Fowler finds it impossible not to intervene. But his motives are suspect because Pyle has fallen in love with Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.



MARK H. MASSÉ (www.markmasse.com) is author of Vietnam Warrior Voices (2017), Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way (2011), Inspired to Serve: Today’s Faith Activists (2004) and three novels (Honor House [pub. pend.], Whatever Comes and Delamore’s Dreams) A longtime freelancer, he has written for national and international periodicals. Massé is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. He has degrees from the University of Oregon and Miami University (Ohio).

1 comment for “‘Nam Lit — Five Landmark Books About America’s War in Southeast Asia

  1. Annie Romero
    19 June, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Matterhorn is fantastic. I am a child of a Vietnam Vet and I try to read to learn about what they went through. Right now reading a great fiction work called The Great Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence Harking, taharkin.net for it’s info. It’s interesting to read all kinds of views of this place in turmoil.

Leave a Reply